When Helen Keller Met Charlie Chaplin and Taught Him Sign Language (1919)

Char­lie Chap­lin had many high-pro­file fans in his day, includ­ing some of the lumi­nar­ies of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. We could per­haps be for­giv­en for assum­ing that the writer and activist Hellen Keller was not among them, giv­en the lim­i­ta­tions her con­di­tion of deaf­ness and blind­ness — or “deaf­blind­ness” — would nat­u­ral­ly place on the enjoy­ment of film, even the silent films in which Chap­lin made his name. But mak­ing that assump­tion would be to mis­un­der­stand the dri­ving force of Keller’s life and career. If the movies were sup­pos­ed­ly unavail­able to her, then she’d make a point of not just watch­ing them, but befriend­ing their biggest star.

Keller met Chap­lin in 1919 at his Hol­ly­wood stu­dio, dur­ing the film­ing of Sun­ny­side. This, as biog­ra­phers have revealed, was not one of the smoothest-going peri­ods in the come­di­an-auteur’s life, but that did­n’t stop him from enjoy­ing his time with Keller, and even learn­ing from her.

In her 1928 auto­bi­og­ra­phy Mid­stream, she would remem­ber that he’d been “shy, almost timid,” and that “his love­ly mod­esty lent a touch of romance to the occa­sion that might oth­er­wise have seemed quite ordi­nary.” The pic­tures that have cir­cu­lat­ed of the meet­ing, seen here, include one of Keller teach­ing Chap­lin the tac­tile sign-lan­guage alpha­bet she used to com­mu­ni­cate.

It was also the means by which, with the assis­tance of com­pan­ion Anne Sul­li­van, she fol­lowed the action of Chap­lin’s films A Dog’s Life and Shoul­der Arms when they were screened for her that evening. When Keller and Chap­lin met again near­ly thir­ty years lat­er, he sought her feed­back on the script for his lat­est pic­ture, Mon­sieur Ver­doux. “There is no lan­guage for the ter­ri­fy­ing pow­er of your mes­sage that sears with sar­casm or rends apart coverts of social hypocrisy,” Keller lat­er wrote to Chap­lin. A polit­i­cal­ly charged black com­e­dy about a bigamist ser­i­al killer bear­ing lit­tle resem­blance indeed to the beloved Lit­tle Tramp, Mon­sieur Ver­doux met with crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial fail­ure upon its release. The film has since been re-eval­u­at­ed as a sub­ver­sive mas­ter­work, but it was per­haps Keller who first tru­ly saw it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Helen Keller Writes a Let­ter to Nazi Stu­dents Before They Burn Her Book: “His­to­ry Has Taught You Noth­ing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

When Albert Ein­stein & Char­lie Chap­lin Met and Became Fast Famous Friends (1930)

When Mahat­ma Gand­hi Met Char­lie Chap­lin (1931)

The Char­lie Chap­lin Archive Opens, Putting Online 30,000 Pho­tos & Doc­u­ments from the Life of the Icon­ic Film Star

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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