Her story argues against the prevailing notion that handicapped children cannot have meaningful lives.

Review of TV movie Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues. Castle Comb Productions and Twentieth Century—Fox Television; airing over independent television during April and May.

There Are Two Things,” contended Orson Welles, “that the movies will never be able to show. A man making love to his wife, and a man praying to his God.”

It is not that they haven’t tried. Though Welles’s statement is surely accurate, it is incomplete. Even goodness, in general, does not translate well to the screen. Too often, in dramatic jargon, it simply “doesn’t play.” Hence, the ceaseless parade of cavorting heavies and assorted maniacs, accompanied by the din of guns and the falling of bodies, with the patter of banality always in the background, like Muzak.

Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues succeeds in portraying two aspects of goodness—romantic love and personal sacrifice—over which many filmmakers have fallen on their faces. It is a clean, visually interesting production, with strong characters and performances, especially from Blythe Danner and Mare Winningham, the former as Anne Sullivan, the latter as Keller. It is certainly well worth viewing above normal television fare. (Readers should check local listings for date and channel.)

Born in 1880, Keller was blind, deaf, and mute from an early age. Her case seemed hopeless until the advent of Anne Sullivan, known to Helen simply as “teacher.” The daughter of Irish immigrants who abandoned her, Sullivan grew up in wretched poverty and had her own bouts with blindness. Her dedication to Keller was truly remarkable, her patience endless. Anne became the major force in Keller’s life—a savior—often to the consternation of relatives and teachers.

Under Sullivan’s tutelage, Helen learned four alphabets for the blind before the age of seven. An intelligent, gifted girl, she went on to astonish the world, graduating cum laude from Radcliffe. Before leaving that institution, she developed into an accomplished writer and best-selling author. Keller eventually became an icon, friend of the famous (Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain), and celebrated in films and plays, notably The Miracle Worker. Adored the world over, she died in 1968.

Based on Joseph Lash’s massive (800 pages) Helen and Teacher, the story begins with Helen as a young adult in her days at Radcliffe. This affords a peek at a genteel, polite world that existed not so long ago, but is now gone forever. Young men approached girls at dances, bowed, and asked, “Excuse me, would you like to polka?” Helen learns, as it might be termed today, “social skills.” In her early life she was apparently quite a brat.

Ladies Home Journal serializes Helen’s life story, which she writes as an assignment for English class. It is a thumping success. Enter John Macy, a dapper writer sent to help her with the work. He drinks too much and is an armchair socialist, but proves a tremendous help to Helen. Both women become emotionally involved with him. It is a most unusual love triangle.

John sweeps Anne off her feet. She is torn between love for him and dedication to Helen. John insists the three of them can live together. Anne is stubborn, but eventually agrees. They marry. Once made aware of the romance, Helen begins to ask, “When will it happen for me?”

But John finds that he is married to an institution. He, Anne, and Helen are bound together in a kind of strange three-legged race. He begins to drink heavily. The marriage dissolves.

Helen’s new secretary is Peter Fagan, one of Macy’s colleagues. Their relationship blossoms and they plan marriage. But the paper publicizes the acquisition of a marriage license. Mrs. Keller is outraged. Anne corners the star-struck Fagan. Her speech to him is the highlight of the drama and ought to be mandatory reading for anyone contemplating marriage.

Peter, of course, sees nothing ahead but roses and kisses. Anne brings him to earth. “After a while,” she tells him, steely-eyed, “self-sacrifice starts to stink.” She ought to know. The relationship, she says, will be work, and tears and allegiance very unlike “falling in love.” They plan to elope anyway. Helen waits for Peter on the porch, suitcase in hand. He does not show up. In need of money, Anne and Helen enter vaudeville where Helen gives her first public speech. Here the story ends.

A few things have been left out. Keller was not, as she often appears, an ingénue. She was a woman of deep political involvements—a kind of early Jane Fonda. She followed Emanuel Swedenborg, a prevailing guru and promoter of Unitarian-like views. This, combined with total acceptance of the primitive, foot-washing socialism of the day, made her true creed one of naïve utopianism in which the blood of the Lamb is replaced with, as it were, municipal water. (For Keller’s religious views, see her own book My Religion.)

But Keller’s story is inspiring, a powerful refutation of the idea that the severely handicapped cannot have “meaningful lives.” The depictions of romantic love and personal sacrifice are among the best ever done specifically for television.

Though the selfless Anne Sullivan had no use for Christianity, she is an outstanding example of sacrifice. As a non-Christian, she serves to challenge us who are committed to the selfless Christ.

Mr. Billingsley contributes to numerous publications and also writes for film and stage. He lives in Southern California and is currently at work on a novel.

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