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As one of the major legends in country western music, you'd think there would be countless movies about the life and times of Hank Williams yet there have been surprisingly few. With the exception of an independent Canadian film, Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave (1982), Your Cheatin' Heart (1964) still stands as the only significant movie about the songwriter/musician. Filmed with the cooperation of Williams' widow, Audrey, the movie was a sincere attempt to tell Hank's story on a modest budget and surprised MGM executives when it became one of their top grossing films of the year. True to Hollywood, however, this little sleeper tended to fictionalize or gloss over certain aspects of Williams' life.
When it was first announced that George Hamilton was cast to play "The Hillbilly Shakespeare," country music fans were outraged. How could this relatively inexperienced actor with no known musical ability play Hank? In spite of his Southern background (he was born in Memphis, Tennessee), Hamilton was largely perceived as little more than a male model, usually typecast in films as rich playboys or collegiate cads. And the chosen director, Gene Nelson, a former skater with Sonja Henie's ice show and character actor (Oklahoma!, 1955), seemed a dubious choice to helm the project.
According to Hank Williams, Jr. in his autobiography, Living Proof, "Your Cheatin' Heart was a turning point in many ways and not all of them good. I wasn't the first choice to do the music for the movie - actually, George Hamilton wanted to sing himself. The Hollywood people were willing to go along...Lucky for me that the person who wasn't all that interested in helping George Hamilton's singing career was Wesley Rose, of Acuff-Rose. Wesley and his father, Fred Rose, had worked with Daddy his whole professional life, and the relationship between Fred Rose and Hank Williams was a deep one...In the game of Your Cheatin' Heart, Wesley Rose held the trump card: Acuff-Rose was the sole licensing agent for Daddy's songs...Without the songs, there wouldn't be much of a movie. Wesley said he wanted me to sing the sound track, and that was that."
Wesley Rose wasn't the only one fighting for Hank Williams, Jr. to dub the vocals though. Hank's mother, Audrey, also launched her own campaign and said at the time, "I was trying to build another Hank, my son, Hank, Jr. Originally, we had planned for Hank, Jr., to play his dad's part as a boy, but by the time we did the picture, Hank, Jr., was so grown up we couldn't do that, so I had to go about it from another angle in order to get Hank, Jr. in the picture. Everybody I talked to said this fifteen-year-old boy cannot do the soundtrack."
In the end, Wesley and Audrey got their way and are to be commended for their perseverance: Hank, Jr.'s vocals truly capture the spirit of Williams' music and lend the film an authenticity it wouldn't have had if Hamilton had performed the songs. The film's presentation of real events was more problematic. Hank, Jr. recalled, "It wasn't enough that Daddy suffered. He had to suffer more, bigger, and better! It wasn't enough that he drank. He had to drink oceans. For example, the producers almost insisted that, in the movie, Hank be drunk when he went on stage for the first time at the Opry. George Hamilton wanted Hank to be drunk at that performance. It would make a better story. It would also tarnish one of country music's sacred legends, throw a little dirt on those seven encores that first night at the Opry. In that particular case, Wesley Rose still held the big stick, and he used it, again and again."
Meanwhile, Audrey Williams' determination to protect and oversee her late husband's musical legacy while promoting their son's career took a toll on everyone around her. Lycrecia Williams, Audrey's daughter and Hank, Sr.'s stepdaughter, said (in her book, Still in Love With You), "I don't know why Mother presented the movie as she did, because not only did she come off badly, but the story itself was not true to the way things really happened. Wesley Rose had warned her that she was making a mistake and would be sorry to have to live with the results, but she was seemingly blind to the damage that she was doing to herself. And her drinking was beginning to become more of a problem." Hank, Jr. concurred in his autobiography, "On screen, my mother [played by Susan Oliver] was becoming a bitch...It's important, she kept saying. We've got to say how it was. It was me, she told the producers, who pushed Hank into stardom. She made him go to Nashville...if it wasn't for Audrey there never would have been a Hank Williams." Eventually, the relationship between Audrey and Wesley Rose deteriorated and by the film's end they were no longer speaking.
On the positive side, Your Cheatin' Heart was largely responsible for launching Hank Williams, Jr.'s career. The singer stated that "the soundtrack album quickly sold over a million copies...We wasted no time in getting on the road, in a refurbished bus now christened "The Cheatin' Heart Special." It was hard to imagine, but I was close to the top of the business. Hank Williams Jr. and the Cheatin' Heart Special were the biggest draw in country music." The film also earned George Hamilton some of the best reviews of his career until he parodied his own matinee idol screen image years later in Love at First Bite (1979). Best of all, Your Cheatin' Heart exposed younger audiences to the music of Hank Williams and the stellar soundtrack includes such C&W classics as "I Saw the Light," "Jambalaya," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "I Can't Help It," and the title song.
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Gene Nelson
Screenplay: Stanford Whitmore
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Merrill Pye
Music: Hank Williams
Cast: George Hamilton (Hank Williams), Susan Oliver (Audrey Williams), Red Buttons (Shorty Younger), Arthur O'Connell (Fred Rose), Shary Marshall (Ann Younger), Rex Ingram (Teetot).
BW-99m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford