The Helen Morgan Story
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The Helen Morgan Story, a musical bio of the great 1920s torch singer, begins with a scene of flappers and jazz babies spontaneously dancing on a train. If you can buy into that kind of crazy history, you might just enjoy this tuneful 1957 drama, the rise-fall-comeback of a tragic showbiz figure (which neglects to include the tragic final act). Ann Blyth, who'd garnered an Oscar nomination for playing Joan Crawford's ingrate daughter in 1945's Mildred Pierce, is Helen Morgan, the Prohibition songstress for whom perching atop a piano became a signature pose. We watch Morgan's early successes crooning in speakeasies, and her wrong moves in her personal life; seems the lady just can't help lovin' a no-good gangster, played by Paul Newman (still very early in his career). Newman's character keeps showing up, like a bad penny, even after Helen is taken up by a wealthy (and married) lawyer, played by Richard Carlson. The many heartbreaks eventually lead to alcohol addiction, which killed the real Morgan in 1941, although the film stops short of her unfortunate ending. Morgan's success in the original production of Show Boat goes by quickly, but the movie includes a decent roster of songs from various stages of her career. Michael Curtiz directed, and his dark eye (and Ted Tetzlaff's widescreen black-and-white cinematography) gives the movie a pleasing film-noir overlay. The biggest problem is Blyth, too small for the role and finally defeated by the simplistic diagnosis of Morgan's problems. Blyth's singing voice was dubbed by Gogi Grant, who has a strong voice that doesn't especially sound like Morgan's. --Robert Horton
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The great thing is that you get to see Ann Blyth, who still looks just as beautiful now as she did then (imagine that!) and you also get to hear Gogi Grant, who may be the best girl singer to ever come along.
But Ann Blyth makes it look totally believable, as she really looks as if she is actually singing the songs.
She isn't, of course, but that's what acting is all about - to make you believe the unbelievable.
Anyway, it's a great movie, and if you haven't seen it before, you really should.
From the moment the film begins to unreel with its Broadway marquee titles you know you are in for a good old-fashioned tearstained campy drama. Loosely based on the life of Helen Morgan, who is most famous today for creating the role of Julie in the groundbreaking "Show Boat" in the 20's. The film centers on her rise and fall as well as her unrequited love for gangster Larry Maddux.
Playing the title role is Ann Blyth who does her best to give Helen all the pathos, drama and tragedy required in such a story. She does a fine job but one can't help but recall her best work as Veda in Mildred Pierce. Some years earlier.
The real stars of the show are comedian Alan King, TV star Cara Williams and a new guy to pictures by the name of Paul Newman. These three pros take a filmland formula and mix it until it explodes.
Alan King is quite a fine actor as well as a gifted comedian. He imbues the character of Benny Weaver, Larry's partner with life and humor. As Helen's best friend and Benny's moll Cara Williams shines.
But the best performance is given by a very young Paul Newman who shows us just what he could do with the good for nothing huckster role. He soars in the role and gives us a preview of some of the better roles he will fill out in the future from Fast Eddie to Hud.
The black and white cinematography by Ted D. McCord is stunning as are the sets and costumes. And the Warner Brothers orchestra makes the mono soundtrack burst its boundaries to near stereophonic sound. The dirction by Michael Curtiz who had been making films since 1912 is solid and dependable.
One hopes that there may be a DVD release of this film in the future.
(February 18, 2009) And now it is out on DVD in all it's Cinemascope glory. It looks great and the sound is full and gorgous. A must have for any Paul Newan fan as well as fan's of great old standard songs from the 20's.
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