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  Helen Morgan Story, The Draining Life's Bottle
Year: 1957
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Ann Blyth, Paul Newman, Richard Carlson, Gene Evans, Alan King, Cara Williams, Virginia Vincent, Walter Woolf King, Dorothy Green, Edward Platt, Warren Douglas, Sammy White, Jimmy McHugh, Rudy Vallee, Walter Winchell, Gogi Grant, Juanita Moore
Genre: Biopic, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Helen Morgan (Ann Blyth) was drawn to Chicago as a young woman, since that is where she believed, like so many before her, she could make a career for herself as a singer. She did end up there, but started in impoverished beginnings, performing with a small troupe in a sideshow where her innocence tended to work against her, especially when she was alongside her boss, Larry Maddux (Paul Newman). One night after having to call off another show, he seduced her, very nearly against her will, and the next day when she woke up, he was gone, leaving a brief "sorry" note. Helen would go onto greater success, but her paths would cross with Larry's over and over...

If ever there was a peach of a role for a leading lady of the nineteen-fifties, it was the suffering woman, and if that woman was a star, so much the better. If this tale of a real life torch singer sounds reminiscent to certain movie buffs of Doris Day's Love Me or Leave Me, there was a good reason for that as it had been planned as a follow-up to that hit, but she was uncomfortable playing an alcoholic and person of notoriously loose lifestyle, feeling it was not right for her image, and turned the role down outright. So who else would have been ideal? You're ahead of me: Judy Garland was approached to take the part, but she turned it down too, feeling it was too close to home.

Thus the role, having been previously essayed by Polly Bergen on television, was passed around until it landed with Blyth, who despite her strong religious convictions was not averse to playing women who were not always as moral as she was. Besides, Helen as written was more the victim of circumstance and presumably Blyth felt this was a chance to show off her pipes once again, having proven herself adept at singing before, and with a voice that was similar to the actual person she was portraying. Alas, Hollywood being what it was, she ended up dubbed by Gogi Grant for a more appropriate sound for the fifties, and the soundtrack album proceeded to become a big hit for Warner Brothers.

The movie? Not so much, and that may have been why Blyth opted to end her career as a film star after this one, concentrating on motherhood and occasional television roles for the remainder of her career. However, her acting here was nothing to be ashamed of, and she was obviously putting her heart and soul into the role, it was just a pity it never really took off at the box office, though it has become a minor cult movie, partly for her cinematic sufferings, and partly because it featured an early role for Newman, playing an absolute heel. This was Morgan's problem, diagnosed in the screenplay, not so much the boozing, more that she was in love with a married man (Richard Carlson as a producer) while attracted to the louse that was her manager, Larry. He was a composite character, and as expected there were liberties taken here.

Nevertheless, as a woman's picture these things appeal to cult film fans beyond the patent camp trappings. Director Michael Curtiz was of the old school, and had a number of undeniable classics under his belt, and this exhibited some of his magic (and the odd bit of shadowplay, his favourite trick), but it did mean in the age of the Method, he was a shade past it with performers like Newman, who clashed with him during the shoot. Blyth's screen life had been longer than his, and she certainly looked a lot more comfortable in this milieu, its drama straddling the worlds of the Golden Age and the new, troubled times for the studios to come, leaving it more mired in the film noir tone, demonstrated by its deep cynicism. Yes, it does end in a display of "show must go on" bullshit, but the real Morgan was dead by forty-one, far from a happy life, and Blyth's portrayals of her weaknesses are a lot more powerful knowing that. This was not as much of a travesty of her life as it could have been, we do see her suffer, but don't expect exacting accuracy and there were dark hearted pleasures to be taken from what was a bit of a wallow.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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