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A singer rises from sordid beginnings to fame and fortune... only to lose it all.
During prohibition, in the early 1920s, Helen Morgan, a small-town girl with a troubled past, works as a hula dancer to lure potential customers into buying Florida land lots from Larry Maddux at his booth in a Chicago amusement park. A rainstorm prompts Larry to fold the concession and pay the other dancers, street-wise Dolly Evans and the younger, naïve Southerner, Sue. While paying Helen, who is grateful to him for giving her her first show business job, Larry convinces her to spend the night with him, claiming he is "stuck on" her. In the morning, she awakens to find him gone. Hurt, but determined to succeed in show business, Helen is later auditioning at Jim Finney's speakeasy, when Larry, who now bootlegs for gangster Whitey Krause, arrives with his pal, Ben Weaver. Larry convinces Finney to hire Helen in exchange for a discounted price on the liquor. However, Finney fires Helen on her first night, after Larry beats up a drunken customer who grabs her. Larry claims he wants to take care of Helen and convinces her to compete in a beauty pageant in Montreal that offers a contract in a Broadway musical as the top prize. While Helen competes, posing as a Saskatchewan native, Larry and Ben, using her as their "front" for a smuggling operation, pack liquor into trunks tagged as theatrical costumes and props. Helen wins the competition, but is disqualified after a suspicious reporter checks her background and discovers she is an American. When a pageant judge, New York attorney Russell Wade, confronts her, she shamefully admits that she is not Canadian. Impressed by her guileless confession, Russell protects her from further retribution. On the train home, Ben encounters Dolly, his former girl friend, and Sue, who have been performing in Canadian vaudeville houses. Ben proposes to Dolly, but she refuses to marry him until he goes straight. At the border, customs officials discover the liquor and arrest Larry. Helen, Dolly and Sue take an apartment together in New York City's Greenwich Village, and when money is scarce, hold a rent party to avoid eviction. When Ben and the released Larry arrive unexpectedly, Helen is still angry at Larry for using her. After Sue's boyfriend, Eddie, arrives accompanied by another woman, Sue, drunk and distressed, hangs herself in the bathroom. Once Sue's body is taken away by an ambulance, Larry finds Helen crying on the fire escape and she explains that she has felt "haunted" since childhood. He tries to comfort her with alcohol, but impatiently brushes aside her mourning, explaining that he puts himself first. He says he plans to start his own business and believes that she can become a big star. Although he offers to take care of her, he avoids mentioning love, making her realize that her welfare "will always come second" to him. At the Blue Dragon, where Helen and Dolly get jobs performing, Larry tries to convince the manager to buy liquor directly from him, bypassing Whitey. During Helen's performance, in which she sings on top of a piano for the first time, a pose that will become her trademark, Whitey and his thugs arrive and beat up Larry. In retaliation, Larry informs the police that there is liquor on the premises and then leaves. That evening, federal agents raid the club and arrest everyone. Having no one else to turn to, Helen calls Russell, who obtains her release and begins dating her. Helen begins a moderately successful singing career in the Village and does not see Larry again until a chance, awkward encounter, when he appears with another woman at a café in which Dolly and Ben are celebrating their engagement. Happy with the emotional security Russell provides, Helen is later saddened to learn that he is married, despite his explanation that his marriage is only a platonic friendship. Although her affair with Larry seems over, Helen finds him waiting in her bedroom one night and tries to resist her feelings for him, but he convinces her that they are "stuck on" each other. Later, Larry asks Russell to finance a reputable nightclub in which Helen can perform and earn a percentage of the profits, and which Larry will manage. Wanting to give Helen security, Russell agrees to be a silent partner. The opening night of "The Helen Morgan Club" attracts a fashionable crowd, as well as Whitey, who threatens to close down the club. Russell brings Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who invites Helen to play the role of "Julie" in his upcoming musical play, Show Boat . After a successful opening night a few months later, Helen's performance is highly praised. At the party, Whitey's jealous girl friend gossips that Russell put up the money for her club. When Helen confronts Russell about it, he reluctantly admits he wanted to help her. Believing that Larry used her to get Russell's financial backing, Helen fights with Larry and tells him that she loves Russell. Larry slaps her and leaves, saying he is "too proud to beg a dame for anything." Unhappy, Helen performs nightly at the nightclub and at the theater, drinks heavily and takes sleeping pills. She also spends money on her friends faster than she makes it. After reading a quote in a book about a candle burning at both ends that "gives a lovely light" for a short time, she vows to pull herself together. Then, Russell's wife, concerned that his name being linked with Helen's in gossip columns will affect her adversely, demands that Helen stay away from him, warning that she will never divorce him. Helen sadly realizes that she must give up her "best friend." After Helen's club is raided and vandalized by federal agents, Larry finds Helen drinking alone in the debris and resiliently talks about his plans for a "Helen Morgan Summerhouse." Still feeling haunted, she rejects his plan and instead embarks on a tour, during which she performs in major European cities. Although her tour is successful, the 1929 stock market crash breaks her financially. Ben and Dolly now own a nightclub, the Gold Spoon, but it is faring poorly due to the Depression. Because Ben is experiencing financial difficulties, Larry is able to convince him to help rob Whitey's warehouse, but the robbery turns out to be a set-up in which Larry is shot. Afterward, Helen gets a call from Ben, informing her that Larry is hiding from the police at the Gold Spoon and near death. Upon seeing Larry, Helen fears for his life and makes the difficult decision to call for an ambulance, knowing that the doctor will report him to the police. Later, in jail, Larry refuses a reporter's bribe to talk about the connection between Helen and Russell, who is now prominent in political and legal circles. Helen's career declines after she drunkenly falls "flat on her face" at a performance. Concerned, Russell finds Helen drinking in a Harlem bar, but is unable to stop her self-destruction. Later, at another seedy bar, Helen hears one of her recordings on the radio and is ridiculed when she claims that she is the famous Helen Morgan. After collapsing in the street, she is taken to Bellevue Hospital, where, suffering delirium tremens and bad memories, she calls for Larry. Larry visits her, urging her to fight back and for the first time tells her that he loves her, while a sympathetic policeman who is a fan of Helen's waits to escort him back to Sing Sing. Later, when Larry is released, he tells the deeply depressed Helen that now she "comes first" and takes her to the building housing the old Helen Morgan Club, where friends are waiting to toast her. There, reporter Walter Winchell sums up the 1920s as an "era of mistakes" and adds that Helen made some of the biggest. He then talks about her talent and generosity, and describes her as "a grand gal on a grand piano."
Cast & Crew
|MPAA Ratings:||Premiere Info:||New York opening: 2 Oct 1957|
|Release Date:||1957||Production Date:||
|Color/B&W:||Distributions Co:||Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.|
|Sound:||Production Co:||Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.|
|Duration(mins):||117-118 or 127||Country:||United States|
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User Ratings & Review
Ann Blyth version and Showboat of 1936
Phyllis Corbally 2017-07-09
Saw Helen Morgan Story in theater in 1957. Since I love any version of Showboat (once an amateur stage production) I was happy to TiVo 1936 production for...
el debbo 2016-06-24
I remember seeing this on TV when I was about 8. I wondered why the woman hurt herself with booze and pills, because he (Newman) was a louse. I wondered...
Dreadful and very much filled with dramatic license, as the real Helen Morgan's story wasn't anywhere near this telling of it. Ann Blyth is...