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..."
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.