You Don’t Know Ann Blyth
They called the picture off so many times she was sure they’d never make it. Then she’d pick up a newspaper and read where so-and-so had been signed for. the part—her part—and her heart would sink. Finally, they called her to the studio to test for it. She did three scenes and went home alternating between hope and despair. And then—
“I was seated at the desk in the study, addressing Christmas cards. The children, Maureen and Timmy, were long since in bed, and Jim had been called to the hospital to deliver a baby. The house was very quiet, the only noise being the scratching of my pen on the cards. Then the phone rang. It was Al Rockett, my agent. He could hardly keep the jubilation out of his voice. He told me that if the terms he had made with Warners’ were satisfactory to me, I had the part. I couldn’t say anything for several moments—I just sat there in a very happy daze.
“Thoughts flew through my head—I was elated, yet a bit scared. Could I do it justice? I was so stimulated I couldn’t finish my cards. I couldn’t call Jim at the hospital because, though I knew he’d be as happy as I was, I never bother him at his ‘office.’ I felt like singing, and I did—a few bars—not enough to awaken the children, but just enough to give release to my emotions. I had won my campaign for ‘Helen Morgan’!”
Actually the battle had just begun. Howls of anguish went up from Blyth fans across the country. “Don’t do it, Ann,” they pleaded. “Let others play the tramps and alcoholics—we don’t want you in those roles.” Skeptics took a different view. “Little Miss Sweetness and Light as Helen Morgan? Don’t make me laugh,” hooted one critic. “Keep her in the featherweight comedies and frothy musicals—that’s where she belongs.”
But Ann is standing her ground. “I’m getting out of this rut once and for all. I’m an actress, and I want roles in which I’ll be able to give a performance. And I’ll fight for them if I have to!” To put it briefly, the little lady has her Irish up and is showing a firmness well-concealed all these years by the blanket of sweet virtue and unruffled poise which has all but smothered her, professionally.
Hollywood has always been of two minds about Ann. Reflecting the majority—those who took what they saw at face value—one top male star begged out of a co-starring assignment with Ann, excusing himself with, “I have all the respect in the world for her—don’t get me wrong. It’s just that she’s so nice she makes me nervous.” This is the “nobody raises his voice on the set because Ann’s here” school of thinking. Then there is a smaller group of friends and intimates—those who have seen behind the front, who know the real Ann Blyth and who wish fervently that this popular image would just go off and die somewhere.
“Sure she’s nice,” replies one of them. “And that’s as it should be. Let’s hope the world never gets too small for simple decency. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
“Ann has been happily married for almost five years now, has two children and shortly expects another. All the rich experiences of marriage and motherhood have been hers. And a tough childhood and early show business experience taught her to keep her emotions well under control. To enclose yourself in an iron discipline like that takes guts. Believe me, if Ann ever gets a role in which she can really lift the lid off and go to town—watch out!” And if ever there was such a role, Helen Morgan is it.
Tragic Helen—who perched on her piano, enthralled millions with her soulful chants and lived a life far sadder than any blues she ever sang. Her adopted baby was taken from her when its mother threatened to go to court and paint Helen as a lush with loose morals. Her five-year affair with a married movie magnate ended in heartbreak—the forerunner of a string of loves that ended badly. They brought her to trial for violating prohibition.
In and out of hospitals. she was sunk deeply into alcoholism. The lady who’d made over a million died penniless. “Helen left a fortune,” her husband remarked. “A fortune in friends.” And this is the woman—with all her artistry, her virtues and flaws, her heart and heartaches—that Ann Blyth must bring to life on the screen.
“It’s a tough role for Ann—it would be tough for anyone,” observes a veteran producer. “But what a lot of people forget is that Ann is a veteran with twenty-four years of show business behind her. And I don’t mean a few jobs as a kid star, then fifteen years out for schooling, then a comeback. Ann and greasepaint have been steady partners for twenty-four years. At a time when other little five-year-olds are mostly concerned with whether they’ll start first grade this year or next, Ann made her debut on New York radio.”
“I remember her very well,” reminisces Mrs. Peters of Peters Restaurant on Manhattan’s Second Avenue. “She was a little sweetheart, just like other girls her age except for one thing: She was really crazy about spaghetti. And it was a good thing too. For sometimes she’d want to be out playing with the other kids, but there’d be a radio performance to give, or singing and dancing lessons to go to. Ann couldn’t understand why she couldn’t spend more time with some of her neighborhood chums, and she’d rebel. Then spaghetti became a strategic necessity. A plate of her favorite dish somehow helped to ease the disappointments.
“A few years ago, she came in with a woman from the studio,” continues Mrs. Peters, pointing proudly to pictures of the occasion, “and she stood up and announced, ‘This is where you get the best spaghetti in New York.’ Ann’s always been someone very special to us. She and her mother and sister Dorothy lived in a fourth-floor flat right around the corner here on East 49th Street. They were very nice, very ordinary people.”
“Ordinary is right,” remarks a neighbor. “I can remember seeing her come flying in from school, tear up the stairs and fling her schoolbooks on the bed. Then her mother would dress her in a simple but clean and pretty little frock, fix those lovely dark curls back with a blue ribbon, and together they’d run out More than likely they’d be trying to be on time for a performance or an audition, and there wasn’t the money for taxis.
“What money they had was partially contributed by Ann. It’s amazing when you think of it, but Ann’s been helping to support a household ever since she was five. A lot of us knew that her parents separated when Ann was a baby, but she never mentioned it. Often a broken home can really throw a child off balance. But Ann just accepted things as they were and made the best of them. She had a serious-mindedness rare in one so young.”
That’s the way she’s remembered at New York’s Professional Children’s School. “At one point, Ann got a reputation for not talking to anyone,” remembers Miss Barnshaw, the School’s secretary. “And I said to myself, ‘I’ll soon see about this.’ So when I passed her in the corridor, I’d make a point of saying, ‘Hello, Ann.’ And she’d always reply very sweetly. We gradually came to know her as a shy, quiet and timid girl, pretty much absorbed in her work. Besides, when she wasn’t studying, her mother—a dear little woman with a lilting Irish brogue—would usually be at the school to take her to some audition or appointment. Ann was so self-effacing, however, that the principal wondered aloud, ‘Whatever does he see in her?’ the day director Herman Shumlin spotted her in the cafeteria and picked her to play in ‘Watch On The Rhine.’ ”
“I knew she wasn’t very experienced,” explains Mr. Shumlin. “But she had a quality of wholesomeness that the part required. The play’s family had a strong filial affection for each other, and Ann reflected this beautifully. All of us loved her, and though she was shy, sometimes we’d persuade her to sing for us. That was always a treat.”
Never a whiz educationally, Ann’s grades really took a turn for the worse when the play went on tour and she was required to do correspondence work between performances. “Ann is failing in English,” or “Ann needs to work harder in algebra” were among the reports the school sent to her mother. But, as with most aspects of a normal childhood, any scholastic honors she might have attained were likewise sacrificed to the demands of the theatre. Besides, she was getting an education of a different type, since the play toured every principal city in the country. In Washington, a thrilled and nervous fourteen-year-old curtsied low after a command performance for the Roosevelts, and later had dinner at the White House. In Los Angeles, Universal put her under contract.
It’s hard to see why, after two years in mediocre musicals, Director Michael Curtiz chose Ann to play in “Mildred Pierce.” Like Shumlin, he must have seen something that he was looking for—but at the opposite extreme. Ann’s role was that of a despicable little creature who bled her mother for all she was worth and then seduced her own stepfather. It was a new low in nastiness, and Ann’s expert portrayal earned her a nomination for a supporting Oscar, making her the youngest actress ever to be so honored. Three weeks after the film was completed, Ann went tobogganing with friends.
“It was a beautiful, crisp winter’s evening,” recalls a studio technician who was among the party, “and everyone was in high good spirits. We were all happy about the wonderful break for Ann, and some of us even teased her about it, with jibes like ‘What a wicked woman we have here!’ and ‘You’ve been holding out on us.’ She took it all in good fun, and came back with some spirited cracks to match ours.
“Then, on this particular ride, we hurtled down the slope, turned a particularly sharp curve, and there was a scream. Ann had been flung out into the darkness, and when we’d managed to stop the toboggan, and scramble back up the hill, we found her twisted up like a pretzel. At the hospital, the doctors gave us the bad news. A broken back. It meant seven months in bed, and seven more in a steel cast.”
It was almost a knockout punch, careerwise, but Ann gritted her teeth and, as in the past, turned for comfort and strength to a faith solidly rooted in the parochial schools of her childhood. It stood by her when, near the end of her convalescence, the mother who had been with her every step of the way was fatally stricken with cancer. And there, substantially, you have the story.
“A natural if ever I saw one,” exclaims a veteran writer. “All the material is there—a broken home, sacrifice of a normal childhood to a career, a near-tragic accident on the eve of her greatest triumph, followed by a long period in which she was either flat on her back or semi-disabled, and finally, the death of her mother while she was still in her teens.
“Ann could have cried all over every shoulder in town, got plenty of publicity and, incidentally, had plenty of excuses for going off the deep end. And because she has accepted what life offered with faith and humility, instead of running wild like an over-age delinquent, people assume that she is incapable of giving a fully-rounded performance. Rubbish! She has known a wide variety of emotions in her private life and she should be allowed to show them on the screen.” This opinion is shared by the man who chose Ann for Helen Morgan. His name? Again, Michael Curtiz.
“I’ll always be grateful to Mike,” Ann says. “From the time he first cast me against my type in ‘Mildred Pierce,’ he’s never lost faith in me as an actress.
“I’ve discovered it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time. Some people feel I should cut down the ‘sweetness and light,’ while others feel I should never play a shady lady. Certainly, I don’t want to make a career of playing ‘scarlet women’ on the screen, nor would I ever want to become identified with a series of unsavory characters. But Helen, I feel, was neither.
“She was a woman who yearned for affection in her early life and later, when great professional success came to her, it was as if she sought to buy her way into people’s hearts. She was generous to the point that she would give blank checks to acquaintances in need, and she let her heart run away with her head in more important matters. She was constantly falling in love with the wrong man, but she was sincere in her love. That they weren’t good for her couldn’t change her feeling toward them. I don’t think she had any great, driving ambition, but rather had a great loneliness which she tried to get rid of by surrounding herself with ‘bought’ friends. Although she had a magnificent talent, she felt insecure with it, and I think this insecurity led her finally down the alcoholic trail to where she literally drank herself to death.
“There was no meanness in Helen Morgan, only sadness. She wasn’t a bad woman, but a good woman who lost her way. I’ve met many people who’ve had part of Helen Morgan in them, particularly in Hollywood. People who have that same loneliness, that same insecurity, people without an anchor, without a faith who have plenty of money to buy whatever they need or want except the things that money can’t buy—love and friends. I feel sorry for these people, just as I felt sorry for Helen Morgan—but I don’t call them bad.
“One thing that’s been a great help,” she confides, growing very thoughtful, “is my marriage. My new-found roles of wife and mother have added immeasurably to my understanding of this part of life that I’d only been able to observe as an outsider until that wonderful day in 1953 when I married Jim. I feel better equipped to play a full-rounded woman, now that in my own life I’ve found the true meaning of being a woman. Which is another reason I’m so happy about this role. For the past few years, I’ve decorated a lot of tinsel-like musicals with characters as deep as a saucer. I haven’t had the opportunity to use this new understanding of what it means to be a woman, what it means to love and be loved in return.
“We don’t dwell too long or too brutally on the rougher aspects of Helen’s life. Mike Curtiz felt, and I believe rightly so, that if it were a choice between entertainment quality or just piling on stark reality, the former should be chosen. After all, no one motion picture can really do full justice to a person’s life. How can it, when often the person doesn’t do justice to himself?”
Since “good” people are popularly supposed to be without a sense of humor, nobody expects Ann to see the funny side of life. That she has a keen Irish wit and a lively appreciation of a good joke comes as a complete surprise. But it’s there, always lurking behind her snapping blue eyes.
“I know everybody’s going to think the drunk scenes were the toughest for me,” she says with a grin. “They weren’t! People don’t realize that, for an actress, a good drunk scene is an emotional field day. You can sort of let out all your stops, and the danger is in going overboard and getting too ‘drunk.’ It’s up to the director to keep you from doing that. I’ve never been drunk in my life—but I’ve observed the condition a few times! So I just put my imagination to work, on my observations, and I was able to do the scenes quite easily.
“The toughest scenes for me,” she says, seriously, “were at the beginning when Helen was a seventeen-year-old. It’s difficult to play a convincing teenager with all the dreams, emotional ups and downs, quick changes of temper that are part of all teenagers.
“One amusing thing happened,” she chuckles. “We were shooting the carnival scenes, where Helen first appears, as a hula dancer. I was on an outside stage, in the carnival setting, doing the hula. In the midst of my hula, it was supposed to rain, and the other girls were supposed to scatter. I was to stay on the platform continuing to dance in the rain. During several rehearsals, everything went fine, the studio-made rain falling just when and where it should. However, when we started filming the scene, a real rainstorm came up suddenly, and threw everyone into panic. Mike Curtiz yelled “Cut! Cut! We’ll have to shoot our rain scene when it stops raining!”
Looking back over her Hollywood years, Ann comments: “I’ve felt that my professional life has been in a rut—a comfortable one, mind you, for the past several years. I think ‘Helen Morgan’ will take me out of that rut, and I’m very happy to leave it. An actress shouldn’t get too comfortable in her professional life—she’s liable to get lazy and won’t fight for the roles she wants and won’t fight against those she doesn’t want. I’m free of all studio commitments for the first time since I arrived in Hollywood. I can choose the roles I want, and if I want them badly enough, I’ll fight for them, just as I did for ‘Helen Morgan.’ I hope though that I’ll be offered three-dimensional roles from now on. But I’m determined not to accept any picture in which I don’t feel I’ll be able to give a performance. I’m not going to get back in that rut again.
“It may shock some people, but I can honestly say that ‘Helen Morgan’ is my favorite role,” says Ann with a laugh. “Of course, that could be because it’s the one I’ve just done! But seriously, I’m grateful to have the chance at last to show that I have developed as a woman and I’m not just an empty goody-goody. And I hope that this role will lead my career into new and exciting channels.”
We hope so, too.
—BY DICK SHEPPARD
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE DECEMBER 1957