Judge Joel Pearce only drinks real Canadian booze.
Paul Newman lights the flame of the Jazz Age's most famed torch singer.
Bolstered by some great cinematography and a couple standout performances, The Helen Morgan Story is ultimately the same showbiz biopic we've seen countless times before. While that won't matter to some fans of classic film, everyone else can safely pass this one over. After all, you've already seen this one, even if you've never watched it before.
Facts of the Case
When Helen Morgan (Ann Blyth, Mildred Pierce) shows up into show business, she gets off to a rough start. Abused by petty carnival promoter Larry Maddox (Paul Newman, The Sting), she is discouraged about becoming famous, but refuses to give up. As she rises up through the ranks of stardom, Larry rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld. Larry finds a place in rum running, and Helen tries a bit too much rum drinking, and both of them threaten to snap under the weight of their own choices. In the end, though, they are bad for each other, as Larry is unwilling to change and Helen changes too much.
There have been countless singer biographies in film history. Most of them follow roughly the same formula. A young, idealistic nobody with a great voice has come to the big city. She works her way up quickly, starting at small clubs but soon finding herself in front of larger and larger crowds. There is something destructive about fame, though, and she is ultimately dragged down by addiction, bad relationships, or the collapse of a singing group.
I would love to tell you that The Helen Morgan Story is different, and that it tells a new and different story. I'd like to be able to say that I was riveted—glued to the screen to find out how Helen Morgan's life unfolded. I can't, though, because this is essentially the same story that was told before The Helen Morgan Story was released, and that we've seen countless times since. Pandora's Box, Dreamgirls, La Vie en Rose, even Boogie Nights is pretty much the same plot. This time, it's mainly the alcoholism that ultimately drags her down.
Now, a common story doesn't always make for a terrible film, but I found little in The Helen Morgan Story to set it apart from all the other films in the genre. Ann Blyth tries her best with the material she's given, but it's a pretty weak role overall. This portrayal of Helen Morgan is weak and whiny, as she's continually dragged deeper into her terrible relationships with Larry and Russell. I'm sure those situations were very complicated in real life, but here they are so compressed that Morgan becomes a complete pushover. Also, like so many musicals, this story flits from place to place and time to time, and features bands that magically know every song. It isn't the truth of this tale that makes it a disappointment, it's the fiction that's been built around it.
I should also mention, since it's part of the new Paul Newman series, that Larry really is a supporting character here. It's not a terrible performance, but I wouldn't consider it a defining moment in a long career. There are other good supporting roles as well, combining to create a great backdrop for the story.
The real standout in The Helen Morgan Story is the cinematography, though. The combination of stunning black and white composition and 2.35:1 framing still looks fantastic. The stage numbers have a great sense of scale, deep and soft focus are used well, striking a fascinating balance between film noir and classic Hollywood glamor. This shows in both the look of the film and the dialogue, though classic film buffs will probably be more tolerant of the tone than the rest of us. It's not a fantastic film, but it's not a total disaster, either.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm a little less impressed by the DVD. While it does preserve the original aspect ratio with an anamorphic transfer, this is far from Warner's best restoration. They may not have had much to work with in terms of remaining prints, but the whole image is soft. The black level is decent, but the shadow range isn't as deep as it could be. I can understand why The Helen Morgan Story might not get as much attention as some higher profile titles, but it still only suggests how good this film could look. The sound is as good as can be expected for a mono track from this long ago. It lacks real depth and warmth, but everything is clearly audible. There aren't any special features on the disc, not even a menu-driven scene selection.
If you're one of the people who want to check out The Helen Morgan Story, you've likely already seen it. You should know that this DVD isn't a bad way to watch the film, even though you'll be a bit disappointed by the transfer and lack of extras. For everyone else, there's nothing special here—especially if you're approaching it as a Paul Newman fan.
Helen Morgan redeems herself by the end, but there are too many problems
along the way. I'll recommend her for rehab, rather than hard time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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