The miracle of Helen Keller

Though deaf and blind, she learned to speak several languages, authored several books, and starred as herself in the 1919 film “Deliverance,” which is about her challenging personal journey to a successful life.

As an infant, Keller lost her vision and hearing due to an illness. Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, led her student from a life of darkness to a life of success. Mark Twain called Keller a miracle. Sullivan, he called, the miracle worker.

Keller’s 1919 film was not her only film appearance. In 1954, Keller appeared in the film documentary “Helen Keller: In Her Story.” In 2023, the film was among 25 selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion on the National Film Registry.

“Helen Keller: In Her Story” premiered in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1954. It was released nationally on Keller’s 75th birthday in June 1955. In 1956, the film received an Academy Award for Best Documentary. In the film, Keller is seen typing on a Braille typewriter and doing chores around her home. She is also seen visiting wounded Korean War soldiers at a military hospital and visiting an Israeli kibbutz.

The Associated Press reported that “Helen Keller: In Her Story” had only one theatrical booking in the 18 months after its release. While Keller was greatly admired, theater owners in the 1950s thought the film would be too sad for ticket-buying audiences.

To combat the stereotype that a film about a disabled person would make audiences sad, Keller’s supporters — including acclaimed actress Katherine Cornell, who narrated “Helen Keller: In Her Story” — wrote letters to newspapers telling them that the film depicted Keller as a successful person.

Cornell stressed that Keller was actively learning, traveling, writing and lecturing. Cornell told newspaper editors that blindness and deafness were incidental to Keller’s active life. In 1954, many Americans knew Helen Keller had overcome her disabilities. She was happy, and Americans were delighted for her.

On Sunday, June 26, 1955, CBS broadcast “Helen Keller: In Her Story” as an afternoon TV special to commemorate Keller’s birthday. CBS’ Arthur Godfrey, the era’s biggest radio and TV celebrity, introduced the film. At that time, TV gave the film its largest audience.

“Helen Keller: In Her Story” is an outstanding film about a woman of courage. It shows Keller with author Mark Twain, who, speaking satirically about Keller, said: “If I could have been deaf, dumb and blind, I also might have arrived at something.”

“The Miracle Worker,” a 1957 TV production based on Keller’s life, captured a large audience. It was expanded into a successful Broadway play. In 1962, a film version with actresses Anne Bancroft as “Teacher” Anne Sullivan and Patty Duke as a young Helen was a box office success. Both actresses received Academy Awards.

Helen Keller died in June 1968 at age 88. At the time, Alabama was mourning the death of its first female governor, Lurleen Wallace, who had died in May. Newspaper editors called Wallace the first lady of Alabama. Keller, they said, was the first lady of courage.

President Lyndon Johnson said of Keller: “The gifts she has left behind — the gifts of character and conviction — are America’s most precious heritage.”

In an editorial titled “Great Lady,” Alabama’s Birmingham Post Herald said Keller “may well be remembered longer, and with more reason, than any other person ever born in this state.”

The Post Herald reminded readers that when Keller learned to communicate with others by the manual alphabet spelling of “water,” she wrote: “Delicious sensations rippled through me and sweet things that were locked up in my heart began to sing.” The editorial ended: “The song which sounded in Helen Keller’s heart that day will be heard as long as courage and determination have meaning.”

In 2024, audiences are too sophisticated to think that a film about a disabled person would make audiences sad. It is a tribute to Helen Keller that the National Film Registry recognizes “Helen Keller: In Her Story” as worthy of preservation to continue educating future generations about what Keller accomplished and what others can accomplish.

James Patterson is a writer in Washington. (He is NOT the well-known author of best-selling popular fiction.)