The Helen Morgan Story
Cast & Crew
During prohibition, in the early 1920s, Helen Morgan, a small-town girl with a troubled past, works as a hula dancer to lure potential customers into buying Florida land lots from Larry Maddux at his booth in a Chicago amusement park. A rainstorm prompts Larry to fold the concession and pay the other dancers, street-wise Dolly Evans and the younger, naïve Southerner, Sue. While paying Helen, who is grateful to him for giving her her first show business job, Larry convinces her to spend the night with him, claiming he is "stuck on" her. In the morning, she awakens to find him gone. Hurt, but determined to succeed in show business, Helen is later auditioning at Jim Finney's speakeasy, when Larry, who now bootlegs for gangster Whitey Krause, arrives with his pal, Ben Weaver. Larry convinces Finney to hire Helen in exchange for a discounted price on the liquor. However, Finney fires Helen on her first night, after Larry beats up a drunken customer who grabs her. Larry claims he wants to take care of Helen and convinces her to compete in a beauty pageant in Montreal that offers a contract in a Broadway musical as the top prize. While Helen competes, posing as a Saskatchewan native, Larry and Ben, using her as their "front" for a smuggling operation, pack liquor into trunks tagged as theatrical costumes and props. Helen wins the competition, but is disqualified after a suspicious reporter checks her background and discovers she is an American. When a pageant judge, New York attorney Russell Wade, confronts her, she shamefully admits that she is not Canadian. Impressed by her guileless confession, Russell protects her from further retribution. On the train home, Ben encounters Dolly, his former girl friend, and Sue, who have been performing in Canadian vaudeville houses. Ben proposes to Dolly, but she refuses to marry him until he goes straight. At the border, customs officials discover the liquor and arrest Larry. Helen, Dolly and Sue take an apartment together in New York City's Greenwich Village, and when money is scarce, hold a rent party to avoid eviction. When Ben and the released Larry arrive unexpectedly, Helen is still angry at Larry for using her. After Sue's boyfriend, Eddie, arrives accompanied by another woman, Sue, drunk and distressed, hangs herself in the bathroom. Once Sue's body is taken away by an ambulance, Larry finds Helen crying on the fire escape and she explains that she has felt "haunted" since childhood. He tries to comfort her with alcohol, but impatiently brushes aside her mourning, explaining that he puts himself first. He says he plans to start his own business and believes that she can become a big star. Although he offers to take care of her, he avoids mentioning love, making her realize that her welfare "will always come second" to him. At the Blue Dragon, where Helen and Dolly get jobs performing, Larry tries to convince the manager to buy liquor directly from him, bypassing Whitey. During Helen's performance, in which she sings on top of a piano for the first time, a pose that will become her trademark, Whitey and his thugs arrive and beat up Larry. In retaliation, Larry informs the police that there is liquor on the premises and then leaves. That evening, federal agents raid the club and arrest everyone. Having no one else to turn to, Helen calls Russell, who obtains her release and begins dating her. Helen begins a moderately successful singing career in the Village and does not see Larry again until a chance, awkward encounter, when he appears with another woman at a café in which Dolly and Ben are celebrating their engagement. Happy with the emotional security Russell provides, Helen is later saddened to learn that he is married, despite his explanation that his marriage is only a platonic friendship. Although her affair with Larry seems over, Helen finds him waiting in her bedroom one night and tries to resist her feelings for him, but he convinces her that they are "stuck on" each other. Later, Larry asks Russell to finance a reputable nightclub in which Helen can perform and earn a percentage of the profits, and which Larry will manage. Wanting to give Helen security, Russell agrees to be a silent partner. The opening night of "The Helen Morgan Club" attracts a fashionable crowd, as well as Whitey, who threatens to close down the club. Russell brings Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who invites Helen to play the role of "Julie" in his upcoming musical play, Show Boat . After a successful opening night a few months later, Helen's performance is highly praised. At the party, Whitey's jealous girl friend gossips that Russell put up the money for her club. When Helen confronts Russell about it, he reluctantly admits he wanted to help her. Believing that Larry used her to get Russell's financial backing, Helen fights with Larry and tells him that she loves Russell. Larry slaps her and leaves, saying he is "too proud to beg a dame for anything." Unhappy, Helen performs nightly at the nightclub and at the theater, drinks heavily and takes sleeping pills. She also spends money on her friends faster than she makes it. After reading a quote in a book about a candle burning at both ends that "gives a lovely light" for a short time, she vows to pull herself together. Then, Russell's wife, concerned that his name being linked with Helen's in gossip columns will affect her adversely, demands that Helen stay away from him, warning that she will never divorce him. Helen sadly realizes that she must give up her "best friend." After Helen's club is raided and vandalized by federal agents, Larry finds Helen drinking alone in the debris and resiliently talks about his plans for a "Helen Morgan Summerhouse." Still feeling haunted, she rejects his plan and instead embarks on a tour, during which she performs in major European cities. Although her tour is successful, the 1929 stock market crash breaks her financially. Ben and Dolly now own a nightclub, the Gold Spoon, but it is faring poorly due to the Depression. Because Ben is experiencing financial difficulties, Larry is able to convince him to help rob Whitey's warehouse, but the robbery turns out to be a set-up in which Larry is shot. Afterward, Helen gets a call from Ben, informing her that Larry is hiding from the police at the Gold Spoon and near death. Upon seeing Larry, Helen fears for his life and makes the difficult decision to call for an ambulance, knowing that the doctor will report him to the police. Later, in jail, Larry refuses a reporter's bribe to talk about the connection between Helen and Russell, who is now prominent in political and legal circles. Helen's career declines after she drunkenly falls "flat on her face" at a performance. Concerned, Russell finds Helen drinking in a Harlem bar, but is unable to stop her self-destruction. Later, at another seedy bar, Helen hears one of her recordings on the radio and is ridiculed when she claims that she is the famous Helen Morgan. After collapsing in the street, she is taken to Bellevue Hospital, where, suffering delirium tremens and bad memories, she calls for Larry. Larry visits her, urging her to fight back and for the first time tells her that he loves her, while a sympathetic policeman who is a fan of Helen's waits to escort him back to Sing Sing. Later, when Larry is released, he tells the deeply depressed Helen that now she "comes first" and takes her to the building housing the old Helen Morgan Club, where friends are waiting to toast her. There, reporter Walter Winchell sums up the 1920s as an "era of mistakes" and adds that Helen made some of the biggest. He then talks about her talent and generosity, and describes her as "a grand gal on a grand piano."
Walter Woolf King
Peggy De Castro
Cherie De Castro
Babette De Castro
Norma Jean Estell
B. G. Desylva
Oscar Hammerstein Ii
E. Y. Harburg
Louis A. Hirsch
James P. Johnson
Francis J. Scheid
Richard A. Whiting
P. G. Wodehouse
The Helen Morgan Story
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
The Helen Morgan Story
TCM Remembers Paul Newman (1925-2008) - Important Schedule Change for Paul Newman Tribute
Sunday, October 12
Sunday, October 12 Program for TCM
6:00 AM The Rack
8:00 AM Until They Sail
10:00 AM Torn Curtain
12:15 PM Exodus
3:45 PM Sweet Bird of Youth
6:00 PM Hud
8:00 PM Somebody Up There Likes Me
10:00 PM Cool Hand Luke
12:15 AM Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
2:15 AM Rachel, Rachel
4:00 AM The Outrage
TCM Remembers Paul Newman (1925-2008)
Paul Newman, with his electric blue eyes and gutsy willingness to play anti-heroes, established himself as one of the movies' great leading men before settling into his latter-day career of flinty character acting. Born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1925, Newman studied at the Yale Drama School and New York's Actors Studio before making his Broadway debut in Picnic.
Newman's breakthrough in films came in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), in which he played boxer Rocky Graziano. He quickly reinforced his reputation in such vehicles as The Rack (1956) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), for which he won the first of nine Oscar® nominations as an actor.
In 1958, while shooting The Long Hot Summer (1958) - which earned him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival - in Louisiana, he became re-acquainted with Joanne Woodward, who was the film's female lead. The two soon fell in love, and after divorcing Jackie, Newman and Woodward were married in Las Vegas in 1958. The couple appeared in numerous films together and had three daughters, which they raised far from Hollywood in the affluent neighborhood of Westport, CT.
The 1960s was a fruitful decade for Newman, who starred in such hits as Exodus (1960), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969); and scored Oscar® nominations for The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963) and Cool Hand Luke (1967).
Newman's political activism also came to the forefront during the sixties, through tireless campaigning for Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign. His association with McCarthy led to his being named on future President Richard Nixon's infamous "Opponents List;" Newman, who ranked #19 out of 20, later commented that his inclusion was among the proudest achievements of his career.
Newman's superstar status - he was the top-ranking box office star in 1969 and 1970 - allowed him to experiment with film roles during the 1970s, which led to quirky choices like WUSA (1970), Sometimes a Great Notion (1971), Pocket Money (1972), and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) - all of which he also produced through First Artists, a company he established with fellow stars Sidney Poitier and Barbra Streisand.
After coming close to winning an Oscar® for Absence of Malice (1981), Newman finally won the award itself for The Color of Money (1986). He also received an honorary Oscar® in 1986 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994. A producer and director as well as an actor, Newman has directed his wife (and frequent costar) Joanne Woodward through some of her most effective screen performances [Rachel, Rachel (1968), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)].
He remained active as an actor in his later years, playing the Stage Manager in Our Town on both stage and television, lending his voice to the animated features Cars (2006) and Mater and the Ghostlight (2006). Off-screen, Newman set the standard for celebrity-driven charities with his Newman's Own brand of foods, which brought $200 million to causes, and the Hole in the Wall Gang camp for seriously ill children.
TCM Remembers Paul Newman (1925-2008) - Important Schedule Change for Paul Newman Tribute Sunday, October 12
The working titles of the film were Why Was I Born?, The Jazz Age and Both Ends of the Candle. After the opening credits, voice-over narration describes the 1920s as a "wild reckless decade that spawned the speakeasy and the bootlegger," jazz and "get-rich-quick schemes." The Hollywood Reporter and Motion Picture Herald reviews list the running time of the film as 127 minutes. The Variety review reports that it is 117 minutes and the copyright record states that it is 118. The viewed print was 117 minutes. Although copyright records refer to the club "Wade Russell" and "Larry Maddux" set up for "Helen Morgan" as "The House of Morgan," onscreen the club is called "The Helen Morgan Club." "First Fig," the poem about the candle burning at both ends that was quoted by Morgan in the film, was written by Edna St. Vincent Millay and first published in 1918.
According to an October 1956 Los Angeles Times article, during the casting search to fill the title role, many women were considered, among them: Jennifer Jones, Patti Page, Susan Hayward, Dani Crayne, Helen Grayco, Jaye P. Morgan, Keeley Smith, Peggy Lee, Doris Day and fashion model Nancy Berg. A February 1957 Los Angeles Mirror article announced that Ann Blyth was cast against type after a six-month search involving thirty-two contenders, and an October 1957 Los Angeles Examiner news item reported that the decision was protested by Morgan's fans and friends. In the March 1957 Los Angeles Times article, director Michael Curtiz defended his choice to cast Blyth and use popular singer Gogi Grant to dub the songs, despite the fact that neither Blyth's looks nor Grant's voice were similar to the real Morgan. Blyth was chosen for her dramatic ability, he explained. Although Grant's style is different than Morgan's, he said that "the kind of high-pitched, low-voiced torch singing [Morgan] used to do wouldn't go over today; it's outmoded."
Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items add the following performers to the cast: Sybil Jason, Vici Raaf, Art Lewis, Fred Kelsey, Forbes Murray, and Julie Dorsey, the daughter of musician Tommy Dorsey. A modern source adds Betty Blythe to the cast.
As depicted in the film, Helen Morgan (1900-1941) went from a broken home in Danville, IL, to become one of the original torch singers. Singing sad songs from on top of a piano, she became rich and famous during the prohibition era of the 1920s. Despite the mesmerizing affect she had on her audiences and her many admirers, her career declined due to alcoholism and emotional instability several years before her untimely death.
Many of the events in the film are true: During the "Roaring Twenties," Morgan won a Canadian beauty contest, then sang in Chicago and, later, New York speakeasies and nightclubs. In New York she began her trademark of singing on top of a piano, which, according to some stories, started due to the crowded conditions in which she performed. In 1926, she won great acclaim for her portrayal of "Julie" in the ground-breaking Jerome Kern musical Show Boat and, although not shown in the film, performed in several other Broadway shows. From the late 1920s through the mid-1930s, Morgan also appeared in several films, including two versions of Show Boat (1929 and 1937, see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30 and 1931-40) in which she recreated her most famous role. Like many other celebrities of the era, she lost her fortune through a combination of carelessness and the 1929 stock market crash.
Although the character of Larry Maddux is fictional, the film was true in spirit to Morgan's love life, as she was never able to attain the security of a long-term, committed relationship. She was, in fact, loved by many men and had affairs with several. A March 1957 Los Angeles Times article quoted Curtiz as remarking that the censors "'wouldn't have allowed' her real story to be told, because she `always selected the wrong man-and she selected many.'" Curtiz described the Warner Bros. version of Morgan's life as "glorified." Although the film ends on a hopeful note in 1941, the real Morgan died penniless six months later, at the age of forty-one, in New York's Bellevue Hospital. According to the Los Angeles Times article, the comedian Joe E. Lewis paid for Morgan's lavish funeral.
According to the New York Times review, Warner Bros. was interested in doing a film about Morgan's life as early as 1942. The March 1957 Los Angeles Times article reported that the studio had owned rights to her story since 1943, although a June 1949 Variety news item announced that an independent company, Fidelity Pictures, planned to shoot a film on Morgan starring Paulette Goddard in the lead role.
Although Martin Rackin was ultimately listed onscreen as the producer, an August 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Richard Whorf was earlier assigned the task. As noted in a March 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item, Frank P. Rosenberg was also producer of an earlier script, and a total of twenty writers worked on the script at various times. A July 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that novelist Sally Benson would write the final script. However, as noted in several contemporary news items, only four writers-Oscar Saul, Dean Reisner, Stephen Longstreet and Nelson Gidding-were given onscreen credit at the determination of the Screen Writers Guild, which was delegated by Warner Bros. to make the decision.
A February 1957 Los Angeles Mirror column reported that Paul Newman initially turned down the role of Larry Maddux until it was rewritten. As noted in the March 1957 Los Angeles Times article and Warner Bros. production notes, many of Morgan's contemporaries appear in the film: Fred Rapport, who appeared as a maitre d'hotel in the film, had been her partner at the Helen Morgan Avenue Club in New York; singer Rudy Vallee, columnist Walter Winchell, and Morgan's former accompanist and friend, composer Jimmy McHugh, have roles in the film. The character "Mark Hellinger," who was played by Warren Douglas in the film, was a real-life columnist in Morgan's day and became a well-known screenwriter. The Helen Morgan Story's choreographer, LeRoy Prinz, and actor Sammy White, who appears as a sympathetic waiter in the film, worked on the 1936 film version of Show Boat.
According to a September 1957 Variety news item, after Grant sued to break her contract with Era Records, the recording company sued RCA Victor and Warner Bros. over the rights to the soundtrack disks from The Helen Morgan Story. However, the court denied an injunction requested by Era to halt the distribution. Another drama based on Morgan's life was the April 1957 CBS-TV Playhouse 90 broadcast, also titled The Helen Morgan Story, but otherwise unrelated to the film.
Released in United States Fall October 1957
Released in United States Fall October 1957