Diary of a Lost Girl

Diary of a Lost Girl, the second of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's productive collaborations with Louise Brooks, is a potent and gorgeously stylized depiction of an innocent young woman's destruction at the hands of the not-so-innocent. Brooks plays Thymian, a beautiful and sheltered pharmacist's daughter whose dawning realization about the cruel ways of the world coincides with the loss of the security of her family. The opening of the film enacts a lurid symbolic struggle between innocence and sin, naïveté and knowledge. Brooks' Thymian, dressed all in white on the occasion of her confirmation, her eyes wide beneath the iconic ridge of her dark bangs, looks around her with a complete lack of guile, sweetly accepting presents from family and friends, glowing with courtesy and grace.

She seems entirely unaware of all the sexually charged glances being exchanged all around her: the exaggerated leer of her father's assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp) who all but licks his lips and bulges his eyes like a cartoon wolf when he looks at her; her father's (Josef Rovensky) sexual liaisons with one maid after another; her aunt's (Vera Pawlowa) grim knowledge of these constant affairs; the knowing glances and raised eyebrows of the party guests when they see the new maid Meta (Franziska Kinz), who brazenly stares at her employer with an invitingly wicked smile that openly suggests that the cycle is going to start again. Everyone but Thymian seems to know exactly what's going on, but she is blissfully unaware of the sexual drama surrounding her.

In her pure white confirmation dress, a band of flowers wrapped around her head, she's a vision of innocence so pure and unstained that the mere realization that sin and sexual predation exist in her household produces a fainting spell, confining her to bed as though she's taken ill. She sees the corpse of her beloved maid — who'd committed suicide after being abandoned by Thymian's father — then runs up the stairs in a daze, sees her father with his arm already around the new maid, both of them staring at the camera in a frozen pose, a sly smile on the face of the new maid in contrast to the serene blankness of the dead girl downstairs, and in one fluid motion Thymian swoons to the floor, overcome by the taint of impurity infiltrating her home.

This is only the beginning of Thymian's suffering, as Meinert takes advantage of her vulnerability and rapes her. Pabst freezes the frame at the moment when the creepy druggist lowers Thymian's limp form into bed, and then immediately cuts to a baby carriage being taken out of Thymian's room, months later, carrying the fruit of that forceful union. Thymian's family casts her out, and she's sent to a reformatory, which she soon escapes with her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard), only to fall into a life of prostitution. The man she believes is going to save her, the disgraced and disinherited Count Osdorff (André Roanne), is actually a lazy and pathetic outcast who settles easily into a life of comfort at the brothel with Thymian and Erika. Pabst, though, doesn't portray the brothel as an entirely unpleasant life; the girls have fun and like each other, and Thymian certainly seems happier and better off there than she was under the care of the strict Christian moralists at the reformatory.

The reformatory is run by a stern mistress (Valeska Gert) whose usually stony face betrays an expression of ecstatic joy when whipping the girls through a frenzied gymnastics routine, and a bald-headed, looming movie monster giant (Andrews Engelmann) who first pops comically into the frame by standing up in front of a sign listing the many things that are "verboten" in this dismal place. This cartoonish giant delights in punishing the girls, grabbing them with a clawed hand at the scruff of their neck as though picking up a disobedient puppy, and his leering sadism is both creepy and hysterical — particularly when he runs a confiscated tube of lipstick across his own mouth, grinning impishly, then uses it to write a reminder to punish the girl he'd taken it from, a note signed with a heart to indicate his sadistic love of punishment.

Lesbian eroticism is another obvious subtext here, especially in the reformatory, where most of the girls have clipped, close-cropped boyish haircuts, and Erika introduces herself to Thymian by surreptitiously touching the new girl's leg with her foot and winking at her, echoing Meinert's leering winks. At bedtime, as Pabst pans down the line of girls getting ready for bed, two girls sit in the same bunk, giggling, and fall back into bed together. The scene where the matron tries to seize Thymian's diary is also loaded with suggestive intimacy, with the stern woman grabbing at Erika's bare legs, looking up at the two girls sitting in the top bunk, grasping at them with clawed hands. Later, when Thymian visits Erika at the brothel where she's staying, Pabst emphasizes the brothel's madame putting an intimate hand on the bare back of one of her girls — the gesture is repeated when the madame pushes Thymian together with a male client to dance — and then has Erika kneel before Thymian, taking off her shoes and undressing her, unbuttoning her demure reformatory blouse with its high collar to expose a V of flesh at her neck.

The film is steeped in this kind of sexual suggestiveness. Thymian's downfall has everything to do with sex and money, and sex and money come to be linked in very intimate ways for her. After her first night at the brothel, after she's spent the night with a man — swooning in his arms so that her limp form very much recalls her unconsciousness during Meinert's exploitation of her — the madame hands her an envelope of cash and makes it clear that it's from the man. Only then does the very naïve Thymian realize what's happened, and she recoils from the cash, which Pabst nevertheless emphasizes in a closeup. Much later, when her father dies and she receives an inheritance from Meinert for buying out the pharmacy, the camera glances from the pile of cash to Meinert's smug, cartoonishly grinning face, making it seem as though this too is a transaction, a belated payment for that long ago night when he'd taken her to bed.

It's not all grim tragedy here, though, and there's some limited comedy relief along the way. Among the humorous scenes is a very strange sequence where a goofy guy with a billy-goat beard (a possible anti-Semitic caricature) comes to see Thymian for "dance lessons," and she leads him in a bizarre calisthenic workout inspired by her reformatory exercise drills, while holding a drum protectively/suggestively over her crotch and beating it with a mallet in the way the reformatory mistress had done. The sexual symbolism is especially naked here, but those undercurrents are everywhere in this film.

The plot unravels a bit towards the end with a predictable tonal shift towards an optimistic, redemptive conclusion, seemingly foisted upon Pabst by censors eager to end on a positive note after all this barely coded sex. Even here, though, Pabst's emotional poetry shines through. The film is never less than beautiful, its style fluid and expressionist while also remaining grounded in social realism. And Brooks is just magnificent, with a beautiful and vibrant face that was perfectly suited to the silent cinema. When she smiles, the screen glows, and when she's suffering her eyes seem to contain unimaginable depths of feeling, often assisted by Pabst's very sympathetic photography of her, as in the stunning shot where she stares out a rain-streaked window, the raindrops on the glass standing in for her tears.

Posted in Cinema

Magnificent Obsession

Douglas Sirk was a master of the lurid Hollywood melodrama, transcending often outrageous and contrived material with the sheer force of the emotion and the visual rigor that he invested in these stories. In films like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, Sirk found profundity and great beauty in what would have been trash in the hands of others. In Magnificent Obsession, a forerunner to the Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson pairing of All That Heaven Allows, not even Sirk can truly transcend what must be one of the worst plots and the worst screenplays in Hollywood history, a ridiculous pile-up of contrivances and silly plot twists in the service of a saccharine Christian-themed drama. It's a clunky and deeply strange film, and its absurd narrative prevents it from ever really being great, though Sirk's mise en scène and keen eye for painting in Technicolor elevate it at least to the level of a campy, emotionally intense tearjerker.

The story concerns the redemption of the callow playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), who gets a wake-up call when his boating accident indirectly causes the death of a prominent, well-loved local doctor because an important piece of medical equipment was being used to treat Bob when the doctor had a heart attack. Bob falls in love with the doctor's widow Helen (Jane Wyman), but his clumsy attempts to pursue her — using a bastardized version of the philosophy of Christian charity practiced by her husband, and taught to Bob by the husband's friend Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) — only results in further tragedy, when an accident leaves Helen blind. It's soapy in the extreme, particularly when Bob dedicates his life to medicine, becoming a doctor and using his wealth and his knowledge in an attempt to cure Helen's blindness even as he courts the blind woman (who apparently doesn't recognize his voice) under the laughable assumed name of Robby Robinson. Once one starts trying to pick apart the plot, it's difficult to stop, so it's best to just let it be, to try to overlook the unending cavalcade of absurdities and foolishness and sudden emotional reversals, to focus instead on the undeniably rapturous power of Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty's images, which are as always some of the finest examples of Technicolor extravagance.

Sirk makes this insane plot come alive with the sensuous power of his images. Resonating with the theme of literal and metaphorical blindness, Sirk continually bathes the characters in alternating blocks of light and shadow, draping the film in darkness. Walking across a room, they step into the light for a moment and are then swallowed up again in darkness, the shadows falling across faces and erasing features into black silhouettes in the night. For all his obvious love of bright, pastel colors, Sirk seems equally at home in inky blackness, stretching shadows across the frame so that the characters are perpetually shuttling back and forth between seeing and unseeing, between flashes of light and dark pools in which nothing can be seen. When Helen visits Switzerland for a barrage of tests with some famed eye surgeons, her face is totally profiled in shadow until the doctor pans a small light across her face, highlighting each of her eyes in turn, creating a tiny circle of light, a pinprick reflected in her shining eye.

This approach reaches its apex with the scene where Bob takes Helen out for a romantic evening. The whole sequence is draped in these kinds of shadows, simultaneously creating a sumptuously romantic mood and suggesting a visual analogue for Helen's blindness, the darkness all around them shading their faces, hiding them from one another. As they dance together, they twirl and their faces are alternately shaded and lit up, passing in and out of the shadows with each turn. Sirk's aesthetic has a meticulousness that works against the raw, oversized emotions of his material. At one point, Helen, blind, picks her way across a darkened room, carefully feeling for obstacles and making her way slowly through the shadow-strewn room, until she comes to a balcony where her extended hand knocks a potted plant off the ledge. The camera follows the plant's fall down to the street below, where it shatters with a loud crack, triggering Helen's breakdown at precisely that instant, as though a starter's pistol had been fired.

In another scene, when Bob is about to perform the climactic surgery that will inevitably restore Helen's sight and redeem him from his careless and wasteful past, he hesitates until he looks up to the viewing gallery, where he sees Randolph, this film's kindly incarnation of God, looking down on them with a benevolent smile, the operating table and the doctors around it reflected in the glass around Randolph. He then steps away, satisfied that Bob will perform this task, and Sirk holds the shot of the now-empty viewing gallery, the operating room still reflected in it, visually communicating that God has done his work of inspiration, and the rest of the task must be left to the hands of man.

The film is rich in this kind of loaded visual symbolism. Sirk often transcends the frankly stupid plot with the sheer emotional power of his images, which crackle with vitality and feeling even when the twists and turns of the script barely make a bit of sense. But, even though Sirk often worked with such lousy material, and routinely transformed it into masterpieces, here, for whatever reason, he can't quite perform that miracle. The result is a film that's as visually beautiful as one would expect, and often seething with raw and over-the-top emotion, but never comes together on the multiple levels that characterize Sirk's best work.

Posted in Cinema

Under Capricorn

Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn is one of the director's more divisive films, but it certainly doesn't deserve its unflattering reputation. This lavish period melodrama, set in 1800s Australia, might be deliberately paced, but it's as emotionally, psychologically and formally complex as any of the director's best work. The core of the film is a twisted three-way relationship that develops between the wealthy ex-convict Sam (Joseph Cotten), his disturbed, alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman), and Charles (Michael Wilding), who had known Hattie as a boy in Ireland and claims to Sam that he can awaken Hattie from her self-destructive, near-insane mental state. Indeed, the charming Charles is able to shake Hattie out of her stasis and mental collapse, but he also preys on her, seducing her away from her husband even as he cures her. Sam watches this situation unfold, glowering and brooding, under the watchful eye of his maid Milly (Margaret Leighton), who obviously desires Sam and resents his wife. There's a dark history here that slowly, patiently unfurls, but the emphasis throughout is not really on narrative, past or present, but on the churning, potent emotions of the protagonists and the engulfing visual style that Hitchcock springs like a trap around the characters.

Hitchcock made this film immediately after the long-take formal experiment of Rope, and he applies a similar aesthetic here, albeit not quite as rigorously. This was Hitchcock's only collaboration with Powell/Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose sumptuous use of color and glossy, unreal aesthetic is a perfect complement to Hitchcock, and especially to the particular qualities of this lush period drama. Using the unbroken take style of Rope, Hitchcock and Cardiff hold shots for minutes at a time, the camera unmoored, drifting around the rooms of Sam's palatial home, its gentle movements subtly but definitively defining the relationships between the characters. Who's in the frame and who's not means everything in this film, particularly in terms of the central love triangle, as Charles' friendship with and seduction of Hattie increasingly pushes her own husband out of the picture, shunting him off to the side.

In the first scene where Charles and Hattie meet, she wanders, drunk and dazed, into one of her husband's dinner parties and sits down at the head of the table. Charles holds her chair for her and then sits next to her, leaving his own spot at the table. Once Charles sits down by Hattie's side, it's as though there's no longer anyone else at the table; Hitchcock maintains a two-shot of them as she reminiscences about the past, occasionally glancing across the table, presumably at her unseen husband, but Hitchcock doesn't cut away, doesn't show the reaction of the others to this immediate intimacy, doesn't show anyone else or have anyone else even talk again until Hattie stands up and the camera tracks to follow her, past the others at the table, as Charles walks her to the staircase leading back to her room.

Later, when Hattie dictates a letter to Charles' sister, Hitchcock again keeps the camera on the two of them, Sam forgotten outside the frame, until the camera begins tracking away from Charles and Hattie, past her husband's now abandoned place setting, through the empty room, finally finding Sam, walking away, his back to the camera, in the hallway, as the image fades to black. It's as though, when Charles and Hattie are together, everything else fades away, forgotten, the triangle becoming a two-shot, the room emptying off-camera. Hitchcock and Cardiff have a way of shooting the scenes between Hattie and Charles so that even if someone's standing right next to them, it feels like they're all alone.

In a subsequent scene, Milly, who'd been fired, returns while Charles and Hattie go out to the ball together, again leaving Sam behind. Hitchcock holds a very long and mostly static take as the maid chatters away, delivering her passive-aggressive patter about Hattie, her voice full of gossipy insinuation. The frame slowly constricts and expands as Sam wanders in and out of view, sometimes glowering in the background, sometimes strolling towards the camera, his face dark. All the while, Milly's barely disguised bile dominates the soundtrack, and she remains the visual center of the shot, but it's Sam's darkening expression and stalking walk that actually serve as the scene's viscerally felt focus even when he's peripheral or outside the frame altogether. Only at the very end of the scene, the end of the shot, does Sam finally step forward into the foreground of the frame, and Milly's voice fades away, his anger finally blotting out her words.

There's another fantastic long take when Hattie tells the story of her past with Sam. The camera maintains a medium distance as she paces around the room, and the camera glides with her, often with Charles' head in the foreground of the frame, placing the spectator in his position as he listens to her. She often resists facing him, though, showing the camera her profile more than her full face, which makes the sudden closeup, when she confesses to shooting her brother, all the more startling: the camera suddenly floats upwards and presses in at precisely the moment when she steps forward and leans into the shot, nearly facing the camera for her confessional moment. It's especially striking because immediately afterward she returns to avoiding this direct, forward-facing manner, turning her profile to the camera or turning away altogether, looking up, down, anywhere but straight-on.

This patient, elegant style pays off especially well in the final act, when all the long-bubbling resentments and conflicted emotions come to the surface in an eerie, dreamlike climax. Hattie, returning to her drunken hysteria after a series of dramatic twists and turns, sinks back into her isolation, terrified of the horrifying things she imagines seeing around her room. As Sam tucks Hattie in and comforts her, there's a long, rumbling roll of thunder that sounds like a blown-out speaker, and it continues to roar throughout the nightmarish scenes in which Hattie discovers a ghoulish shrunken head in her bed and collapses, with Hitchcock suggesting the passage of time afterwards with a gorgeous image of a rain-streaked window superimposed over the unconscious woman's face. This whole sequence is haunting and gorgeous, with every detail heightened: the single beaded tear glistening on Hattie's cheek, the tracking shot along the rough terrain of the pillowcase and bedsheets, the continued rolling of the thunder, the sinister tinkling of Milly's keys as she creeps around the room, the light glinting off the poisoned glass that's so resonant of other sinister drinks in Hitchcock's oeuvre.

It's a dream, a nightmare, and the subsequent scenes in which the plot begins reversing gears to move inexorably towards a happy resolution have the feeling of waking up from a dream, finally shaking off the narcotized slumber that afflicted these characters and kept them trapped in a recurring cycle of self-destruction and recrimination. Under Capricorn is a stylish and beautiful movie, its aesthetic seductive and hypnotic, with a psychological complexity that makes it enthralling throughout.

Posted in Cinema

The Year of Ann Blyth – Finale

“She simply does not like to talk about herself.  That is perhaps her most unusual characteristic—her reserve.  She’s a great introvert.  It’s as though there was a wall around her.” -- Roddy McDowall, Screenland, March 1951

Her longtime friend, Roddy McDowall, knew her from that bitter period after her mother’s death and photographed her so tenderly decades later when they were both in their sixties.  Presumably, he knew her better by then.

In those later years she once described herself in an interview as still “A work in progress.”

This is our final post in the Year of Ann Blyth series.

From our first post back in January:

…if you know Ann Blyth only through her frothy MGM musicals, you don't know Ann Blyth.  In dramas she has morphed into the epitome of hateful, sensual, heartbroken, and shamed.  If you know her only as the demon teen Veda in Mildred Pierce, you don't know Ann Blyth.  The same colossal greedy train wreck of a girl who spit invective at Joan Crawford and smacked her in the jaw also performed a night club act to enthusiastic crowds in Las Vegas, bringing them to tears with the sentimental "Auld Lang Syne" and sang at the California state fair.  If you only know her from The Helen Morgan Story or melodramas, you are missing her genuine gift for screwball comedy.  Sinking herself intellectually, just as much as emotionally into these roles, she swims against the powerful and unrelenting current of studio typecasting. 

After more than 50 posts and more than 150,000 words, I still don’t know Ann Blyth.  There is much about her that intrigues me yet, because it remains below the surface, only rising in sudden, instant epiphanies of delighted recognition.  That I don’t really know who she is—that’s okay with me.  With deference perhaps unusual, and usually undesired, in a biographer—though I never intended to be one—I am content to leave her personal life to her.  I don’t need to know her, because I know her characters.

I know Killer Connell and Rosemarie Lemaitre.  I know Gail McCauley and Regina Hubbard.  I know the enigmatic mermaid, Lenore.  I know Veda Pierce.  We know them.

Ann Blyth’s deft and emotionally transparent portrayals of these people demonstrate not just an extraordinary depth and versatility in her acting, but perceptive intellect and genuine empathy.

One factor in keeping this series to her professional life and not her personal life is my irritation on the irony that most biographies and autobiographies of films stars have a frustrating habit of actually giving short shrift to the movies they made.  Often we’ll slog through narratives of multiple marriages or liaisons, and the occasional bar fight to finally come upon the film we love…and the writer comments only:  “And then he did such and such a film.”  And then we move on to another anecdote about who he insulted or was insulted by at a party.

That’s it?  I waded through generations of his family tree, his childhood fear of cereal, and how his father never took him to the circus—which is why you hypothesize he has a problem with commitment (and other assorted jerry-rigged “dime store Freud”)—just so I could read about his movies, and you’re not going to talk about them?!  Why, I oughta…

Granted, if Ann Blyth had beaten up several people at Ciro’s, quite possibly that would have made an interesting chapter.  (Picturing a 5’2” drunken young Ann clubbing an equally drunken and combative Errol Flynn mercilessly on the skull with a belaying pin she has stolen from the set of The World in His Arms.  Hmm.  Yes, that has possibilities.)

Most film fans are interested in the private lives of their favorite stars, that is only human.  Because it is a natural and common interest, invading the privacy of celebrities has become a profitable industry. 

But for the most part, the gossip of scandals or the name-dropping in film star biographies bores me silly as something not merely gratuitous, but juvenile.  I readily accept that film stars are human beings, and so take for granted with the utmost compassionate understanding that most of them are probably sleeping with someone…just who is irrelevant to me.  We have all experienced or been exposed to divorce, infidelity, financial ruin, and rude remarks at parties, and maybe even thrown a punch or two, etc.  (Even if we never settled an argument with a belaying pin.)  But I don’t know anyone who took a bow on a Broadway stage with Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine at the age of 12.  I don’t know anyone who reported to the makeup department where Bud Westmore turned her into a mermaid.  This is what really interests me, the nuts and bolts of the job, because it is quite beyond my realm of experience. 

So this is where I’ve chosen to focus.

Her job as an actress included many years in radio, (another facet that most film biographers tend to ignore, and so I wanted to cover it here), along with her TV and stage work (which usually also rates little discussion, included usually only by authors who arrogantly and ignorantly dismiss the rigors of summer stock and the joy it brings to people who can’t possibly travel to Broadway as a fallen actor’s laboring in obscurity).  These venues show not only how Ann Blyth mined opportunities and surfed the currents of change in her decades-long career, but show what was happening to actors in the twentieth century, how entertainment became an “industry” and how the “entertainment industry” evolved—and how it left many behind.

To a great extent, the careers of performing artists are the sum total of their press.  This is why, in part, I’ve relied upon magazine and news articles of the day to illustrate her place as it evolved in the entertainment industry and the media.  I’ve tried to avoid using information I could not verify, for as all who’ve researched history from popular sources know, wrong facts are continually perpetuated either by the ignorant use of past writers' errors, or else frank laziness.  Instead, I’ve tried to use these sources more as a window on the world in which Ann Blyth forged her career and lived her life, and what her contemporary critics and audience thought of her. 

The old Hollywood studio system certainly knew the value of publicity and worked hard to create it, exploit it, and at times, manipulate it to their best advantage.  Occasionally, an actor-employee would come along who would not cooperate, or proved to be a particular challenge.

A young woman whose stunningly sensual appeal on screen, but whose private life was a hotbed of church activities was, amusingly, a conundrum for them, and perhaps as well for the audience.  It was hard to package a devout vixen, and the “nice girl” image sometimes worked against her professionally, even if it gave her a satisfying private life.

In the very first post of this series back in January, I quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

 “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

In 1949, columnist Ida Jean Kain wrote of Ann:

She is poised and genuinely unaffected…and in a quiet, confident way, she knows where she is going, and she is neither deviating nor taking short cuts.

What fascinates me about that statement is it was made so early in her career, she was 20 years old at the time, and rang completely true, and would remain true.  She, with remarkable constancy, knew indeed where she was going or wanted to go…yet decades later, it would be asked, as it often is of actors….“Whatever happened to…?” 

What ever happened to Ann Blyth?

So, where did she go?

That many of her films are not available on DVD and because of the whole murky Universal “vault” legal quagmire, most are not being shown on TCM, much of her work has been forgotten by younger generations.  So, just what did happen between Mildred Pierce and The Helen Morgan Story? 

A lot, and beyond.  It is a story of variety and versatility, and constant new challenge. There is so much richness to discover in her films, so much that she attempted and mastered in her career, and I hope this series has been a launching pad for others to rediscover this marvelous actress.  I hope it will at least help put to rest the image of Ann Blyth only as the super-brat Veda Pierce and “that actress who was dubbed in The Helen Morgan Story and then retired.”  Here I quote from my discussion on my pal John Hayes’ blog Robert Frost’s Banjo a few months ago:

This woman had been the flavor of the month all through the late 1940s and most of the 1950s, on enough magazine covers to choke a horse, and as famous in her day as any young star could be.   Today, she is nowhere to be seen in that kitschy souvenir shop universe where classic film fans can easily snag T-shirts and coffee cups and posters of Clark Gable and The Three Stooges, Mae West and Betty Boop, and, of course, the ever-exploitable Marilyn Monroe.  

Where was Ann Blyth?  She never retired from performing.  She had, unlike most other stars of that era, performed in all media from radio to TV to stage, and was successful in all of them.    Far, far more talented than any other 1950s glamour girl, yet she is not as well known today among younger classic film fans.  I wanted to know why.

Paradoxically, among those older fans whom  I’ve heard from in the past year, Ann Blyth is remembered with deep and abiding love, with an admiration and wistful, sweet affection I have not heard expressed for other stars.  I wanted to know why.

This has been an extraordinary journey for me, both professionally and personally.  Last summer, 2013, when I first kicked around the idea of writing a series of blog posts on Ann Blyth’s movies, and then decided to stretch the series to cover not only her films, but also her stage, radio and TV work, and to have the series last the entire year of 2014—I did not expect this series, and this actress, would become so important to me, for quite personal reasons.  I’ve marveled how Ann has accepted sorrow and suffering and success with her hope, faith, and dignity intact, and remained a kindly and gentle person. 

I think sometimes for a writer (or artist, or photographer, etc.) your subject picks you.  This series came along at the right time for me.

Again quoting from my interview on John’s blog.

I think I am even more awed by how hard one must work to get anywhere in the business, and how much luck is involved, how much is due to the help and contribution of others from makeup, publicity, and anyone in the production end willing to go to bat for a performer, and how much is out of one’s hands.  Ann always appreciated her contract with Universal, but the studio did not always showcase her in the best movies.  On the one hand, she enjoyed a variety of genres and experiences.  On the other hand, there was no clear and strong trajectory to her path.  She controlled as much of her course as she could with admirable prudence.  What she could not control, she handled with quiet resolution.

What I admire most about Ann Blyth, above and apart from her skill as an actress and talent as a singer, is what appears to be an innate sense of the importance of balance and self-discipline, despite riding that mind-bending, gut-twisting pendulum of great highs and crushing lows in her profession.  And also, in a funny contrast to the picture of serenity she exudes, what I sense to be a fire-in-the-belly ambition and a gutsy spirit of adventure.
I have not touched upon her personal life too deeply in the series for another practical reason that, without interviewing her, or those closest to her, I am ill-equipped to discuss it.  Speculation is for fiction.  In non-fiction, it is the mark of a hack writer.

I have not addressed in-depth her religious faith, again, because I intended to focus on her career.  I’m also aware that any mention of religion is likely to raise the hackles of an audience who fears being preached to, and my intention is certainly not to proselytize.  Not everyone is able to discuss, or read about with a detached attitude another person’s religious faith.  On the contrary, it inevitably excites some strong emotion, positive or negative.  But not to have addressed her faith at all would have been ignoring the elephant in the room, so profound an influence it has had on her life, a motivating force since early childhood.

An actress lives many lives.  First, there are the scores of roles that overshadow her real self.  Then, as part of the business rather than the art, a necessary wearing of different hats: publicity, training in the craft, being the CEO of the image that has been created.  If actors are particularly fortunate, there is a private life, a family to nurture and to be nurtured by in turn.  But even apart from the family, there is another private chamber of the soul belonging to all of us.  For some, it is a rich haven of memory and experience, hope, dreams, and spirituality.  For some, it is, sadly, a black hole of emptiness to be desperately escaped in any way possible.

In the past few years, possibly as part of the Turner Classic Movies parade of movie star resurrections—but most especially because of its frequent airing of Mildred Pierce—interviewers of Ann Blyth inevitably want to know what it was like to slap Joan Crawford.  It is the question she gets asked most these days.  Had Christina Crawford's tell-all book Mommie Dearest never been written, I doubt it would occur to anyone to ask that--Ann had slapped and been slapped in other performances.  I sometimes wonder if Ann thinks to herself, bravely smiling at the interviewer, “I worked my ass off for eighty years, and this is all they remember?”

I would have had many questions for her about her work, and her impressions of her career journey, what she learned from colleagues and who inspired her.

But the last one, I think it would be this:

You once played the character Emily in Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town on stage.  There is a scene where Emily, in spirit, is allowed to revisit a scene from her childhood, to move around her loved ones without them noticing, so the she can look upon again all the miraculous minutiae of everyday life and discover how precious they are.  It is a joyous and bittersweet moment, painful in its simple honesty.

If you were allowed to have the power to re-visit a similar scene in your own childhood, perhaps the apartment where you lived in New York with your mother and older sister, during the Depression, before that tap on the shoulder by Herman Shumlin and Lillian Hellman that brought you to Watch on the Rhine on Broadway, what would you see there?  If you could speak to your child self, 11-year-old “Anne”, what might you say?

I conclude this series by giving Ann Blyth the last word.  This clip is from an interview, when Miss Blyth was 84 years old, with Scott Feinberg at The Hollywood Reporter on the occasion of her participation as a guest at the 2013 TCM Film Fest:


I never envisioned at the outset, collecting these blog posts into a book, though some of you very early on, with far more imagination than I, suggested this.  I think the first was Java’s Journey last summer before the series even started.  Java, if you are also able to predict winning lottery numbers, drop me a line.  I could use a million bucks right now.

The book will be published summer 2015, and will include more material that is not in these posts.  You may recall, as I do with a certain degree of embarrassment, my failed Kickstarter campaign this last August to raise funds to obtain the rights of copyrighted photos.  My sincere thanks, again, to those of you who were willing to donate if it came to that.  I know the sacrifice was not easy for all, and that makes your gesture all the more honored by me.

I’m grateful to many long-time fans of Ann Blyth.  I know that she answers fan mail, but some too shy to write to her have contacted me, wanting to share their own strong feelings about her.  I think that’s moved me more than anything.

One reason I wanted to do this series is to honor an actress who is still with us, that she may know how much her work is respected and loved.  Too often we wait for posthumous tributes to show our appreciation.

Some fifty-plus posts after this series began, I find myself still interested, and eager to work on the book.  But I need a bit of downtime from this blog to get some stuff done, so I’m taking several weeks off.  I’ll see you on Thursday, February 5th for another year of Another Old Movie Blog, and back to posting on a variety of movies and subjects.

Until then, I wish all who celebrate a very Merry Christmas, and Happy Hanukkah, and to everybody a very happy and healthy, and peaceful New Year.

Thank you for the pleasure of your company.


Miami News, July 16, 1949, column by Ida Jean Kain.

THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and actor/singer/author Bill Hayes.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.


Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from The Dennis Day Show (TV), The DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 


A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.

Posted in Old Movie Blog

The Helen Morgan Story – 1957

The Helen Morgan Story (1957) is one of Ann Blyth’s best dramatic performances, indeed, the hospital scene is astonishing—more on that later—but she is remembered in this movie more for what seems viewed as an ignominious indictment of having her singing voice dubbed by Gogi Grant.  This was the last film Ann Blyth ever made.  Because the movie, for several valid reasons, has a reputation of not being as good as it could have been, and because she was dubbed, both the film and the conclusion of Ann Blyth’s film career seems shackled to an aura of defeat. 

This is unfortunate—and ridiculous.  Today we will take a good look at The Helen Morgan Story, Helen Morgan, and Ann Blyth.

And Gogi Grant, and Polly Bergen.  And Michael Curtiz and Martin Rackin and Jack Warner.

This may be the longest blog post you ever read in your life.  Take off your shoes.  Turn off your cell phone.  Leave a forwarding address.

Helen Morgan - Library of Congress, Prints & 
Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection

Helen Morgan was one of the most renowned singers of the 1920s.  She was enormously popular with the public, and beloved by those who knew her.  Despite a rise to fame from a girl with an eighth grade education learning to sing torch songs in Chicago speakeasies at the beginning of the decade, to starring on Broadway and even appearing in Hollywood films by the end of the decade, it is still difficult, exactly, to call her a success.

Helen Morgan was a shy, anxious young woman, who craved affection and belonging, but who made bad choices, suffered bad relationships,and could only find the approval of adoring audiences by wallowing in her vulnerability with sad songs that told tales of being lonely, abused, and heartbroken.  She was so moving in this persona that audiences ate it up, but it left a bewildered Helen, who was a meticulous singer and conscientious artist, wondering where her personal sorrow left off and the performance began.  It seemed one fed the other.

Mark Hellinger was writing his column for the New York Daily News at this time, news and gossip of the theatre world, Damon Runyon style, and was both a fan and friend of Helen Morgan, and had also written sketches for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 in which Miss Morgan appeared.  After Helen Morgan died in 1941 at only forty-one years old, Mr. Hellinger, then in a new career as a writer and producer in Hollywood, bought the rights to her story intending to make the film biography of her life for Warner’s.  He died before they found the right person to play her. 

At the time he was writing his column in New York, when Helen Morgan was starring at the Ziegfeld Theater on Sixth Avenue and 54th Street (long since torn down) in Hammerstein and Kern’s colossal hit Showboat (our old friend Edna May Oliver played the role of the overbearing Parthy), Ann Blyth was a baby on the other side of town, in a considerably lower rent district, an area along East 31st Street that has also since been bulldozed away in the slum renewal projects of the 1960s.  In twelve years Ann would be on Broadway herself while still a child, and in fifteen she’d be in Hollywood, where she got to know Mark Hellinger when she appeared in his productions of Swell Guy (1946), which we discussed here, and Brute Force (1947), here.  Hellinger would say of Ann:

“Outside, she’s as untouched as a convent girl—and inside, she’s as wise as a woman of 50.”
Perhaps one could say the opposite about Helen Morgan.
The Helen Morgan Story has always been a tale of two reputations: Helen Morgan’s and Ann Blyth’s.

It was a shock to many in December 1956 when Ann was chosen for the role over several who were tested, and a few hundred other wannabes.  Even director Michael Curtiz, for whom she had performed brilliantly in Mildred Pierce (1945) covered here, did not consider her for the role.

Syndicated columnist Aline Mosby noted:

Movie-goers will be in for a surprise when they see Hollywood’s perennial ‘good girl’ sitting on a piano to portray Helen Morgan, the sensual torch singer of the ‘20s.  Ann will do a hula and sob in the drunk scene.  Ann Blyth?

“I didn’t want to test Ann at first,” Curtiz admitted, “…I tested 25 girls and interviewed another 25.  I talked to Olivia de Havilland, Jennifer Jones…singers Julie London, Connie Russell [who would cut her own tribute LP to Helen Morgan].

“After everybody was exhausted, I took a chance and tested Ann.  She made just a brilliant test!”

Apparently, columnist Hedda Hopper urged Curtiz to test her, and Ann’s agent, Al Rockett, pushed hard.  In an interview with Miss Hopper, Ann acknowledged with some chagrin that her quiet personal life evidently made her viewed as a poor choice for a torch singer.

“But why is it that producers and directors find it so hard to separate an actress from her private life?  Unless you’re a flashy person they never think of you for the colorful parts.  If you lead a quiet life in your own personal existence, they give you only sticky, sweet roles.”

Ann had to live down not only her reputation, but Helen’s.  Because Helen Morgan lived a much less stable life, got in trouble with gangsters and the law for her activity with speakeasies during the Prohibition, and sat on pianos and sang torch songs and was a hopeless alcoholic, it was reckoned she was a pretty tough customer.  She wasn’t. 

Helen Morgan was very quiet and soft-spoken, and leaned heavily on her mother, with whom she was inseparable as a girl—rather like Ann Blyth.  She was recalled by her friends as being sweet and overly generous, but insecure.  According to Hedda Hopper:

Helen always spoke softly and with dignity, even when she was drinking—you couldn’t tell she was intoxicated—and how quiet and wistful she was when under contract to Warner’s in 1935.

But other columnists who either forgot that or else never knew Helen Morgan, knew only that she drank herself to death, imagined her to be more hard-bitten, and took the first surprising news of Ann Blyth’s being cast in the role and played it to the hilt.  Syndicated columnist Bob Thomas:

A lot of eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Ann Blyth would star in the life of Helen Morgan…After all, Helen Morgan was a symbol of the ‘20s, a hard-drinking, fast-living party girl.  Ann—well, Ann is just about the epitome of sweetness.

Some fans also rebelled, fearful this was a turn to the dark side for their favorite actress.

Ann Blyth is still a good girl, despite what some of her fans think…Ann is receiving critical mail from some fans who fear that Hollywood’s “little lady” compromised her own moral principles in taking the part.

To which Ann responded:

"There are always people who can’t disassociate an actor’s personal life from her screen life…I just couldn’t go on playing any more sweet roles; it would be career suicide."

It was called “the shock casting of the year,” but producer Martin Rackin explained in the same article the reasoning behind their choice of using Ann:

There are some actresses in this town who can roll in the gutter and it won’t move you.  They look at home there.  But when you put a good girl like Ann in the gutter, it tears your heart out.

Doris Day went up against similar prejudice when she was cast as torch singer (and Helen Morgan colleague) Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (1955).  Before her death in 1978, Miss Etting said she thought Doris Day’s portrayal of her was too tough, and that she would have preferred Jane Powell in the role.

Doris Day received good reviews for her excellent work in that film (which we’ll have to discuss in more detail sometime or other).  Interestingly, Doris Day refused to make the biography of Helen Morgan when it was offered to her in 1950 because of the presumed sordidness of Morgan’s lifestyle, which she felt would go against her wholesome screen image, yet the Ruth Etting character she portrayed was much less sympathetic than Helen Morgan.  (Hedda Hopper broke the news that Miss Day would play Morgan for director Michael Curtiz as early as 1948; Louella Parsons broke the same news in 1950.)  Apparently, Doris Day changed her mind about unwholesome roles by 1955 when she played Ruth Etting.  Her name came up for the Helen Morgan role again in 1956 when this movie was undergoing “the biggest casting search since Scarlett O’Hara.”

The 1950s inexplicably launched an era for nostalgic films about female singers on the rocks.  With a Song in My Heart (1952) gave us Susan Hayward as Jane Froman (Hayward was also up for the Helen Morgan role), who was injured in a plane crash, but managed to continue her singing career on crutches.  Interrupted Melody (1953) put Eleanor Parker, as Marjorie Lawrence, in a wheelchair with polio.  Susan Hayward took another turn at bat as the alcoholic Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955).  Peggy Lee received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her alcoholic torch singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955).

Incidentally, Hedda Hopper had also publically barracked for Ann to get the Susan Hayward role as Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow in 1955:

Why not Ann Blyth for Lillian Roth’s story I’ll Cry Tomorrow?  Ann made her initial success as the nasty daughter of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.  Her dramatic talent has been smothered in sweet costume ickies, and I’d like to see her emerge again as a dramatic actress.  This would do it.

I’m not sure if the critics or the public were battling girl singers’ tragedies fatigue by 1957 when The Helen Morgan Story was released, but they had already seen one other version of her life.  In May 1957, some five months before the film’s release, the television show Playhouse 90 produced an original script on Helen’s life as told by her mother.  Polly Bergen played Helen Morgan, and received very good reviews.  You can see a clip of the program here on YouTube.  I especially like the way she acts out the mood of the song, creating an unselfconscious intimacy with her audience.

Polly Bergen did her own singing.  Ann Blyth signed on to the film project with the understanding she would do her own singing.  It was decided afterward that she would be dubbed by pop singer Gogi Grant, whose hit single the previous year, “The Wayward Wind” reached number one on the Billboard chart and held the position for a record eight weeks.

Syndicated columnist Erskine Johnson interviewed Gogi Grant, who mused:

“It’s funny too…I wasn’t asked to listen to any of Helen’s old records.  The studio didn’t even suggest I change my style of singing.  They just said, ‘Sing like YOU sing…I guess I was the only girl singer in America who wasn’t after the role of Helen Morgan…the studio called me one day right out of the blue.”

She was hired by Warner’s studio musical director:

“At first the studio figured that Ann, known as a singer, might skip by unnoticed with a dubbed-in singing voice.  Even after hiring Gogi for the chore, the studio worried about the box-office appeal of a non-singing Ann Blyth in the role of Helen.”

But Gogi’s agent sweetened the pot, and suggested that Gogi would work for less money if they gave her screen credit.  There was no attempt to hide the owner of Helen’s screen singing voice, nor could there have been.  From that point, Ann’s being dubbed influenced the reputation of The Helen Morgan Story.

Ann praised Miss Grant’s work and told columnist Bob Thomas:

“Gogi has done a wonderful job on the songs…she’s not only a good singer; she has a dramatic quality that the songs require.”

Determined to look at it in a positive light, she acknowledged after filming got under way:

“I’ve been hoping for a role like this for a long time.  I’m a little disappointed about not being able to sing, but Helen’s character and the story really are more important.  Her greatest appeal was her personality.  To do a good job and be convincing is all I ask.”

It was a generous and professional attitude to take, but in terms of lending legitimacy both to the film and to her career, the decision to dub her was a punch to the gut. 

Ann Blyth wasn’t an actress who couldn’t sing and therefore needed to be dubbed; she was a singer, moreover, a richly talented singer with a powerful voice.  She had sung on film, she had sung in nightclubs, just as Helen Morgan did.  One could imagine that for a trained singer to have her singing dubbed, to act her songs and lip-synch to the playback of another woman’s voice might have been demoralizing.  It certainly would have felt strange.  It also left her with only half a characterization - she couldn't work through the mood of the lyrics the way Polly Bergen did because she wasn't creating the mood - she was only able to follow the template laid down by Gogi Grant.

Ann had meticulously researched her role preparatory to making the film: speaking with people who knew Helen Morgan, reading newspaper accounts, and, unlike Gogi Grant, listening to her recordings.  Helen had a high, thin soprano, with careful diction, a delicate sound and articulation that hearkened back almost to the style of lady songstresses of the turn of the century.  That was the irony in this tale of two reputations: Ann Blyth’s robust soprano was not considered “torchy” enough for a public the studio felt would expect a more brassy, pop sound—and Helen Morgan’s thin, sweet voice was unlike the nasal boop-a-doop warblings of the cutie pies or the throaty and gin-soaked moaners of the 1920s.  Her vocal style didn’t match what was currently popular in her own era, and yet she was still a star.  Her personality while singing made her so; not necessarily her voice.

Gogi Grant, as people seem to frankly acknowledge now, did not sound at all like Helen Morgan, but then as she said in her interview quoted above, she wasn’t supposed to even try.  Polly Bergen, who played Helen on television, with a deeper voice sounded even less like her. 

Ann Blyth’s rich voice, her range, her precise articulation and skill in holding a note for its full value would have been entirely compatible with Helen Morgan’s singing style.

(Mildred Pierce - 1945 - Ann at 16)

Besides, if the studio really wanted vampish and torchy, who was it that sang “Oceana Roll” with torrid suggestiveness, a bare midriff and a scarf in her hand (à la Helen Morgan)?  Veda Pierce—nobody but 16-year-old Ann Blyth.

As we noted in this previous post on The Student Prince (1954), when Edmund Purdom was called in to replace Mario Lanza, but was dubbed using Lanza’s singing voice, it pretty much sunk any hope of Purdom’s making the role his own.  The Student Prince suffered for it, its reputation tarnished before filming even began.

Just as with Edmund Purdom, being dubbed took away from Ann Blyth’s owning the role. However, Ann’s remark that it was really the dramatics of the story that mattered was, in part, true.  The role still presented a thrilling challenge for her.  She mused for Photoplay in December 1957:

“I know everybody’s going to think the drunk scenes were the toughest for me,” she says with a grin, “They weren’t.  People don’t realize that, for an actress, a good drunk scene is an emotional field day.  You can just sort of let out all your stops…”

The movie has its strengths and weaknesses.  Ann acknowledged in the same interview:

“After all, no one motion picture can really do full justice to a person’s life.  How can it, when often the person doesn’t do justice to himself?”

This hints at one of the major problems of The Helen Morgan Story, and which really is nobody’s fault—Helen was passive, insecure, and a self-destructive person, who came to a miserable end.  It is difficult to craft a film that will entertain an audience, to keep them emotionally involved in the story even when things get very grim. (Though I think her story deserves another treatment, a documentary at least.)  Nobody saved her, and she could not save herself.  It does tear your heart out, as producer Martin Rackin predicted, but it is depressing.  Despite a lump-in-the-throat ending scene where Helen’s friends pay tribute to her, there really is no uplifting message.

Other problems with the film could have been corrected, and are the result perhaps of first, too many writers stitching together a project that had been on the Warner’s shelf for nearly 15 years, and second, an unfortunate collaboration between those writers and director Michael Curtiz to hammer every 1920s cliché they could think of in order to make us remember we are in the Jazz Age.  It feels a little heavy-handed in some spots.  Some scenes border on parody and some of the dialogue is quite hokey.

One scene at the very beginning, I confess, has always bothered me for the incongruity of a strong actress and a moment of weak direction.  A very young Helen, just starting out in show business, sings in a carnival side show for Paul Newman, who is a barker trying to sell phony lots in the famous 1920s Florida land scams.  A torrent of rain scatters the fairgoers, the carnival breaks up for the day.  As Newman says goodbye to Ann, he suddenly suggests she stay the night with him and impulsively pulls her into a smothering embrace.  She struggles for a moment, taken aback, but after his first forceful kiss, she hesitates, and then hungrily kisses him again.  She’s lonely and it is thrilling to be desired.  The two actors have terrific chemistry together, as will be evident in all their scenes.

The problem is the morning after scene, when Ann wakes, lying across a bed that clearly has not been slept in, which the director keeps prominent in the foreground.  She is alone, looks around, and finds a note Newman has left her, a curt kiss-off.  Her reaction is powerful, a wordless, explosive mixture of hurt and horror. 

Director Michael Curtiz, however, has let his leading lady down by carelessly putting her in an odd setting: we have been given to understand she slept with Newman, yet she wakes fully clothed on a bed that isn’t even rumpled, as if she had inexplicably passed out cold after their conversation.  When she gets up to walk to the window to look for Newman, we hear the clunking of her high-heeled shoes.  She hadn’t even taken off her shoes.  Then she discovers the note he has left on the pillow.  

Her expression tells us this is a woman who has been used and thrown away.  This isn't a case about being sad she didn't get to say goodbye to Mr. Newman because she overslept; she's been humiliated. 

While I’m not calling for a graphic bedroom scene to prove they have been intimate, I would suggest there are other ways, more subtle but certainly on-point to give support to Ann’s devastated reaction to the note.  Perhaps the scene could have begun when she is waking alone in bed, or perhaps while she is dressing, looking expectantly for Newman as if assuming he has only stepped out of the bungalow for a moment, a shot of the bed (which through this scene remains prominent in the foreground) unmade, and then discovering the note on a table. 

Other moments of Mr. Curtiz’s direction are quite good, and he moves the many episodes of Helen Morgan’s life along at a brisk pace.  I especially like the quick cut from the tense scene on the fire escape (where, crying through her lines, she begs him, “Tell me you love me, please!”) to a shot of a mirror ball and a blast of a nightclub act singing the bouncy hit, “The Girlfriend.”   The montage of her European tour is good, and Mr. Curtiz uses music as a motif throughout the film with incredible and exciting skill.

The movie is flooded with delightful snippets of songs that capture the ebullience of the 1920s, and the despair of Helen’s darker moments.  Gogi Grant’s glossy rendition of the songs is enjoyable; she had a smashing voice, big and brassy.  Ann Blyth’s lip-synching is believable, possibly aided by the fact that she sang in public herself and knew about breath control and presentation, so much so that even today newcomers to the film are often confused about whether she did her own singing.

Unfortunately, the movie makes only a brief nod to her Broadway role as Julie in Showboat --easily the most important role of her career, and there is no reference at all to her time in Hollywood.  The main focus are the Chicago speakeasies and the no good bum who keeps popping up her life, Paul Newman.

Paul Newman’s character is fictional.  He is meant to represent the men who done her wrong.  Mr. Newman was not keen on doing the film, and it was never one of his favorites.  According to biographer Shawn Levy in Paul Newman – A Life:

He didn’t exactly bond with Curtiz, complaining that the director would tell him to “Go faster,” rather than give specific counsel as to the emotions that were required in a scene.  But he admired Blyth’s work ethic…

His character is forceful and dynamic, but has very little dimension.  Only one scene where he, exasperated over Ann’s anguish over a friend’s suicide, tries to wise her up with his philosophy on survival, mentions he won medals in the war but now they’re worthless.  But the moment is dropped and we never really see inside him again.  We don’t really see him develop—he’s as much an opportunistic skunk at the beginning of the movie as at the end.  His final scene, when he has a change of heart and arranges a tribute to Helen, telling her that from now on she comes first in his life, is not really believable.  We have, unlike Helen, learned not to trust him.  Newman’s work in the picture is fine; it’s the script that leaves him hanging.  Curtiz, too, might have strengthened Newman’s character, given him more depth with some strategic close-ups, but this is CinemaScope, and we know about CinemaScope and close-ups.

Actually, it’s an interesting thing about Paul Newman and what I guess we would term “star quality.”  Unlike some of the other young actors in the 1950s like Marlon Brando and James Dean who suddenly blazed on the scene and became instant stars, Newman manages to be both charismatic and yet still blend in with the setting and acting style of the other actors, a seamless part of the whole.  Wherever he is, he belongs.  Brando and Dean, with their so-called natural style of acting had a screen presence like a black hole – they absorbed all the spotlight, but never reflected it anyone else.  Newman did not demand our attention, but he got it, and it strikes me that if he had come along in the 1920s, or 1930s, or 1940s, he still would have been just as much a star.  Plunk him into any decade and he would fit.  He had that quality, but entirely without gimmick like the other gentlemen, and it’s no wonder he remained a star for decades until the end of his life.

Richard Carlson is the well-heeled, but married attorney with whom Helen also becomes involved.  He is a gentler companion than Newman, but ultimately their relationship is just as destructive to the lonely singer’s quest for a stable relationship.

Cara Williams lends strong support as her best friend, a hoofer with a heart of gold and a big mouth, who keeps her boyfriend, played by Alan King, in line.  King is quite good in his minor role, funny and natural as Newman’s good-natured henchman.

Real-life figures in Helen’s life, including her accompanist Jimmy McHugh, Rudy Vallee, and columnist Walter Winchell make appearances.  The late Mark Hellinger is played in two brief scenes by an actor.

Bess Flowers shows up at the U.S. Customs checkpoint on the pier.  Not only did she have the costumes to get all these walk-on roles, she must have had the luggage too.

A few things of note: Ann’s slight hesitancy of speech in this role is an empathetic and intuitive gesture to Helen Morgan’s own speech, described as halting, and Ann’s voice in the later scenes grows raw as if with smoking and drinking.  They didn’t let her sing, but she still did a lot with her voice.

In a noir-ish scene Paul Newman lurks in the dark in her apartment when she arrives home, and watches her undress in the other room (mostly behind a screen).  She discovers him, and they argue.  She wants to get him out of her life, tired of being used by him, bone weary and a little drunk.  She tells him with heartbroken ferocity that she hates him, but he forces her to admit her desire for him by crushing her to her bed with another steamy kiss.  All their scenes are quite intense (he slaps her around a few times), and we would write off Newman’s unpleasant one-note character except for his powerful screen presence and her always passionate response to him.  Whether wrapped in each other's arms or standing on opposite sides of a room, these two are always locked into each other.  (His character as written is just not as interesting as, say, James Cagney’s bullying yet insecure gangster in Love Me or Leave Me.)

Another scene where Richard Carlson, as Newman’s polar opposite – gentle, but weak and ineffectual, comes upon Ann in the wee hours, drinking at a bar, alone.  She is bitter, as hard-edged as the critics thought Helen Morgan should be, and pretty near the end of her rope.  In between sips and a drag on her cigarette, blowing the smoke over the rim of her glass, she growls her lines and slurs her self-loathing.  “It isn't you or Larry, it's me, only me.  Something terrible happening inside me..."

And I would be remiss if I did not point out the black beret she wears at the beginning of the film as young woman starting out on her own, in a train on her way to Chicago.  See our previous post on the stylish and cinematically necessary beret.

The most powerful scene comes toward the end of the film.  First, we see Ann in a dive of a bar, unkempt, dressed in rags, no makeup, and half-drunk, in the cozy, if boisterous, company of winos.  She hears a recording of herself on the radio, and she attempts to sing along.  I believe, because of what would have been difficulty of matching the audio interspersed with the spoken lines, this is not Gogi Grant butchering the song, but Ann herself mimicking Miss Grant doing so, and it has to make one smile that though Jack Warner wouldn’t let Ann sing as Helen, here she sings for Gogi singing for her, with a rusty, gin-soaked screech.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.

She is on the edge psychologically, and a physical wreck, her halting words come trembling out of her throat, and when she leaves the bar, Curtiz follows her with a tilted camera down a wet and dirty alley.  She walks away in a haze, seemingly without any idea where she’s going, and collapses, where a cop finds her face down in the gutter.

Curtiz, with dazzling skill and artist’s eye, and absolutely no mercy, swoops us immediately to a charity hospital psych treatment room, where Ann, lying restrained and naked under a sheet, is suffering delirium tremens, shivering, sweating, and screaming in agony while a stoic staff observes her in this cold and sterile environment, as we do, like a bug in a jar.  Her tortured expression, her wailing is all-out, heartbreaking, and really quite shocking.

Her last hoarse scream of “Help me!  Somebody help me!” is agonizing to watch, a reprise of her earlier confessed memory of an episode of childhood panic.

For these few gutsy moments alone, never mind the consistent strength of her other scenes, Ann Blyth should have been nominated for an Academy Award. 

Most of us classic film buffs, being as familiar as we are with movie greats who never won an award, nor were even nominated, do not keep score on talent by awards.  Far from it.  Nor do I.  However, stepping aside a moment to look at the nominees of that year, we find Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Anna Magnani for Wild is the Wind, Elizabeth Taylor for Raintree County, and Lana Turner for Peyton Place.  We may discuss the merits of the other nominees, agree or disagree, but…Lana Turner for Peyton Place?  Hardly a demanding or large role, and her work not of the same caliber of Ann Blyth’s in The Helen Morgan Story.  The winner that year was Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve.  Her performance was splendid, and she deserved to be singled out.

It is ironic to note that Ann Blyth was originally up for Miss Woodward’s role in The Three Faces of Eve—and turned it down.

“Big mistake,” she noted in interview with Classic Images in February 1995, but, “I think you can only regret momentarily.  You can’t hang onto those regrets.  But it was a mistake.”

At that Academy Awards ceremony that year, she sang one of the nominated songs, “April Love” in company with Shirley Jones (who, like Ann, was one of the celebrity guests on the recent TCM Classic Cruise), Anna Maria Alberghetti, Jimmie Rogers, Tommy Sands, and Tab Hunter (also on the recent TCM Classic Cruise).

Ann Blyth was, however, nominated for a Laurel Award (conducted by Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine) for Top Female Musical Performance in The Helen Morgan Story.

“I was a little sad to see it end,” Ann said of the movie, “It’s the most exiting picture I’ve ever done and we had a great cast and crew.”

Reviews were mixed, but one by Harold V. Cohen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette typifies the negative response pretty well:

…practically everything about this lumbering biography of the Roaring Twenties’ misty-eyed torchbearer is drenched in dreariness.  The lachrymose story is a corny commissary of stringy sentiment and Miss Ann Blyth has no business whatsoever in the title part.

He felt she was miscast.  The Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal praised her work:

Preview audiences have acclaimed Ann’s performance of the tragic Helen as one of the most brutally honest yet seen on screen.

From the Pasadena Independent, September 1957:

“The important thing,” says Ann, "is to find a role that gives one a satisfying feeling of achievement.  To know that you have brought a difficult characterization to life is the accomplishment I have longed for over a period of years.”

Director Michael Curtiz and producer Martin Rackin, who were dubious at first that she was the right girl for the part, are now loudest in praise of her performance.  They say she is embarking upon a new and more brilliant career.

..those who watched the picture being made were amazed and enthralled at Miss Blyth’s tremendous enactment of the fabulous torch singer…

“I never wanted a particular role so much in my life,” says Ann. “And I never worked so hard to make a part perfect.  I did everything I could to submerge myself into the characterization of the real Helen.  Everyone connected with the picture has been very kind.”

It may be that with the passing of the decades as we get farther away from both the 1920s and the 1950s, The Helen Morgan Story has grown in stature, deeply moving younger, new audiences, who are able to emotionally connect with a story of a gentle, kindly, but hopelessly trapped soul without comparing any memory with the real Helen Morgan or the knowing much about the 1920s.  I rather think that this movie is even more approachable, and more timeless, to modern audiences than The Three Faces of Eve for different reasons, but we can discuss that in the future.

Ann Blyth wanted a challenge, and since her own shy childhood, liked to immerse herself in a role with that imagination she compared to “a deep well.”

She told Photoplay in 1957:

“An actress shouldn’t get too comfortable in her professional life—she’s liable to get lazy and won’t fight for the roles she wants and won’t fight against those she doesn’t want.  I’m free of all studio commitments for the first time since I arrived in Hollywood.  I can choose the roles I want, and if I want them badly enough, I’ll fight for them, just as I did for Helen Morgan.  I hope though that I’ll be offered three-dimensional roles from now on…It may shock some people, but I can honestly say that Helen Morgan is my favorite role…of course, that could be because it’s the one I’ve just done!  But seriously, I’m grateful just to have the chance at last to show that I have developed as a woman and I’m not just a goody-goody.  And I hope this role will lead my career into new and exciting channels.”

She did head for new channels, but not on film.  There were decades of performances ahead on TV, theatre, and concerts, which she was able to work around her family's needs.  Another legacy of The Helen Morgan Story is the apparent myth that she retired after doing this movie, as if she punched out her time card and said, “I’m outta here.”  She wanted to do more movies.  Two decades later she replied to interviewer Lance Erickson Ghulam’s question on why that was her last film:

Good parts just never seemed to come to me.  Rather than waiting for them, I decided to return to the stage and do that again.  I’ve done some television through the years as well, and I’ve been happy ever since.  That’s the main reason why we’re doing what we’re doing, right?

A tiresome legacy of the film was that Ann would repeatedly field questions from interviewers, for decades, who wanted to know if she did her own singing in The Helen Morgan Story, or why didn’t she do her own singing?  Nevertheless, her transcendent performance is the strongest element in this flawed movie, for there is a glowing warmth beneath the sadness, an appealing vulnerability and continues to affect today’s audiences.

Polly Bergen won an Emmy for her TV role as Helen Morgan.  She also released an album in 1957: Bergen Sings Morgan

Gogi Grant also released an album of Helen Morgan’s songs from the movie, which sold well, climbing to #25 on the Billboard chart. 

Ann finally got a chance to sing some of those songs on TV guest spots, maybe just to prove she could, and in her own concert and cabaret career in the 1980s and 1990s.  Sometimes, she sat on a piano, as she did in New York’s swank Rainbow and Stars.

Helen Morgan is all but forgotten today, and even most theatre buffs may not be able to tell you why in the much-produced stage musical Showboat, the character of Julie climbs on a piano to sing “Bill.”  It’s because the part was played by Helen on Broadway, and since she was known for sitting on top of a piano to sing in her nightclub act, she was asked to repeat her signature gesture in the play.  Even today, if you see a revival or touring production of Showboat, Julie is often sitting on a piano.  When you see that, think of Helen Morgan.  It is an homage to her.

Below…Miss Helen Morgan singing “Bill,” from Showboat, recorded the year Ann was born, 1928:

The Helen Morgan Story is available on DVD, and is occasionally shown on TCM.

The 1936 Showboat with Helen Morgan as Julie is also finally available now on DVD, and has been shown on TCM after a long period of being almost completely unknown to younger generations who were familiar only with the 1954 version. I think it's coming up again in January if you want to keep on the lookout for it.

Ann Blyth performed in Showboat many times on stage in the 1970s, as mentioned in this previous post on her stage career.  However, she did not play Helen Morgan’s supporting role of Julie; she played the lead, Magnolia.  An undisputed soprano part for an undisputed soprano.
The Helen Morgan Story was Ann Blyth’s last film, and this is our last film in the Year of Ann Blyth.  Come back next Thursday for one final post to wrap up with a few thoughts on Ann’s career and on this series.

©Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2007-2014. All rights reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Another Old Movie Blog, please be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission. 


Beaver Valley Times (Beaver County, PA), January 18, 1957, syndicated column by Aline Mosby, “Steps Out of Character- Ann Blyth Gets Sexy Movie Role,” p. 11.

Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, June 9, 1957, “Happy Girl on a Piano,” by Hedda Hopper, p. 24.

Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann Blyth: Ann of a Thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam, p.22.

Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal, September 15, 1957, “Good Girl in Movie Gutter,” p. 12A.

Deseret News, November 27, 1950, column by Louella Parsons, p. F3

The Independent (St. Petersburg, FL) September 1, 1948, column by Hedda Hopper, p. 16.

Levy, Shawn.  Paul Newman – A Life (NY: Harmony Books, 2009), p. 121.

Milwaukee Sentinel, October 28, 1956, column by James Bacon, p 9, part 2.

Modern Screen, December 1949, article by Kirtley Baskette, p. 43.

Pasadena Independent, September 11, 1957, “Ann Blyth Plays Exotic Torch Singer,” p. 8.

Photoplay, December 1957, “You Don’t Know Ann Blyth”.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 7, 1957, review by Harold V. Cohen.

Reading (PA) Eagle, February 7, 1957, “Ann Blyth’s Role in Morgan Story Raises Many Eyebrows,” syndicated column by Bob Thomas, p. 2.

Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon), September 25, 1978, “Ruth Etting, Early Radio Star, Dies at Age 80,” p. 13A.

The Spencer (Iowa) Daily Republican, July 25, 1957, syndicated column by Erskine Johnson, p. 5; May 21, 1957, syndicated column by Erskine Johnson.

Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas), March 19, 1955, syndicated column by Hedda Hopper, p. 7.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona.  Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards (NY: Ballantine Books, 1986), p. 287.


THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear; and actor/singer/author Bill Hayes.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from The Dennis Day Show (TV), The DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 


A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.

Posted in Old Movie Blog

Babes on Swing Street, and Bowery to Broadway – 1944

Babes on Swing Street and Bowery to Broadway, both released in 1944, are examples of the old studio system as both an incubator for talent, and a factory assembly line devoted sometimes more to quantity than quality. They were the last two musicals Ann Blyth would appear in for many years as her career took a sharp dramatic turn with far more challenging roles. It is astounding to think after Bowery to Broadway, in which she appeared only a few minutes at the end of the film, that her next project would be Mildred Pierce for Warner Bros., and an Academy Award nomination.

We covered her first two films under her new Universal contract, Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans, also released in 1944, here. Lightweight musical comedies featuring teen stars, they were a good start for the young Ann Blyth, new to pictures, though she was coming to Hollywood with the impressive pedigree of a prestigious Broadway show under her belt, Watch on the Rhine. It was likely this reputation as a serious child dramatic stage actress, the prestige of that show, her own prettiness and demure demeanor that caused the casting directors to launch her film career in the persona of a sophisticate, a rich girl, a nice girl, or all three. Another factor to her being cast as the all-American girl everyone wanted as a friend or daughter was her soprano singing voice.

Jack Ano, in his introduction to Hollywood Players: The Forties aptly puts it:

The Hollywood definition of “class” knew no boundaries and there was nothing ritzier at the time than a soprano. Gloria Jean, Mary Lee, Ann Blyth, Susanna Foster, Kathryn Grayson, and Gloria Warren, at various times, served as the junior league Deanna Durbins…

As mentioned in a previous post, though MGM grabbed the “lion’s” share of attention when it came to so-called “backyard musicals,” it was really Universal that produced more teenage talent. When Deanna Durbin abandoned ship, the void was filled not by a single replacement, but by a cadre of young adults. The ritzy sopranos listed above were joined by Grace MacDonald, Donald O’Connor, and Peggy Ryan, and The Jivin’ Jacks and Jills. We’ve noted in the post on Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans that the dance/comedy team of O’Connor and Ryan was something special and couldn’t be beat.

By the time Ann Blyth arrived at Universal to make the duo a trio, several movies were put into production at once to use Donald O’Connor as much as possible before he entered the army. It was a quick splash into movie making for the newcomer, but Ann felt, “It was an incredible and enriching experience.”

Babes on Swing Street (a cheeky coincidence but no relation to MGM’s Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, etc.), starred Peggy Ryan and Ann (sans Donald). Except for the old one-reeler comedies with Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd (or others), I can’t think of a female team given top billing together. To be sure, this was more B movie than A list, and the predominantly youthful cast and focus on ambitious teens “making good” (are young people encouraged to “make good” anymore or just make money?), the critics who bothered to review the film dismissed it as “one of those minor league musical affairs…”

Directed by Edward C. Lilley, the movie lasts just over an hour, and though brief, is stuffed with songs, gags, and a plot somewhere in there if you look hard enough. Peggy Ryan is the president of kids’ club at the local settlement house where teens meet to play ping pong and get off the streets.

They are also all very talented singers, musicians, and tap dancers, and want to “make good.” A music academy (headed by our old pal Ian Wolfe) will give ten of them partial scholarships if they can come up with the rest of the tuition.

Ann hangs out at the settlement house, too, but she’s a rich girl who lives with a domineering aunt, played by Alma Kruger, and befuddled uncle, played by Leon Erroll. Her attempts to help the kids are constantly rebuffed by the resident heartthrob played by Billy Dunn, who resents her for her wealth. Why she’s stuck on this unpleasant boy, and why he suddenly turns around and falls for her at the end is never really clear. He just does. Probably because she’s the soprano.

Ann uses the word, “solid” as a compliment to prove she is hep, as do others in the movie to remind us these teens are in the groove. They’re not groovy; they’re just in the groove.

The gang decides to open a nightclub for teens to raise the funds. Ann donates her aunt’s empty rental property, a hall, and the kids scramble getting tables, food, aided by swell grownups Kirby Grant, Ann Gwynne, and Andy Devine, who plays Peggy Ryan’s father. We mentioned in this previous post on Ann’s stage career that Mr. Devine played her pop, Cap’n Andy, in Showboat on tour in the 1970s.

June Preisser has a flashy role as the eye-rolling junior vamp (which was her stock in trade, no matter what studio she roamed or what teen couple she tried to break up), and demonstrates astounding skill, as usual, in her ability as an acrobat and contortionist, with rolling flops on stage that seem to indicate she was without vertebrae. June was actually older than the other kids, something like 23, already a wife and mother when she made this film, some eight years older than Ann Blyth, but with her cute looks and cherubic grin, she played young. Her junior Mae West number: “I’ve Got a Way with the Boys.”


She is Ann’s rival for Billy Dunn’s affections, but, interestingly, nobody is paired with Peggy Ryan, despite her being the lead. A comedienne hardly catches a romantic break, though she could do much more than comedy. (I like her handling of the line, “Lay off the sarcastics.”

“You mean sarcasm.”

“I like sarcastics. It sounds more…sarcastic.”)

Peggy, with three dance numbers, is showcased more than the other kids. Her routines here are not quite as athletic as her slam-dunk partnerships with Donald O’Connor, but demonstrate her really fine versatility in balletic, tap and comic novelty dancing.

One number she sings and dances is a parody of a Russian folk dance, in deference perhaps to our wartime allies. Why critics seemed to write off this prodigious talent as mere clowning, or why Universal didn’t widen her range of roles, I don’t know, but Peggy Ryan was one of the most talented performers of the era.

Ann sings “Peg O’ My Heart” backed by a male chorus, demonstrating a pretty voice, but nowhere near the range or power she developed down the road. We don’t see much of the other acts, which are filler, except for Sidney Miller as a wise guy emcee who does imitations of Hollywood stars, including Katharine Hepburn, complete with calla lily.

The movie ends with the finale and everybody on a stage much too large to accommodate this rented hall, and this must mean the kids have “made good.”

You can see the entire movie free on the Vimeo site here. Below, the trailer.

Bowery to Broadway turns the reins over to the grownups, though Susanna Foster, Peggy Ryan, Donald O’Connor, and Ann Blyth all have brief roles in specialty acts. Jack Oakie and Donald Cook are the stars. They are competitors and later partners in producing shows from…the Bowery to Broadway. You’ll remember Donald Cook as Ann’s father in Our Very Own (1950), covered here.
It’s a passing parade of years story of vaudevillians and impresarios stealing acts from each other, spanning from about 1900 to about 1930. Everybody on the Universal lot showed up for a scene or two in this one: Maria Montez, Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine, Evelyn Ankers, Thomas Gomez (our old favorite, who appeared with Ann in Swell Guy here and who squires around Louise Allbritton as Lillian Russell), Snub Pollard, Walter Tetley—who, like Ann, performed on the Coast to Coast on a Bus radio show as achild in New York, see our intro post.

Most reviews were disparaging. Syndicated columnist Harold V. Cohen:

Universal has put a lot of people into Bowery to Broadway and virtually nothing else. In talent, or at least in the abundance of talent, it goes sky-high. In originality and imagination, it hits rock-bottom.

Buck Herzog of the Milwaukee Sentinel thought the movie:

…is a rambling musical…there can be little in the story that can termed refreshing, much of it being a rehash of shopworn cinema situations. But there is music, glittering production scenes…

It is a hodgepodge, and the material is familiar, but I think that is what makes the movie enjoyable. These are the good old days, even the sad times, and nostalgia works when parody is teasing, but not mean or condescending. Most of these theatrical show movies are really valentines to the art and era, and especially poignant when you know that many of the actors in such movies began in vaudeville. Or even, like Ann, had hit “the big time” on the legitimate Broadway stage. They are, in a sense, paying homage to their own roots.
A charming scene were Lillian Russell leads an impromptu sing-a-long with “Under the Bamboo Tree,” and another bright spot in the film is the comic patter between Ben Carter and Mantan Moreland, whose fortunes rise to become owners of a Harlem night club. In a really funny routine, their old vaudeville act really, they finish each other’s sentences with impeccable timing. At one point when Donald Cook and Jack Oakie are down and out, and Mr. Carter and Mr. Moreland offer to loan them money, flush with success and driving their own big convertible, a rare scene for African American performers in a movie from this era.

Susannah Foster was riding a crest of popularity from her best role as Christine opposite Claude Rains in the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, but her film career would be brief, and after taking time to study in Europe to improve her operatic voice, an expected and desired comeback never happened.

We get a little bit of everything here: the footlights, the neon, the headlines from Variety and Billboard, the Lambs Club, the star treatment, the bum’s rush, a tossed garter, a tragedy. Frank McHugh and Rosemary DeCamp are a pair of hoofers, who struggle for years to make “the big time.” They never make it. In one of the most poignant scenes, they overhear a producer for whom they’ve auditioned call them “old hat—they don’t belong here.” Dejectedly, they ponder the lights of Broadway out a window in an empty hallway, when an elevator operator asks them,

“Going up?”

Frank McHugh shakes his head, “Going down.”

We see them next struggling to run a children’s dance school in their apartment. One little girl is particularly terrible. She has no rhythm and does everything opposite to what the other kids do. She’s about as coordinated as an elephant. She’s their daughter.

You have to laugh. The one thing they want more than being on Broadway is seeing their kid succeed, but a pirate with a peg leg is a better dancer. But the husband-and-wife team of McHugh and DeCamp is really the spirit of the movie, the joy of performing and the broken hearts that result from rejection. At one point Jack Oakie, on the outs with his partner, is fed up with producing shows because he has been shoved into the position of bean counter, and the gloss of the modern shows has no heart like the old time variety. Rosemary DeCamp puts his misery succinctly, “It’s just business, not show business. Not the part that gets under your skin. The all-night rehearsal, the put it together, pull it apart.”

But the years pass, and finally Oakie and Cook decide to reunite and stage a new show, nothing high falutin’ or artsy, just good old fashioned entertainment, (I love the line, “It’ll make Blossom Time look like a one-night stand.” The Sigmund Romberg hit ran a year and a half in the early twenties.) They have a new singer they found in some theater amateur hour and give her a chance. She turns out to be McHugh and DeCamp’s ungainly daughter, now grown up and pretty as a picture—and not a dancer at all, but a singer. She is Ann Blyth.

Mom and Pop are fit to bust with pride to see their kid’s name in lights, even if still chagrined that she can’t dance. You’ll remember, by the way, that Rosemary DeCamp also played her mother in The Merry Monahans.
Also appearing in their great new show are Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan performing the parody of a Gay Nineties cad and the tragically duped woman lured by his promise of wealth, “He Took Her For a Sleigh Ride in the Good Old Summertime.” It’s a funny and fun number, but the dancing is merely just a gentle soft shoe here. O’Connor is especially humorous with his careful rolling R diction as a “mellerdramer” villain, complete with waxed handlebar mustache.
Ann is given the spotlight in the finale with the frothy production number, “Sing What’s in Your Heart.” She enters on a throne, with a chorus of springtime nymphs around her.

An interesting scene shows Jack Oakie and Donald Cook in the plush lobby of the Broadway theater in which their big show is going on, and as they head up a grand staircase, we see large portrait paintings of whom we might assume to be great theatrical headliners of the past.

Look closely. One is of Donald O’Connor, and one is Ann Blyth, which looks like a version of one of her publicity stills of the time.

Bowery to Broadway had been on YouTube for a time, and a possibly gray market DVD might be found, otherwise you’re out of luck.

Interestingly, Ann is billed with the stars and ahead of others in the cast with larger roles (she’s really only in this movie for a matter of minutes), which I think signals the fact that Universal, in disbanding their Jivin’ Jacks and Jills youth unit, were putting all their chips on Ann as someone who could grow beyond a teen performer. Three movies were released one after another in successive months: The Merry Monahans in September 1944, followed immediately by Babes on Swing Street in October, and the last, Bowery to Broadway in November.

Then she had a screen test over at Warner’s for a new Joan Crawford movie: Mildred Pierce. The leap from teen nice girl soprano to the glossy Noir and one of the screen’s most nasty characters is astounding, and we can attribute it to Ann’s tenacious and insightful agent named Al Rockett who got her a screen test; an indulgent star who offered to make the test with her: Joan Crawford; and that screen test.

According to an article in Photoplay, January 1956, Mr. Rockett fought for the test and told Warner’s “Throw the toughest scene you have at her.” It was the confrontation scene where Ann slaps Joan.

The director, Michael Curtiz, was convinced. Ann won an Academy Award nomination for the role of Veda Pierce, at seventeen years old, the youngest person to receive the honor up until that time.

Twelve years later, Ann did another screen test for Michael Curtiz, also for Warner Bros. She was not considered a likely candidate for this role, either, perceived as being too sweet, but agent Al Rockett came through again, and she was allowed to test. Lightning struck twice, and Ann blew everybody away with her screen test. She won the lead in The Helen Morgan Story. It would be her last movie.

We’ll talk about it next Thursday.

©Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2007-2014. All rights reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Another Old Movie Blog, please be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


Ano, Jack, introduction to Hollywood Players: The Forties by James Robert Parish and Leonnard DeCarl (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976), p. 14.

Dick, Bernard F. City of Dreams – The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures (University Press of Kentucky, c. 1997) pp. x, 129

Milwaukee Sentinel, December 23, 1944, review by Buck Herzog, p. 6; February 16, 1945 review by Buck Herzog, p. 6.

Photoplay, January 1956, “Her Guardian Angel Kissed Her” by Maxine Arnold, p. 82.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette, December 25, 1944, review by Harold V. Cohen.


THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear; and actor/singer/author Bill Hayes.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from The Dennis Day Show (TV), The DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 


A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.
Posted in Old Movie Blog