Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The limits of professionalism

The Helen Morgan Story (1957) demonstrates what happens when the machinery of the studio system is in place without the inspiration, artistry or audience that made the work of the Classical Era powerful. Directed by echt-studio-craftsman-director Michael Curtiz, photographed by Ted McCord (who began with cheap Westerns in the 20s, working himself up to Treasure of the Sierra Madre and East of Eden, and such other studio-era hands as Ray Heindorf for music and actors Richard Karlson, Walter Woolf King, Torben Meyer, Leonid Kinsky and Joe Besser, it moves with a brisk pace recalling early 30s gangster classics directed by people like William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, Lloyd Bacon and Mervyn Leroy.

But though the shell looks perfect, the spark has gone. Paul Newman as the bad-guy boyfriend does his best (remarkable in light of stories that he hated the script and the director), but he is too naturally believable and ambiguous to have the hard-edge snap of a Cagney or a Robinson. And Ann Blyth as Helen Morgan only really comes alive when she is lip-synching Gogi Grant's voice--a rich, stylish contralto in complete contrast to Morgan's wobbly mezzo-soprano. (Blyth was a good singer herself, but with an ingenue voice unsuitable to this story.) And without being able to depict the depth of Morgan's despair and degradation, there is no story. A confused girl has some success, is done in by men who want to exploit her, succumbs to alcoholism. A simple downward spiral, with no second texture or complexities.

One sign of the final gasp of studio filmmaking is the tacked-on happy ending. Morgan died of cirrhosis of the liver without a career revival or personal happiness. But it didn't matter. The audience for show-biz bios of characters of 25 years before had left, seeking historic epics, cheap monster pics, and teen-age hot rod and rock and roll flicks. The Helen Morgan Story tanked and took Ann Blyth's career with it. The craftsmanship meant nothing without artistry.

There's a lot of good tunes, though.

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