The Helen Morgan Story (1957)
Director Michael Curtiz continued his long association with Warner Brothers with this biopic of the famous singer from the roaring twenties enacted here by Ann Blyth.
Early on Ann finds herself working a carnival feature with a shifty underworld go getter played by a young Paul Newman. Their attraction for each other is an obvious one yet it’s going to be a long and stormy romance throughout the two hour running time. Newman is all for Newman and where ever possible uses both his friends like Alan King and Blyth herself to get ahead on the streets during the era of illegal alcohol. This includes attempting to smuggle good grade A Canadian whiskey in from north of the border.
Blyth will continue her love/hate relationship with Newman while at the same time see her singing career take off thanks in part to the rich and influential Richard Carlson. Carlson carries a torch as well for the singing star. Just when it seems she has Newman out of her system he re-enters her life at pivotal points in the film adding to her grief and eventual descent into alcoholism.
Constantly playing the odds and making strides in the underworld, Newman runs afoul of fellow bootlegger and head gangster Gene Evans. Gunfights ensue which will ultimately spell the end for Newman’s hold on the illegal trade.
By today’s standards, Newman is the star player here but the film firmly belongs to Ann. Though her singing performances in the nightclubs are apparently dubbed by Gogi Grant, the songs and arrangements are stirring. Of note is a beautiful version of The Man I Love.
The singing star will become the toast of Broadway when she is hired by Florenz Ziegfeld to take the lead in the original stage version of Show Boat. As her star rises so do her personal demons over both Newman and the already married Carlson leading to her looking for solace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Her own career will tumble when the alcohol begins to plague her stage performances.
I couldn’t help but immediately compare this film to Doris Day’s Love Me or Leave Me due to the subject matter of a female singing star hooked up with a shady gangland figure. Here it’s Newman but in the Doris film it was James Cagney. Yes, the Doris film is far better overall though Ann drew me in as the film got going.
The earlier part of the film comes off a bit stale and that’s in part because Newman and Ann are easily caught “acting.” The plot also jumps into the stormy romance a little too quick. Once I hit the half hour mark I was more accepting of the characters and the trials each are going through on the way to “the top.”
Like many of Paul’s earlier roles, he isn’t as polished as he would be once he landed the lead in The Hustler. This is actually the final movie role that Ann Blyth would appear in. Surprising considering she was only 29 at the time of the films release. She would work in television over the next few decades.
This title like many others of the era has it’s roots in the early days of television. Playhouse 90 previously presented a version of the Helen Morgan story starring Polly Bergen. It was also not uncommon to see the roles recast. Much like Rod Steiger played Marty on TV and finding Ernest Borgnine landing the role for the theatrical version.
Turning up briefly is Edward Platt and for Three Stooges buffs you’ll notice Joe Besser popping up for a second or two as a speakeasy bartender.
No classic here and not up to the standards of Love Me or Leave Me but worth a look for an early Newman role and a good effort from beautiful Ann Blyth in the role of the tortured singing star with the heartbreaking delivery in song.