Then Playing — The Helen Morgan Story; Cabin in the Sky; Jimmy the Gent

helen morgan

The Helen Morgan Story (Michael Curtiz, 1957). It’s like A Star is Born if the venerable tale of showbiz melodrama was overtly based on a true story. Helen Morgan (played by Ann Blyth) was a singer and actress who made her name in the original Broadway production of Show Boat, staged in 1927. From there, she had brief ups and deep downs, ending in booze-soaked tragedy. The Helen Morgan Story doesn’t have the gumption to see the story through to the sad end, but the destitution, alcoholism, and suffered abuse is otherwise depicted with a heavy hand, in part because Blyth launches into the most grim moments with more vigor than deftness. The film is also unbalanced by the clear charge for director Michael Curtiz to include as many musical performances as possible, so the narrative stops dead repeatedly so Blyth can deliver a torch song. The film’s main curiosity is the presence of Paul Newman, playing the thuggish schemer who keeps crossing paths with Helen. Still in the earliest stage of his career, Newman is locked into an Actors Studio intensity, especially in the many scenes that call for flashes of quicksilver temper. The star quality is already there, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to properly harness it.

 

cabin in the sky

Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943). The feature directorial debut of Vincente Minnelli, Cabin in the Sky adapts the hit Broadway musical of the same name, retaining much of the cast of the stage production with a few key changes. One of those new names is Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, moonlighting from his more famous gig as Jack Benny’s foil to play Little Joe Jackson, a scoundrel whose long-suffering wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters), prays will find his way to a straighter path. Little Joe’s wavering ways are further tested by a near-death experience that results in angelic and devilish forces engaged in a battle for his immortal soul. As might be expected for the era, the film veers perilously close to deeply unpleasant stereotypes. At the same time, it’s a rare showcase for gifted black performers, and there are time when the frame is filled with a staggering number of vibrant performers who would likely find no other outlet in their lifetimes. Minnelli crafts the film with skill, if not quite the level of boundless inspiration that would show up in later efforts. There are wonderful performances to be found in the film, including Lena Horne as devious temptress and Rex Ingram as Lucifer Jr., who joyously schemes to undermine Little Joe’s efforts at pious purity. Louis Armstrong also turns up in a brief acting role, and it turns out he’s pretty great at it.

 

jimmy the gent bette

Jimmy the Gent (Michael Curtiz, 1934). This crackling comedy stars James Cagney as Jimmy Corrigan, an ethically flexible businessman who specializes in tracking down heirs of recently deceased individuals. (The film opens with a spectacular montage of flashy deaths and jolting headlines.) His favorite gal, Joan Martin (Bette Davis), works for the a refined competitor in the field, and much of the film is concerned with Jimmy’s attempts to spruce up his operation as he and his professional foe simultaneously pursue the same enticing case. Jimmy the Gent has some of the slaphappy rat-a-tat of the best screwball comedies, even if director Michael Curtiz is a little too workmanlike in his approach to really make the material pop. Both Cagney and Davis are sharp in their roles, and the couple of scenes that allow them to unleash on each other with full force are like gifts from classic Hollywood heaven.

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