- Television: Helen Morgan
- Film: The Helen Morgan Story
- Book: Helen Morgan Her Life and Times
- The Myths and the Facts
Helen Morgan sings Bill - Show Boat 1936
Television: Helen MorganPlayhouse 90 was a late Fifties-era anthology that produced weekly 90 minute plays and broadcast them on (the somewhat new medium of) television. Helen Morgan, an episode of this series, was directed by George Roy Hill (who achieved great fame when he directed Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting) and the drama told its story from the perspective of Helen's mother, Lulu Lang Riggins Morgan. It is unfortunate that this drama has never been available for purchase because it is the best of the lot. Polly Bergen is a phenom as Helen, acting the woman from a naive teen with long hair to a bobbed, soused entertainer dying on screen. Her takes on Helen's classic songs are spot on; not imitations of the beloved recordings but intimate interpretations in a not dissimilar voice. Ms. Bergen rightfully won an Emmy award for her performance. It is riveting in spite of the kinetoscopic quality of the print. (If you're interested in a digital file of this historic program email me for a link.)
Film: The Helen Morgan StoryThe Helen Morgan Story was released to movie theatres a few months after the telecast of Helen Morgan. Ann Blyth plays Helen and lip syncs to vocal tracks provided by Gogi Grant, a pop singer of the 1950s. Ms. Grant's tracks are a major problem with the film because she sounds like a pop singer of the 1950s - and a not very emotive one at that. Ann Blyth is fine during the earlier dramatic moments but her final moments are hysterically campy. The script is fictionalized (romantic lead/bootlegger/hottie Paul Newman, for example) and is more a remake of Love Me Or Leave Me (the Ruth Etting film biography with Doris Day and James Cagney) than an original. The film also glosses over Morgan's shining professional accomplishment: her performances as Julie LaVerne in Show Boat and, in fact, ends happily with a (fictional) testimonial dinner in her honor notwithstanding the fact that she died at 41 from cirrhosis of the liver brought about by her alcoholism. It's Hollywood claptrap.
Book: Helen Morgan Her Life and TimesHelen Morgan Her Life and Times was written by Gilbert Maxwell and published in 1974. A literary biography can tell a great tale of its subject but this is no literary biography. Maxwell details Morgan's affairs and marriages (seemingly) based on newspaper accounts and the book reads as such. It feels light - presumably because even forty years ago the myths around Helen had taken hold and information was scarce. The book does collate the facts on Helen's performing career, including whole chapters on all versions of Show Boat, her 1929 film debut Applause (directed by Rouben Mamoulian), the musical Jermone Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote specifically for Morgan Sweet Adeline (with hits Why Was I Born? and Don't Ever Leave Me), and the legal troubles stemming from her performances in the speakeasies of the Prohibition era. It's a factual read but full of holes.
Helen Morgan, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Paul Robeson
Show Boat 1936
The Myths and the FactsThere are some common threads that can be found in all of these biographies. Helen was generous to a fault, spending all of her money on friends and acquaintances and ending up with nothing for herself. (Sure you'll make a million dollars and throw it all away says her mother, Lulu, in the television drama.) Helen was also revered by the underworld; once she started opening her eponymous nightclubs, many men of this ilk were enamored by her. Helen had a decade long affair with a married man although each biography identifies a different man. And according to Wikipedia, Helen had three marriages - the book documents two, the movie mentions one, the drama none.
Helen speaking with, and singing about, first husband Maurice Mashke, Jr.
Married in 1933, it lasted two years
Helen Morgan had a baby girl on June 25th, 1926, and she gave up the baby for adoption. In Springfield, Illinois, in the presence of Rhoda Eisenberg (aunt of the adopting parents) Minnettee Groupe and Harry Hyman Haffner. This baby, named Elaine Haffner, married Norman Danglo (deceased) and they had four children, one of them me - Jeff Danglo. Both my mother and father related the story of how Aunt Rhoda told my mother the truth about her real mother when she was 30. My Dad secretly told me of how she walked around the house singing for a year - she had a pretty good voice. In 1980 or so, I wrote Aunt Rhoda and asked for a written account of what happened. She called my mother quite upset, "Why does your son want to know about that woman!" and I dropped the matter. She died 1985 or so. Anyway, I can't prove it but it's been our family story forever. JD
Helen singing It Can't Go On Like This from Roadhouse Nights 1930
Jimmy Durante is the waiter
Lots more pictures of Helen Morgan on my Pinterest board.