25 November 2002 | petershelleyau
Why was she born?
Clearly inspired by other biopics like Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), this is another tale of a chanteuse whose career success is affected by booze and bad men. Helen Morgan was a star in the 1920's, a nightclub singer who crossed-over into theater for Flo Ziegfeld on Broadway in Showboat. However like so many others, a rapid ascent gave way to a slow decline.
The screenplay by Oscar Saul, Dean Reisner, Stephen Longstreet, and Nelson Gidding, rationalises that the sado-masochistic love of Helen (Ann Blyth) for Larry Maddox (Paul Newman) is what brings her success and failure. Her alcoholism is an ironic symptom of the era of prohibition. Helen is ambitious, but her love for Larry tells us that she would give it all up if he would agree to marry her. However as Larry isn't the marrying kind, she is miserable, not a good state for an entertainer to be in. The lower class milieu that accompanies showbusiness is a breeding ground for these crooks, who see talented women as their meal ticket and a way to improve themselves, and it's no coincidence that Ruth Etting and Fanny Brice too had their troubles with gamblers. When Larry slaps Helen repeatedly and calls her a tramp, the scene could be from any number of biopics.
The dialogue uses period slang for amusing affect eg 'You made those dames look like they were hanging out to dry', Larry is 'stuck on' Helen and tells her 'You're hooked'. When Helen is drunk at a rehearsal, it is said of her 'She's only running on 4 cylinders. It's the gasoline she uses'. The narrative has period oddities such as a lesbian at a rent party, and the wife of lawyer Russell Wade (Richard Carlson) who has an arrangement where it appears she too can be a lesbian, though she refuses to release her meal ticket. Helen gets the standard self-pity in 'I'm no good' and 'Everything I touch turns bad', and we hear the tale of the death of her father when she was a child (Freud, anyone?). However what no one seems to notice is that when Helen is appearing in Showboat and at her nightclub AND drinking, the plain fact seems to be is that she is overworked. Also when Ziegfeld offers her the part of Julie in Showboat that would make her famous, there is no indication that she can even act.
Although the biopic is one of Hollywood's most corrupt genres - revisionist history existing as a star vehicle - it is redeemed when the person biographed is presented as a star. Although Ann Blyth can sing, her vocals are (inexplicably) dubbed, not with Morgan's recordings - Morgan died in 1941 - but by Gogi Grant. Grant's voice is lovely, has that Garland loudness and heartthrob sincerity for ballads, and is also able to jazz it up for 'On The Sunny Side of the Street'. Director Michael Curtiz only lets us see Helen as a star in two numbers - 'The Man I Love', and Why Was I Born?', both when she is supposedly drunk and of course, in perfect voice. Curtiz uses the genre standard cut-aways so we have others opinion of how wonderful Helen is, but otherwise we get Helen singing numbers interrupted or up-staged by drama. There are two other numbers which Helen completes in full - her two songs from Showboat performed in non-Showboat settings, Bill and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, but the songs are less showy.
Blyth uses Morgan's signature scarf and sits on the accompaniest's piano as she sings, however often her buck teeth up-stage her. Blyth had been memorably directed by Curtiz in Mildred Pierce (1944) with Joan Crawford, and the later Helen recalls Crawford, in her stark make-up and, in a scene where she is required to tell a lie, where her face is a grimace. Curtiz uses expressionist camera-work to indicate Helen's drunken point of view, and the numbers she falters in when performing are camp - her tipsy rehearsal for 'Somebody Loves Me' wearing a hideous dress, and 'You Do Something to Me' where she falls off the piano. Curtiz cuts from her fall to a newspaper headline 'La Morgan stops Broadway show - flat on her face!'. When Helen is 'missing' on a drunken binge, she gets splashed by a passing car, and is ridiculed in a bar when she sings along to a radio broadcast of her own vocal. However, Blyth's screams of Helen in detox jump over camp into empathy.
Curtiz uses the cringe-worthy orchestration of Morgan songs behind dialogue scenes - you can bet 'The Man I Love' gets a workout in the Helen/Larry scenes, but also the silhouette of someone who hangs themselves. Newman is too young for his role - he was actually older than Blyth when the film was made, but he seems younger - and his technique shows. But although he has practically nothing to do, Alan King is good to have around.