One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported:
The mother and soldier brother of the famous Helen Keller are to visit Miss Keller next week, and will watch her work in the big feature picture which she is making at Brunton studios.
Her family didn’t just visit, they appeared in the film. Deliverance was a fictionalized version of Keller’s life from the fever that left her blind and deaf at 18 months, through her childhood when Annie Sullivan taught her to communicate, to her graduation from Radcliffe and her adult life, which included writing, lecturing and advocacy for disabled people. Because Hollywood couldn’t make a movie without a love story, they included a dream sequence with an actress playing Keller as Circe, beckoning Ulysses to her island (when she found out about that bit, she laughed a lot).
According to Keller’s biographer Dorothy Herrmann, she made the film because demand for her on the lecture circuit was dwindling and she was broke. Herrmann called the film “a hodgepodge, an early docudrama that combines actual footage of Helen, symbolism, and a fanciful plot line…Deliverance remains an important historical document, capturing a still beautiful and luminous Helen—dancing, reading Braille, answering her correspondence, strolling serenely in the garden with her hovering, ambivalent mother, and taking a ride in a fragile biplane, despite the protests of her family.” Seven of the film’s ten reels have been preserved at the Library of Congress.
It was a box-office failure. Keller was still broke, so she “had no choice but to accept the offer of which they had a lifelong horror,” vaudeville. She and Anne Sullivan Macy worked up a twenty-minute act and they toured, performing it twice daily from February 1920 to the spring of 1924. Sullivan Macy introduced Keller, and then told the story of teaching her to speak. Next Keller demonstrated, giving an inspirational speech in an “odd, barely comprehensible voice.” Show business wasn’t as bad as they feared. Keller later wrote “I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in.” Plus, they were a hit: for a while they were some of the highest-paid performers in vaudeville, headlining for two thousand dollars a week. It paid better than lectures had, and they only had to be on stage for twenty minutes instead of ninety.
Kingsley unexpectedly had a lot of fun at a movie this week:
It was a plum wild and wooly afternoon on the Rialto, yesterday, as far as I was concerned, with western film whooping ‘em up. Over at the Symphony, Harry Carey is appearing in Hell Bent, which is a western with a ‘wengence.’ If you want to forget the h—* whom you want for the next Governor, and other painful subjects, if you want to feel the winds of plain and mountain on your fevered brow, go to the Symphony. There is some wonderful riding stuff in a wonderful mountain country; there is a desert bit, with mirages and sand-storms, and Harry Carey does some marvelous stunts including climbing hand over hand on a rope up the side of a steep cliff and rolling down a mountain side tied to a horse’s back. Altogether as breezy and entertaining a western as we have had in some time.
Someone she didn’t mention is the reason the film is remembered today: it was directed by John Ford, his eighth feature. It seems like he already knew what he was doing.
A disturbing film played at Miller’s Theater this week, entitled At the Mercy of Men. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, a woman is forced to marry her rapist. Kingsley did say it was “a wrong afterward righted in so far as the law could do it” (I’d prefer a long stint in prison for the attacker). Eventually they fall in love and that’s supposed to be the happy ending. Its working title was Ruthless Russia, but the Russians were Allies during World War 1, so it wasn’t made as anti-enemy propaganda. I’m astonished that anybody thought this was a good story to tell. It’s a lost film. Happily, both actors went on to better things. Alice Brady played many socialites in 1930’s comedies including Aunt Hortense in The Gay Divorcee (1934). The rapist was played by Frank Morgan, Mr. Matuschek of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and of course, the Wizard of Oz.
Luckily, Kingsley saw a second movie at Miller’s this week. A “welcome addition to the bill” was a re-issue of “probably one of the best comedies ever made:” Fatty and Mabel Adrift. The short from 1916 will still give you some relief from painful subjects, and it’s on the Internet Archive.
*It seems that it was OK to write “hell” in the newspaper when it referred to a place, but not as a swear.
Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.