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,The Helen Morgan Story

The Helen Morgan Story

After a few innocuous ingénue film roles, Ann Blyth became a star at the age of 17 when she played the poisonous Veda in 1945's Mildred Pierce, which earned her an Academy Award® nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Then she spent the next decade playing a series of forgettable ingénues and operetta heroines (she had a trained soprano voice), becoming a latter-day Jeanette MacDonald. Her final feature film, The Helen Morgan Story (1957), once again gave her a complex role as a troubled character: the real-life 1920s singer and Broadway star, Helen Morgan.

Morgan had a spectacular career as a torch singer in nightclubs, speakeasies, radio, recordings and films as well as the stage, including originating the role of the "tragic mulatto" Julie Laverne in Show Boat in 1927. She reprised the role in both the 1929 part-talkie version, and the 1936 Universal film musical. The latter was her final screen appearance; by that time, she was so mired in alcoholism that her career declined. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1941, at the age of 41.

Ever since Morgan's death, Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner had wanted to make a film biography of Morgan, but had never found the right actress for the role. By 1956, the project was finally a go, with Warners veteran (and Mildred Pierce director) Michael Curtiz returning to direct-he had left the studio over a salary dispute in 1954, after 28 years there. According to Curtiz biographer James C. Robertson, Curtiz "considered or tested many actresses, including Olivia de Havilland, Jennifer Jones, Susan Hayward, Doris Day and Peggy Lee...[gossip columnist] Hedda Hopper suggested Ann Blyth. Curtiz was reluctant, considered her 'too sweet' and even claimed he had forgotten about her since Mildred Pierce." Blyth won the role, and Curtiz said it was because of her dramatic abilities, not her singing. In fact, Blyth's soprano voice was similar to Morgan's, whose wistful sound was totally unlike the whisky-tinged growls of many of the torch singers of the era. But the decision was made to dub Blyth's vocals with the voice of pop star Gogi Grant, who belted the songs in the film. "The kind of high-pitched, low-voiced torch singing [Morgan] used to do wouldn't go over today, it's outmoded," Curtiz explained. Grant was given screen credit in the film. Blyth later said she "wasn't hurt by the decision because I felt that dramatically the movie was strong. The music was certainly a major part of the story but not the entire story. I was disappointed but not heartbroken."

Warner Bros. had the film rights to Morgan's story, but not the television rights. Actress-singer Polly Bergen, whose style was similar to Morgan's, had included Morgan songs in her nightclub act. In April, 1957, while The Helen Morgan Story was in production, Bergen played Morgan in a Playhouse 90 television drama. She won an Emmy for her performance.

Like many biographical films of the era, the script for The Helen Morgan Story was highly fictionalized, with the various no-good men in the hard-luck Morgan's life combined into a single heel, the bootlegger Larry Maddux, played by Paul Newman. This was Newman's fourth film, after his debut in the disastrous historical epic The Silver Chalice (1954). After that, his home studio Warners loaned him to MGM for two films, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and The Rack (1956), both of which earned Newman excellent reviews for playing conflicted and flawed characters. For two years, he had been rejecting scripts that Warners had offered him, and even though the role of Maddux was one-dimensional, he agreed to do the film. Ever the prankster, he sent a picture of himself exiting from a walk-in refrigerator to Jack Warner, with a caption that read "Paul Newman, who was kept in the deep freeze for two years because of The Silver Chalice, has at last been thawed out to play a cold-hearted gangster in The Helen Morgan Story." He also gave Curtiz a bullwhip, with a card reading "To be used on me-in case I get difficult." Newman's dynamic performance was one of the film's highlights.

Perhaps because The Helen Morgan Story had been in development for so long, and had gone through so many script versions-four writers are listed in the credits, although there were probably more-the film did not delve very deeply or take full advantage of the inherent drama in Morgan's story. In spite of the hackneyed script, Curtiz the polished craftsman gives the film an elegant noir look and his trademark fluid camera movements that make the film a pleasure to watch. One scene in a nightclub begins with Cara Williams performing a song, then pans over to a conversation between Newman and Alan King, then follows them as they get up to leave the club and pushes in to Williams as she finishes her peppy, upbeat song.

The reviews noted The Helen Morgan Story's deficiencies. Variety called it "little more than a tuneful soap opera." A.H. Weiler wrote in the New York Times, "The indestructible tunes and the producers' fairly honest approach to the sleaziness of the speakeasy era should generate genuine nostalgia, but Miss Morgan's career, on film, appears to be uninspired, familiar fare." And the New York Post added, "Ann Blyth makes a good pretense of putting forth the songs....If she doesn't quite convince you she's Helen Morgan, at least she manages to become sufficiently awry-eyed to turn aside suspicions that she might still be Ann Blyth."

Blyth retired from films after completing The Helen Morgan Story, saying that the kind of roles she was interested in playing were no longer available. She continued to work in television and summer stock.

by Margarita Landazuri



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