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Helen Keller—Movie Star

July 2024
22min read

Most Americans are unaware of the surprising bypaths and intense digressions in the life of Helen Keller. We feel we know her story—the desperate and finally triumphant little girl of The Miracle Worker , the gracious, handsome public figure she became. But in Joseph P. Lash’s new biography, Helen and Teacher , she is revealed as both more various and more fascinating than we knew. The following excerpt tells the story of one of Helens most unlikely ventures. The book, a Merloyd Lawrence production that is part of the Radcliffe Biography Series, will be published in May by Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence. We pick up the story in 1918, when Helen was 37. She and Annie Sullivan Macy (whom Helen called Teacher) were somewhat reluctantly starting to make plans for another season of lecturing—which had been a source of considerable income for several years.

The lecture circuit, they discovered, had become a victim of the war. Their agent sent them an appeal for help that the President of the International Lyceum and Chautauqua associations had addressed to the White House. It lamented that because of “stringency, economy and even patriotism, many communities feel they must not have their usual Chautauquas and lecture courses. Nothing less than the advice of the President to the Country to continue these institutions can save the situation for many of us.” The appeal went unheeded, and Helen and Teacher concluded the Chautauqua business looked pretty hopeless.

The slump in the lecture business made them more receptive to a bid from that new El Dorado, Hollywood. And by February, 1918, the moment, in fact, when Helen proclaimed herself a “Socialist and a Bolshevik,” they were deep in negotiations to make a movie out of her life. In view of those talks it distressed Teacher to have Helen needlessly flaunt views that the vast majority of Americans despised. Helen’s political declaration fortunately did not go beyond the Boston paper in which it had appeared. Helen, as always, led a charmed life. Criticism, hysteria, sanctions that destroyed the careers of many of Helen’s comrades usually exempted her, and those who did attack her were largely ignored. Westbrook Pegler, the columnist, who made a vocation out of slinging mud at Eleanor Roosevelt, complained toward the end of his life that he was not able to make it stick. Helen had a similar immunity. Nothing ever shook the public’s conviction that here was someone who wished only to do good, and even more important, someone who had prevailed against the most extraordinary odds, whose joyousness and tenderness had survived some of the greatest trials in American history, an authentic American heroine.

Helen was always on the lookout for ways by which she might influence public opinion, and when the chance to make a motion picture out of her life appeared, she grasped at it eagerly. The motion-picture industry was demonstrating its ability to reach millions. When D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was shown at the White House, Woodrow Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with lightning.” That it was distorted history, prejudicial to the black man, did not belie the effectiveness of the medium. The film was one of the greatest money-makers on the American screen. When it was suggested to Helen that her life story could be another Birth of a Nation , that it lent itself to cinematic dramatization by a Hollywood that was thirsty for “story” material, Helen found the prospect exhilarating. She had an apostolic message for the world that she believed Hollywood would enable her to communicate far beyond the audiences she had been able to reach in the past. Nor did Hollywood’s reputation for conferring riches upon those who had something it wanted dim its appeal to Helen. It might seem a little inconsistent with Helen’s egalitarian convictions, but Teacher’s needs reconciled her to the contradiction. “It was only the hope of providing for Teacher that had led me to Hollywood to have a film made of my life story,” she wrote years later in her book Teacher .

The idea for a film based on Helen’s life originated with a historian who had a flair for reaching a mass market. Francis Trevelyan Miller, who carefully appended LL. D. and Litt. D. to his title as editor-in-chief of the Search Light Library, was as effective a salesman as he was a historian.

He had put together a Photographic History of the American Civil War in ten volumes and was in the process of issuing a twelve-volume Photographic History of the Great War . His literary plans were stated like communiqués. He was all set “to organize my new eighteen-volume History of the World ” when he had come upon Helen’s Story of My Life . Its “creative power and imagination … soul power and insight” had so inspired him that his own contribution “of thirty-seven historical works to our literature seems insignificant. …”


In Helen’s work he had glimpsed the unfolding of a “soul-vision,” an “undiscovered world” innate in every human being which Helen’s story could help make a reality: “My suggestion is that we reach the whole seeing world through the medium of Motion Pictures. This is the greatest medium that we have for appealing to the hearts and sympathies of the people, with its 20,000 theaters in the United States alone, and a daily attendance of 15,000,000 people, according to government estimates. Moreover, the Motion Pictures speak a universal language—they can be seen and understood in every nation in every part of the world.”

In mid-January, 1918, Helen, Teacher, and Polly Thompson (who had been hired as a temporary assistant and had become a permanent member of the ménage) met with Dr. Miller at his office. He was an astute fellow with a sixth sense for fathoming what he thought the other wanted to hear. He talked about Helen’s intellectual attainments. They seemed almost “incredible,” but then he quickly added, “I can explain it only from the fact that she must have been under the hand of a master, thus Mrs. Macy’s achievement places them both in the ranks of genius.” He was ready, he told them, to set aside all his other work “and begin immediately to study all the material relating to Miss Keller’s life and arrange it in its technical form for motion picture production.” He thought that $100,000 would have to be raised to produce the picture, asserted that he and Helen should receive “a liberal salary,” and suggested that Helen would make “from $50,000 to $100,000 through this production.” On February 1, Teacher formally authorized him and his representatives “to proceed towards the realization of the project,” including the preparation of “a plot synopsis” and a canvas of the possibilities for raising the finances needed.


An accompanying letter from Helen set forth the theme she expected the film to embody: ”… It will help me carry farther the message that has so long burned in my heart—a message of courage, a message of a brighter, happier future for all men. I dream of a day when all who go forth sorrowing and struggling shall bring their golden sheaves home with them in joy. I dream of a liberty that shall find its way to all who are bound by circumstances and poverty. As the dungeon of sense in which I once lay was broken by love and faith, so I desire to open wide all the prison-doors of the world. …”

They decided they needed the help of Elizabeth Marbury, a successful theatrical agent with a sure sense for what the public wanted in the way of entertainment. The project excited her, but she asked for a “plot synopsis.” Dr. Miller, although new to this art form, undertook to prepare one in a few weeks. By the beginning of April, Miller’s agent sent the draft to Miss Marbury with a little sales talk of his own. The dramatization of the Helen Keller story, he rhapsodized, “can only result in a record-breaking financial success as well as an artistic triumph.” Miller’s synopsis showed “a great human psychologist, a master of human emotions” at work. “Moreover, he has a large following: his thirty-seven books have sold more than $4,000,000 gross. The motion-picture market has been stagnating for new ideas—something original and vital.” The enterprise would have Helen Keller’s prestige and cooperation and they, he pointed out, were worth “at least $500,000 in news publicity.” His letter to Miss Marbury ended with a Hollywood flourish: “Its possibilities far exceed the Birth of a Nation .”

Miller’s letter to Helen that accompanied his script was equally grandiloquent: “The month of March has been the greatest month of my whole literary experience. I have spent years in analyzing the laws of cause and effect behind nations and epochs, and in psychological investigations into the characters and lives of the moulders of civilization. But never before have I delved so deeply into the Spiritual forces—into the real world of your existence.” He was satisfied that Helen’s was “the real existence. … Your world sees ; our world is spiritually blind.” If his manuscript had not caught the essence of her experience, “remember that it is all subject to your guidance. …” The two of them must help lead the world to its DELIVERANCE , the title he had, on Helen’s suggestion, given the script.

Whatever the excesses of Dr. Miller’s rhetoric, he had some conception of the technique of a plot synopsis, and, what was more important, had caught Helen’s image of herself. “I am delighted with your conception of the drama of my life as illustrating the struggles, hopes and aspirations of mankind,” she wrote a week later. (This letter, dated April 10, 1918, may not have been sent, but it embodied her sentiments.) “It is poetic and stirs me to the deepest depths.” She recapitulated her spiritual pilgrimage, and then in a few phrases again recited the faith of the idealist and romantic: “The world is what we think of it. It measures up to our idea of it. The soul shapes outward circumstances to its needs. What else is imagination given us for?” She praised Dr. Miller as one of “few” who had truly seen “the very sweetness and light that have gladdened me [and] have lifted me up in revolt against the powers of darkness” to challenge “the night of ignorance, oppression and poverty” that held the mass of mankind in its grip. Could Dr. Miller suggest “a good way of saying this acceptably, yet boldly?”

The cover page on Dr. Miller’s synopsis read like a poster:

—Prospectus and Plot Synopsis— for the Greatest Human Drama of all Times

HELEN KELLER —Deaf-Dumb-Blind— The Most Wonderful Girl in the World. in ∗DELIVERANCE or THE WORLD FOR HUMANITY An Inspiring Revelation which brings Hope and Courage To the People of all Nations and Races This name is tentative—the final title will be selected by Producers and Dramatist from a long list now being prepared.

Dramatized by FRANCIS TREVELYAN MILLER (Litt.D.,LL.D.) (The American Historian)

Five Powerful Acts—Eight Reels I—THE WORLD I LIVE IN II—THE MIRACLE OF LIFE III—KINGDOM OF THE BLIND IV—OUT OF THE DARK V—VICTORY With a Cast of WORLD CELEBRITIES who have never before appeared on the screen

The hyperbole of Dr. Miller’s introduction made earlier encomiums to Helen’s attainments seem by comparison like the soul of trenchancy, but that was what Hollywood wanted:

“The purpose of this introduction is to establish the motif of the powerful drama, DELIVERANCE , in which we are to see a little child, blind, deaf, and dumb, as primitive and wild as the elements—first conquered by love; then conquering her own emotions; then conquering her own world of light and knowledge, until she accomplishes her own DELIVERANCE from all bondage, and sets out on an heroic crusade for the DELIVERANCE of humanity. …

“We see her with her distinguished friends, the most eminent men and women of the times. … This gives us an opportunity to present in garden-party scenes, and amid beautiful flowers and settings, the celebrities with whom she is constantly associated—her friend, Caruso, singing to her, as in ecstasy she ‘listens with her finger tips’; to Paderewski at the piano; to Ysaÿe with the violin. …

“We see her with the great inventors; Dr. Bell, the inventor of the telephone; Edison, the genius of light and sound; Marconi, the inventor of the wireless—the men who have conquered worlds from which she is forever barred. We see her with the Wrights as she steps into an aeroplane. …

“We see Helen as she stands before Kings as she pleads for humanity. We see her as she moves among the poor, the outcast, the unfortunate—as they extend their helpless hands to the modern Jeanne d’Arc who comes from the realm of darkness over which she has risen supreme, to help struggling Humanity.”


Miss Marbury’s reaction was “splendid material,” “most promising.” All that remained to be settled, Dr. Miller informed Helen, were “some slight alterations that Miss Marbury states will be absolutely necessary (according to her wide experience) in placing the whole proposition on a sound business basis and securing the largest degree of profits from the enterprise.” Miss Marbury immediately had spotted the weakness of the synopsis. It was a series of tableaux with captions, not a story. There was no conflict. The concept of two “deliverances,” Helen’s release from blindness and deafness and her later release from social and political blindness, were worthy themes, but exhibitors already had a horror of what the trade called “the high-brow picture.” Love, romance, adventure—all would have to be introduced, if necessary invented, if the picture were to have mass appeal.

Helen and Teacher refused to countenance such falsification. They parted company with Miss Marbury and sought other ways of getting the picture produced. Despite Dr. Miller’s optimism, the whole project began to seem unreal again. A long letter to her mother on May 7 made no mention of the film. It was full of news—of loyal Ned Holmes, a general factotum, “smiling and silent,” who worked for them, but she did not mention that he was representing them in negotiations with Miller and others. She spoke of attending a reception of the American-BritishFrench-Belgian Fund for the benefit of blinded soldiers. The not wholly successful appeal that two blinded officers had made to the audience to give until giving meant sacrifice, reminded Helen “how Teacher and I had worked ourselves almost crazy trying to help the New York Association for the Blind years ago—and then those millionaires wouldn’t give anything. …” She was going to lunch with some of her former schoolmates, and she was fixing up a speech for the summer “in case we should do Chautauqua work.” She was also preparing a speech on Walt Whitman for a dinner in his honor that was being given by Whitman’s friend, biographer and Marxian socialist, Horace Träubel. “Then there is the Italian grammar and Dante, which I find pretty hard at times.” It was not the letter of someone who was planning to spend the next few months in Hollywood.


But suddenly it all came together. The funding crisis was surmounted when Charles M. Schwab, the steel magnate, was persuaded by intermediaries, primarily Dr. Edwin Liebfreed, to put up two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to produce the picture. At the end of May a formal contract was signed between Helen and Annie on one side and Dr. Miller as president of the “Helen Keller Film Corporation” on the other, authorizing the production, distribution, and leasing of the film. Helen and Teacher were paid ten thousand dollars on signing. Another ten thousand dollars would be paid on completion of the film. Other paragraphs spoke of royalties up to five hundred thousand dollars after deductions for overhead, expenses, and repayment of investors. The contract also provided that Helen and Teacher were to come to Hollywood to be available for consultation, and, in the case of Helen, for a role in the film. It was, of course, the day of the silents. A director, George Foster Platt, was engaged, a studio in Hollywood leased. Helen wrote Alexander Graham Bell: “When we saw you in New York several weeks ago, we told you that the story of my life was to be dramatized for a motion picture, and we asked you if you would be willing to appear in it. You laughed and said, ‘Do you expect me to go to California to have my picture taken?’ Well, it is not quite as bad as that—not quite. The present plan is to have several pictures made here and in Boston and vicinity before we start West where the main part of the picture will be made. … The producers are very desirous to have you appear with Caruso and my teacher and me in the opening scene of the drama. … You know that Gibbon has told us how, when he wrote the last lines of the last page of The Decline and Fall , he went out into the garden and paced up and down in his acacia walk overlooking Lausanne and the mountains. … I conceive of the picture-drama as my walk under the acacias. I mean, in a sense, it will be the finish of my life story. … You can readily see, if the people who are taking part in the drama are not the real people who have walked with me under the acacias, this message will lose something of its force and genuineness. A number of the friends whose love and devotion have enriched my life are gone. Phillips Brooks, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edward Everett Hale, Samuel Clemens and many others would have a place in the picture if they were living. You and Mrs. William Thaw are almost the only ones left who entered the acacia walk with me where it begins in the sweet dawn of childhood.”

It had been Dr. Bell who had heartened Teacher and herself for the struggle: “Again and again you said to me, ‘Helen, let no sense of limitations hold you back. You can do anything you think you can. Remember that many will be brave in your courage.

The letter reached Bell in Nova Scotia. He would do anything for her that he could, but he would be unable to get down to the States before Helen left for California: “You must remember that when I met you first I wasn’t seventy-one years old and didn’t have white hair, and you were only a little girl of seven, so it is obvious that any historical picture will have to be made with substitutes for both of us. You will have to find someone with dark hair to impersonate the Alexander Graham Bell of your childhood, and then perhaps your appearance with me in a later scene when we both are as we are now may be interesting by contrast.”

Dr. Bell did appear, and money matters were settled. However, a new crisis arose before they left for California, over Helen’s radicalism. There were advance rumblings at the Walt Whitman dinner to which Helen and Teacher took Dr. Miller. “Helen’s speech was brilliant,” he wrote Ned Holmes, but did “Mrs. Macy and Helen realize what a hotbed of treason developed at the Whitman dinner?” Helen had to be protected. “I know you will be very careful that she does not allow spies and enemies of our Homeland to come into her presence and use her beautiful soul and mind for an endorsement of their nefarious schemes. …” Her great mission could be destroyed “by dangerous associations in these war times.” A few weeks later he was more insistent. Helen had joined John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Carlton J. Hayes, and others in a plea in The New Republic for a fair trial for some imprisoned Wobblies. The Department of Justice was sufficiently upset to warn the magazine against reprinting the statement. Miller was a staunch Republican and historian-general of the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims, and the advisory boards on his histories were studded with admirals and generals. He was horrified. Dr. Leibfreed, who controlled the purse strings, shared his alarm. “He is of German origin,” Miller wrote Holmes, “but he is heart and soul against the despotism of the military caste that is ruling Germany.” Theaters would be shut to them, he warned. If Helen persisted, the government could visit all sorts of harassments upon them. He requested “a letter of assurance that can be read to all our associates to establish their confidence.”

Helen must have agreed to be more discreet, for a few weeks later she, Teacher, and Polly set out for Hollywood. Ned Holmes was left to watch Forest Hills and their Great Dane Sieglinde. The company had leased the Brunton Studio, and the filming began. Platt was a director of sensitivity, eager to combine what Helen and Teacher hoped the film would be with his own view that they should aim for movement, compactness, continuity, rather than lavishness. A child actress played Helen in her early years. Miller’s script did not consist of dialogue but captions that preceded a series of frames. Thus series nine heralded Helen’s birth: “Soon comes an eventful hour at Ivy Green [Helen’s birthplace].” Frame thirty seven dealt with the arrival of Anne Sullivan: “I pray God that you can teach her.” Then a series of frames dealt with the episodes that playwright William Gibson more than three decades later presented so tellingly in The Miracle Worker . Dr. Miller sensed that here was drama. His script reflected the state of the cinematic art at the time:



THE BATTLE BEGINS Within the Walls of Darkness and Silence, Patience and Love struggle with Ignorance


“It is a tremendous task, Mrs. Keller. … Sometimes it seems almost impossible.”


A moment of discouragement


Through days of ceaseless struggle.


THE SUPREME MOMENT OF REVELATION The Walls Crumble … The Light Penetrates … A Soul Awakes …




“That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. … Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. ”




THE MIRACLE OF MIRACLES “In a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary.”

In the later scenes Helen played herself. The director and Mrs. Macy devised a system of stamping on the floor to convey his instructions to her. First Polly Thompson or Mrs. Macy spelled into her hand what she was supposed to do in the next series of “takes” and the effect they were trying for—walk toward the window on her right, hold up her hands to the sun, discover the bird’s cage, express surprise, pleasure. A series of taps on the floor signaled each action. It was a difficult process. She often stood for half an hour before the camera began to grind. The studio lights grew hotter; the sweat rolled off her made-up face; her hands grew moist. But she was a born trouper and took the twice-a-day sessions in her stride. The director often was unable to hold back his tears as he tapped out “be natural” and Helen, who could not see the result, tried gamely to fulfill his wishes. Her face was capable of great animation. Frequent flickers and starts of feeling seemed to be registering little inner electric shocks. Her gestures were equally expressive. But to synchronize gesture and feeling was a laborious process.

However, it was not Helen’s acting ability that caused the greatest difficulty but the story line, or rather its absence. A series of tableaux did not make gripping film fare—as Miss Marbury had foreseen. For conflict, emotional impact, and character development they sought solutions in symbolism. A fierce battle was staged before the Cave of Father Time between Knowledge and Ignorance for control of Helen’s mind. Instead of an undergraduate love affair, and because of her passion for the Greek myths, she was given a love affair with the mythical Ulysses that included a realistic shipwreck on the Isle of Circe. In the final part of the picture, to show her triumph over physical limitations, she took her first flight in helmet and goggles in an airplane, over the protests of Teacher, as well as her mother and her brother Phillips Brooks, in uniform, who had arrived for roles in the last part of the picture.

A penultimate scene with hundreds of extras, the blind, the maimed, the halt, all of them fearing the “flu” which was then raging everywhere, showed Helen as the Mother of Sorrows touching the kneeling petitioners with her torch of hope. The grand finale was to be a scene in which Helen was ushered into a meeting of the Big Four to urge them to bring the war to a close, and the final spectacle, so dearly beloved of Hollywood, presented Helen on a large white charger, blowing a trumpet, and leading thousands of shipyard and factory workers, people of all nations, toward “deliverance.”

They enjoyed their stay in Hollywood, indeed, found it exciting. Helen and Polly, joined occasionally by Teacher, regularly rode the trails of unsettled Beverly Hills, where a coyote might still be heard. They met Hollywood’s glamorous stars, Lillian Gish, Constance TaImadge, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and what Teacher described as a “roomful of others.” Charlie Chaplin had them to dinner at a club along with Dr. Miller, Upton Sinclair, and his wife. He confessed to Mrs. Macy that just before their arrival he had debated whether to run away. He took to Teacher, however, and talked to no one else throughout dinner, telling her much about his life, complaining about his current marriage. He took great pride in A Dog’s Life , a film that he had just made and which would be called “his first real masterpiece.” Had she seen it? When Teacher said no, he asked her whether she thought he was disgusting. Yes, she replied. She had always thought of him as a custard-pie thrower. Would she come to his studio? Would Helen be interested? They did so, and he had A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms screened for them as they alternately wept and laughed.

They themselves did not entertain. Teacher claimed it was too expensive. But it may also have been Hollywood’s tendency, except for Chaplin, to lionize Helen and ignore her, an indignity to which Teacher never submitted easily. As usual in her book Teacher , Helen mentions Annie’s resentment obliquely. “Everybody was friendly, but in their compliments to me I was unintentionally left with a defrauded feeling. Few, if any, spoke of Teacher as one who deserved special praise. … However, Teacher was her exuberant, charming self with Charles Chaplin. They had both endured poverty and the deformations it creates in body and soul.”

At the end of October she took time off to lead a Liberty Bond rally in Los Angeles. She had kept her word to Dr. Miller and muted her social and political statements. She had gone further, telegraphing Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo on October 5, “I want to help you sell Liberty Bonds. ” He accepted with alacrity and gave it out to the press. Now she stood before a hushed crowd and urged it to “strike out for the dawn” by the purchase of a bond. It was twelve days before the Armistice. Many who were critical of the government’s repressions under the Espionage Act nevertheless had rallied to Wilson’s statement of war aims. “I am glad America stands before the world for man’s holy dream of liberty. Buy a Liberty Bond and hasten the day when war shall be impossible between nations,” she said in slow, high-pitched, painfully enunciated phrases that Teacher translated.

After her talk, telegrams received by Helen from McAdoo, Caruso, Mrs. Thaw, Charles Evans Hughes, Elihu Root, and Adolph Lewisohn, subscribing to more bonds, were read to the crowd.


By the end of December the filming was finished. There was nothing yet to look at, but everyone was confident that when the film was cut and edited, it would be a success. Helen and Teacher had to borrow money to get back to Forest Hills. Dr. Liebfreed refused to advance it to them and in the end they had to appeal to Ned Holmes. Their troubles with Liebfreed were only beginning. He had decided to take control of the film, discharging all the staff, including the director, Mr. Platt. “The people in Mr. Schwab’s office refused to discuss the matter with anybody,” Mrs. Macy wrote Helen’s sister, Mildred. “Their lawyer was very nasty at first. They presumed that the picture was finished, and that they had the film locked up in the bank.” Dr. Liebfreed then discovered that the titles had still to be written and that Dr. Miller’s contract stipulated he should write them. “Then I told them I should get out an injunction and stop procedure. Dr. Liebfreed caved in.” Dr. Miller was reinstalled as writer, but they could not persuade Liebfreed to have Platt do the editing and cutting, and with the inimitable highhandedness of money men in show business, Platt was not even invited to the advance screening—“his own work. Think of it!” They were “tired and sick of the whole business. We only hope that after the picture is sold, we shall have little to do with our capitalist, and that the box office receipts will perfume our remembrance of the past year. …”

The screening produced a new confrontation over what should come out and what should go in. Teacher and Liebfreed were the primary antagonists. Purple with rage, Liebfreed cited the mounting costs. Teacher in a fury charged him with breach of his word. Both shouted. Occasionally Liebfreed remembered Helen and addressed a few honeyed words to her, and then returned to the attack. “He wanted a commercial ‘thriller,’ ” wrote Helen, “and Teacher and I asked for an historical record, and these two points of view appeared irreconcilable.” They refused to consent to the film’s public exhibition or sale. They stated their objections in several letters to Dr. Miller and, finally, in desperation, to Mrs. Thaw. That kindly woman sent on Helen’s letter to Mr. and Mrs. Schwab, her Pittsburgh neighbors, with the grieved observation that Helen’s “two letters from California were so joyous and hopeful that by contrast this, from which I quote some paragraphs, is the more painful. I can see that to have her hopes shattered as to being able to provide, indirectly, an object lesson to other afflicted ones, is only less bitter than to have her whole attitude toward life and its duties misrepresented in so heartless a fashion as her letter indicates. ” Helen’s letter in part read:

“We started out to make an honest picture of my life, my struggles, triumphs, aspirations. … Well, more than two-thirds of our conception of the picture has been realized. But towards the end we seem to have fallen down somehow. For instance, there is a scene called ‘The CouncilChamber,’ where all the great generals, kings and statesmen are assembled in a sort of peace conference. I enter in a queer medieval costume and proclaim the Rights of Man rather feebly. There is no foundation in fact for such a scene, and the symbolism is not apparent. We want it omitted.

“This scene is followed by a Pageant with me on horseback, leading all the peoples of the world to freedom—or something. It is altogether too hilarious to typify the struggles of mankind for liberty.

“These are our vital objections to the picture, but there are minor ones; for instance, our friends—those who are gone, such as Bishop Brooks and Mark Twain and others; and the ones we love who are still living, but not in the picture either—Dr. Bell, Mr. Edison and yourself.

“My Wrentham [Massachusetts] house, which is historic, does not appear in the picture. Then we think there should be a scene of Evergreen, showing what is being done to re-educate our blinded soldiers. It is a work very near to my heart, as you know, and we are sure it will be a helpful picture in many ways.

“According to our contract, we have the right to reject the picture if it does not satisfy us. Of course we did not want to take this extreme step. We hoped that Dr. Liebfreed would live up to his agreement. But we have been sadly disappointed. …”

A few changes were made. The council-chamber scene was eliminated, but the spectacular ending, of hundreds of extras rushing pell-mell behind Helen on her white charger, remained. Wrentham was not filmed nor the scene they wanted with Dr. Bell. Despite Mrs. Thaw’s letter and their threats of an injunction, they were kept completely on the outside.

“We had very little definite information about the picture,” Helen lamented to her mother in early July, “until two weeks ago when in desperation Ned called upon Mr. Shubert. You may not know it but it is more difficult to see Mr. Shubert than the President of the United States—or even the Mikado of Japan. Ned was permitted to talk with Mr. S. only two minutes and a half. He learned that the picture had been sold, and that it would open in Shubert’s Broadway theatre next October. That means we shall not receive our payment until then. We have been frightfully ‘hard up,’ mother. I don’t remember a time since college days when we were so much ‘up against it.’ But we shall manage all right. Our credit is good, and people understand. Everyone believes in the success of the picture, and that keeps them quiet and contented because they know they will receive their money eventually.”

The picture opened at the Lyric Theater in August. Helen was sent tickets for two boxes, but she did not attend. Actors Equity was on strike, and she refused to cross its picket line. She felt that Shubert had rushed to present the picture in order to break the strike. “I am afraid that the actors and some of my friends may construe my presence as a lack of sympathy with the strikers. In order to avoid possible misunderstanding, I feel that it is better for me not to come to the Lyric Theater Monday night,” she wrote.

The reviewers were enthusiastic. The New York Times called it “one of the triumphs of the motion picture,” with the opening-night audience several times breaking into spontaneous applause. In places it was “overburdened with moralizing and its optimism is sometimes spread too thickly,” but in the main it was “compelling. … And, let it be repeated, the story, as a story, grips and holds the interest as few photo stories do.” The New York Sun credited the director, George Platt, whom Liebfreed would not let into the studio for the screening, with “a new technique … a method approximating that of the speaking stage … it is one of the most compact photo plays ever screened, each flash upon the silver sheet being filled with action that has a meaning. ” Another paper could not praise Deliverance “too highly.” It was an “educational picture in the highest sense.”

Despite the fine reviews, the Shuberts soon sold the distribution rights for fifty thousand dollars to a Chicago distributor, George Kleine, claiming later that they had never been able to make any profit out of it. The always hopeful Dr. Miller was elated that Mr. Kleine now had charge of the distribution. “He is one of the most successful in the business; he has made several million dollars as a distributor; among his productions was Quo Vadis . He is enthusiastic over Deliverance and declares that it will break all records. If half what he thinks comes true, then none of us need worry over the future.”


But it was not a commercial success. As Kleine sadly reported to Helen years later: “It is a fact that a feature film which is produced with the usual heavy outlay cannot succeed financially unless it goes over well in moving picture theatres. Deliverance has been appreciated by what may be called the more refined classes and thinking people, but it did not succeed in drawing crowds to the box office.” It is doubtful that Helen and Teacher received more than the original ten thousand dollars at the signing. They were the kind of people, Helen commented ruefully, “who come out of an enterprise poorer than when we went into it.”

They now had to face up to the realization that no magic wand would wave over their lives and bring them comfort and security forever. And Deliverance signaled another subtle shift, especially in Helen’s point of view. The picture of herself as a latter-day Joan of Arc leading the workers in their emancipation struggle faded. “I was glad when it was all over,” she wrote in Midstream , of her experience with Deliverance , “and my quaint fancy of leading the people of the world to victory has never been so ardent since.”

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