Debbie Reynolds is always quick to cite her performance in 1964s The Unsinkable Molly Brown as her personal favorite. Which is easy enough to understand given it's a title role which afforded the versatile actress the opportunity to play both comedy and drama, showcase her considerable singing and dancing ability, and won her an Oscar nomination (her only to date). While I find parts of The Unsinkable Molly Brown to be a little tough going (I hate to say it, but Reynolds’ acting in the early scenes make Irene Ryan in The Beverly Hillbillies look like a model of nuance and subtlety), I nevertheless enjoy the movie a great deal. But even given that, I still would only rank it as my favorite Debbie Reynolds film somewhere below Singin’ in the Rain (1952), I Love Melvin (1953), and Mother (1996). Surprising even myself, I have to rate 1971s What’s the Matter with Helen? – Reynolds’ late-career, against-type, low-budget, semi-musical venture into the world of hagsploitation horror – as my absolute favorite Debbie Reynolds movie.
|Debbie Reynolds as Adelle Bruckner (Stewart)|
|Shelley Winters as Helen Hill (Martin)|
|Dennis Weaver as Lincoln Palmer|
|Adelle and Helen are confronted by an angry mob outside the courthouse where their murderous sons have been spared execution and sentenced to life. In the cab, Helen becomes aware that someone in the crowd has sliced her hand.|
With new names: Adelle Stewart/Helen Martin; and altered appearances – Jean Harlow-fixated Adelle goes platinum blonde ("We could be sisters!”), mousy Helen has her Lillian Gish tresses cut into a bob ("You’re the Marion Davies type!”); the two women, at least for a time, appear to have successfully left their pasts behind them. This is especially true of the dreamy, ambitious Adelle, who, in trading the bland Midwest for the seedy glamour of Hollywood, clearly feels she is in her element. Unfortunately, the change of locale has rather a more detrimental effect on the mentally fragile Helen, whose religious fundamentalism plagues her with guilt over her son’s crimes and whose latent, repressed lesbianism fuels an irrational possessiveness once Adelle begins showing interest in the wealthy divorced father of one of her tap school charges (Dennis Weaver).
Is it mere coincidence when mysterious letters, death threats, phone calls, and shadowy figures in the distance start to resurface just as Adelle moves closer to securing a new life for herself … a life free of memories of her neglectful past and thoughts of her estranged son and his crimes? Is it coincidence? Bad luck? God’s will? Or is something the matter with Helen?
|Adelle and Helen are joined by a mutual inability to see themselves as they really are|
Directed with a rather uneven hand by Curtis Harrington (Games - 1967), and lacking Aldrich’s gleeful willingness to go for the full Grande Dame Guignol; What’s the Matter with Helen? is nevertheless an intriguingly quirky and off-beat melodrama with an irresistible premise and considerably more on its mind than its quick-buck, exploitation film title would indicate. (The film's working title was the infinitely more subtle: The Best of Friends.)
I love how ill-matched the two women are. It's so absolutely clear that nothing good can come of it. Plus, the setting of a tap school for creepy little Shirley Temple wannabes lorded over by a bunch of pushy stage mothers more terrifying than anything else in the film, is truly inspired.
Themes of transferred guilt, repression, delusion, redemption, role-playing and revenge play out against the backdrop of a darkly cynical, funhouse-mirror vision of tarnished Hollywood glamour populated with a gallery of grotesques rivaling The Day of the Locust.
Above: a crime scene photo of the murder victim, Ellie Banner (Peggy Patten) showing a bloody palm. Below: several times in the film, Helen suffers wounds to her hand. A motif of bloody palms runs throughout What's the Matter with Helen?, fueling the religious and moral themes of transferred guilt and (quite literally) having blood on one's hands.
|Agnes Moorehead as Sister Alma|
(It has been alleged - refuted by producer Ed Feldman - that Page was an in-the-wings replacement option for Shelly Winters who was very difficult during the filming of What's the Matter with Helen?. Drinking, displays of temperament, and, according to Reynolds, suffering something a a bit of a mental breakdown, Winters turned the filming of What's the Matter with Helen? into something of an ordeal for all involved).
In both films, religion is depicted as just another myths-for-a-price opiate of the masses in the souls-for-sale landscape that is Hollywood.
What’s the Matter with Helen? was directed and written by Henry Farrell (author and screenwriter of both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte) from his short story "The Box Step," and produced by Debbie Reynolds as part of her contract with NBC for a TV series, two specials, and a film. The television angle certainly goes to explain the participation of NBC star Dennis Weaver, who was riding high as TVs McCloud at the time.
|Micheal Mac Liammoir as acting coach, Hamilton Starr ("Two 'R's, but prophetic nonetheless!")|
Still, not seeing the movie didn't prevent me (at age 13) from being fairly traumatized by its legendarily boneheaded ad campaign; one which prominently featured as its central image, an image from the film that effectively gave away the grisly surprise ending. My guess is that the distributors (and a monumentally lazy publicity department), obviously stumped as to how to convey to an unwitting public that a PG-rated pairing of America’s perennial girl-next-door with the reigning queen of outrageous talk show appearances wasn’t going to be a comedy or a musical, resorted to using the single most striking and violently grotesque image in the film to sell it.
Never mind that it not only seriously undercut the suspense in a film that could use every ounce of help it could get in that department, but in its ham-fisted obviousness, cheapened and sabotaged the very real potential What’s the Matter with Helen? had for building word-of-mouth interest based solely on the shocking payoff of its climax.
Imagine Psycho promoted in its original release with a tip-off to Janet Leigh’s fate, or a Planet of the Apes poster comprised of the film’s "big reveal" ending (which now serves, ironically enough, as the cover art for the DVD).
Did the poster for What’s the Matter with Helen? (which also included an inset pic of Shelley Winters looking more demented than usual) create interest in my wanting to see the movie? Yes. In fact, the image was so harrowing and disturbing, it made me want to see the movie more. So…in that way, you could say the advertising was successful. But did it ultimately spoil the moviegoing experience for me? Hell yes!
When I finally got around to actually seeing the film, the tension leading up to that dreaded denouement is so deftly handled that I was more than a little pissed-off that I already knew EXACTLY how things were going to pan out. The colossal spoiler of that poster (still used on DVD overs to this day and shown in the theatrical trailer) cheated viewers out of a well-earned shocker climax, leaving us with only the HOW to wonder about.
(Such careless disregard is something of a stock in trade for Martin Ransohoff, the meddlesome and artless head of Filmways Productions [The Beverly Hillbillies] - hair-raising stories about whom can be read in the memoirs of Roman Polanski and Joe Eszterhas.)
Although a troubling number of my favorite films fall under the classification of "camp," I sometimes think that overworked little noun is a frustratingly limiting classification. Especially when, as in the case of the rather marvelous What’s the Matter with Helen?, it reduces the entirety of a flawed but arresting thriller to its most superficial and easily-accessed characteristics. What’s the Matter with Helen?, as does the entire "psycho-biddy" horror sub-genre, traffics in the sexist conceit that there is something inherently grotesque and terrifying in women (most particularly, unmarried women) growing older. In the cultural currency of Hollywood, old men are adorable (The Sunshine Boys, Grumpy Old Men), old women are gargoyles (Sunset Boulevard, Strait-Jacket).
Psychological horror is the context, but running below the surface like an undercurrent is the unmistakable air of gynophobia. The fear that women, when divested of their cultural "value" as wives, mothers, and youthfully ornamental symbols of beauty and desirability, turn into monsters. They become, as the line in Clare Booth Luce's The Women goes, "What nature abhors. ... an old maid. A frozen asset." Which may go to explain why a significant camp element of the genre is how strongly these women come across as female impersonators or drag queens. It's as if on some level they cease being women at all.
All the above are present in abundance in What’s the Matter with Helen? (and with Shelley Winters playing insane, how could it be otherwise?), but the enjoyable weirdness of this infectiously watchable, wholly bizarre movie shouldn't completely blind one to the fact that behind the camp there lurks a hell of a nifty thriller containing a great many good (if not wholly realized) ideas.
The Feminine Defiled
|Sammee Lee Jones adopts the exaggerated, hyper-feminine "living doll" persona of Shirley Temple|
|Robbi Morgan vamps a la Mae West in a vulgar burlesque (that proves nonetheless to be a real showstopper) to the highly inappropriate song, "Oh, You Nasty Man!"|
From the first time I saw it, I've always felt What’s the Matter with Helen? had more in common with Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The horror is in these characters' pathetic quest for salvation and beauty in a world depicted as squalid and tawdry. I particularly like how the sub-theme of guilt as something shared, transferred, and possibly redemptive, infuses the film with a quasi-religious tone of doomed fate and predetermination.
A nice touch is how the film juxtaposes the neglectful mothers of two thrill-kill murderers (Adelle & Helen) with the exploitative moms vulgarly prostituting their daughters for a chance of becoming another Shirley Temple (whose precocious adult appeal always seemed to border the perverse and freakish). What’s the Matter with Helen? envisions Hollywood as a place of grotesque misfits lured by vague promises of happiness and hope for renewal and regeneration. Stage mothers seek to reclaim their youth vicariously through their daughters, Helen seeks to redeem her damned soul through religion (as presented, just another arm of show business), and Helen strives to reclaim her lost youth and live the idealized life she's learned from movies and movie magazines.
|It was true in the 1930s and it's true now: no one comes to Hollywood to face reality|
Although it has been said that Debbie Reynolds was insecure about her ability as a dramatic actress during the making of What’s the Matter with Helen?, its actually Oscar-winner and Actors Studio alum Shelley Winters who seems to be going through the motions here. She's really very good playing a latent lesbian whose bible-thumping morality causes her to deny and suppress her nature to a psychopathic degree; but it's a performance I've seen her give so many times before, anything unique she brings to the character is lost in a haze of half-remembered stutters, whimpers, nervous flutters, and expressions of slack-faced befuddlement from other films.
If there's any complaint I have with her performance, it's that she pitches Helen's instability so high so soon that she leaves her character nowhere to go. This leaves Helen's feelings of attraction for Adelle, her mounting jealousy, and not-unfounded desire to persuade her "sane" friend to face a potentially dangerous reality, as the only compelling character arcs.
As the selfish and pretentious Adelle (her rinky-dink Iowa dance studio is christened, Adelle's New York School of Dance) Debbie Reynolds is surprisingly effective in a role originally offered to Joanne Woodward, Shirley MacLaine, and Rita Hayworth. With her girlish cuteness matured to a slightly brittle hardness, Reynolds creates a character who plays both to and against our sympathies. Her Adelle may harbor illusions of Hollywood stardom more appropriate and realistic to a woman half her age, but as she is revealed to indeed be a talented dancer and desirable beauty (enough to land the attentions of a Texas millionaire).
One can easily imagine her circumstances as being that of a woman feeling trapped in a small Midwest town, perhaps married and saddled with a child at too young an age. Her pragmatism looks like sanity, but it may be nothing more than a determination born of bitterness at feeling cheated in life, hardened into a resolve to have her reality match up with what she's been promised (and feels entitled to) from the movies.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The only Academy Award attention What’s the Matter with Helen? garnered was a well-deserved nomination for the splendid period costume designs of Morton Haack (nominated for Reynolds' The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The Planet of the Apes). In fact, for a low budget feature, What’s the Matter with Helen? is an atmospherically gritty looking film (suffering a bit from an over-obvious backlot set) with a fine eye for period detail.
Producer Debbie Reynolds engaged the services of William Tuttle, her makeup man from Singin' in the Rain; legendary hairdresser to the stars Sydney Guilaroff for those stiff-looking, but period-appropriate wigs; and Lucien Ballard (True Grit, The Wild Bunch) as cinematographer.
|For those interested in such things, throughout What's the Matter With Helen? Debbie Reynolds looks striking and gets to model a slew of gorgeous '30s getups and frocks. Ms. Winters..., not so much.|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Openly gay director Curtis Harrington in his posthumously published book, Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood (Harrington passed away in 2007, the book published in 2013) wrote: “Of all my films, 'Helen' is the one I personally like the best.” And its not difficult to understand why. Its a darkly amusing, surprisingly gratifying film that works - perhaps only intermittently - as a thriller (those musical numbers, enjoyable as they are, go on far too long, wreaking havoc with suspense), but works most consistently as a macabre and off-beat melodrama with a unique setting and trenchant premise.
That all-purpose backlot building
|The Iowa courthouse in What's the Matter with Helen? (above) served as a Hospital in 1967s Hot Rods to Hell (below) and as a high school in a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone (bottom)|
Do It Debbie's Way
What's The Matter With Helen? Radio spot HERE
What's The Matter With Helen?: The entire movie is available on YouTube HERE