Monday, March 31, 2014

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE 1962


If prostitution didn’t exist, Hollywood most certainly would have had to invent it. How else to surmount the troubling obstacle presented to screenwriters stymied by the notion of a female character not defined by the title of wife, mother, or girlfriend? How else to include as much sex, salaciousness, and female objectification as possible while still tent-poling the dual obligations of censor-mandated moralizing and have-your-cake-and-eat-too self-righteous finger-wagging? Both necessary to placate guilty audiences.
America loves its sex, violence, and debauchery, but never really lets itself enjoy the fun it has rolling around in the gutter unless also afforded the opportunity to give itself a good slap on the wrist after it’s all over. This need to have one’s "sensitive adult material" served up with a healthy dose of religious dogma goes a long way toward explaining why a moralizing piece of Hollywood sleaze like Walk on the Wild Side is such an enduringly entertaining hoot. 
Laurence Harvey as Doug Linkhorn
Jane Fonda as Kitty Twist (nee Tristram)
Capucine as Hallie Gerard
Barbara Stanwyck as Jo Courtney
Anne Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri
Published in 1956, Nelson Algren’s anecdotal, relentlessly downbeat, essentially unfilmable (at least in 1962) Depression-era novel A Walk on the Wild Side bears little resemblance to the sanitized motion picture it became. Rumored (rather remarkably) to be the result of no less than six screenwriters, including  playwright Clifford Odets (The Country Girl) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Spellbound); the film adaptation strives to be a tale of lost souls searching for redemption through love on the sordid side of the streets of New Orleans. But for director Edward Dmytryk and his half-dozen writers, trying to balance sexual candor and social uplift obviously proved to be a burden far too cumbersome. For all their efforts to be bold and daring, in the end, Walk on the Wild Side (a film promoted with the self-serving warning “This is an ADULT PICTURE - Parents should exercise discretion in permitting the immature to see it”) wound up being just another glossy Hollywood soap opera.
The composition of this shot pretty much sums up Walk on the Wild Side's major conflict 

The time is the 1930s (you’ll just have to take the filmmakers’ word for that), the place is Arroyo, Texas. Following the death of his long-ailing father, lovesick farmboy Dove Linkhorn  (Lithuanian-born Laurence Harvey) decides to travel to Louisiana to find his childhood sweetheart, Hallie Gerard (French-born Capucine). Hallie is an amateur painter and sculptress who left behind Dove and his alcoholic father for a taste of life, real and raw, outside of dust-bowl Texas.
On route to Louisiana , Doug crosses paths with savvy runaway orphan Kitty Twist (Fonda) who teaches the greenhorn yokel the tricks of riding the rails and thumbing rides. Although Kitty has a few other tricks she’d like to teach him, Dove says no to hobo hanky-panky because his heart remains true to Hallie, whom he calls his religion. 
After a brief stopover at the rundown cafĂ© of Mexican head-turner Teresina (Baxter) results in Kitty showing her claws (jealous of the attentions accorded Dove, she steals from the proprietress) the morally offended dirt farmer sends her on her way and stays on at Teresina’s place as a hired-hand.
The composition of this shot pretty much sums up Walk on the Wild Side's secondary conflict
Cut to New Orleans’ French Quarter and the popular bordello known as The Doll House run by no-nonsense lesbian Jo Courtney (Stanwyck), and her devoted but ineffectual husband, a former carny strongman by the name of Achilles Schmidt (Karl Swenson) who lost his legs in a train accident. The story's big shocker (to the screenwriters perhaps, but certainly to no one with even a passing familiarity with soap opera plotting) is that Dove’s virginal and virtuous Hallie is The Doll House’s most desirable and sought-after prostitute … Jo categorically taking top honors as Hallie’s most persistent and ardent pursuer.
As Hallie, statuesque ex-model Capucine embodies the kind of regal, exotic glamour suitable to a high-priced escort ("Upscale and sophisticated enough to take anywhere!") but  beauty aside, the woman comes off as the least fun hooker you're likely to rent.

Of course, when Dove finally reunites with his wild Texas love with whom he shared his first kiss and more: “Afterwards, in the moonlight...we danced like we was celebrating a miracle. A crazy kind of dance. And then we sang and shouted...like it wasn't real” a ridiculous reminiscence rendered laughably inconceivable once we set eyes on the high-cheekboned grandness of Capucinethe romantically idealistic hayseed is a tad slow in catching on as to how Hallie manages to afford all those expensive Pierre Cardin-designed frocks from 30 years in the future, But when he does, heartbroken disillusionment gives way to the usual macho proprietary protectiveness.
The intense dislike Capucine and Harvey had for one another is the stuff of legend

You see, since the film regards Hallie’s lost virtue as something that has been taken from Dove, and sees him as the principally wronged party, it’s then up to him to take the necessary steps to secure and safeguard Hallie's soul and body...'cause that's what patriarchy demands. (As any pro-lifer will tell you—never directly, of coursewomen just aren't capable of handling decisions about what they choose to do with their own bodies for themselves.)

Resorting to his father's bible-thumping ways, Dove proselytizes ... I mean, explains to an understandably exasperated Teresina (who's busy meanwhile dousing her torch):
 “In the Bible, Hosea fell in love with Gomer. She was a harlot. They got married but she couldn't stay away from men. Hosea got mad and threw her out. Sold her into slavery. But he couldn't get her out of his mind, so he went looking for her. When he found her, he brought her back home. But it was no good. Before long, she was up to her old tricks again. But he loved her anyway and he couldn't give her up. So he took her into the wilderness...away from temptation. Away from other men. And that's what I have to do with Hallie.”
I'm sorry, but we're supposed to buy that these two stunning, continental-looking creatures spent even one minute in dustbowl Texas?
The bulk of Walk on the Wild Side occupies itself with being a romantic triangle-cum-spiritual tug-of-war between Dove (representing honest values and true love) and Jo (representing well-dressed depravity and perversion) with the magnificent but I’m-not-all-that-convinced-she’s-worth-all-this-trouble Hallie at the center.
Happily, by way of distraction we have the welcome reappearance of Kitty, the former boxcar good-time-girl transformed into a garter-snapping sexpot as the newest employee of The Doll House. Also on hand is chipper Southern belle Miss Precious (the always terrific Joanna MooreTatum O’Neal’s mom), a Doll House resident who sleeps on a confederate flag pillow and punctuates even the shortest sentences with “The Colonel always said….” Lastly, there's sexy, short-tempered strong-arm-man Oliver (Richard Rust of Homicidal), who has an eye for the ladies and suede gloves to keep his hands nice and unbruised when he roughs them up. 
Inquiring Minds Want to Know
Menacing roughneck Oliver (Richard Rust) needs some answers from Kitty 

Posters for Walk on the Wild Side exclaimed, “A side of life you never expected to see on the screen!”, which is not altogether false given you've got a 4-time Oscar-nominee playing one of the screen’s first lesbians (who's alive at the end, yet!) and the daring-for-its-time setting of a New Orleans brothel. The rest, alas, is what Hollywood has always done: a) Offer up endless reworkings of the Madonna-whore dichotomy as soap opera and love story, b) Promise to shock and scandalize while only serving up the same staunch conservatism and prudery.
Joanna Moore as Miss Precious
A personal favorite and incapable of giving a bad performance, this incandescent actress with the very sad life story is one of the bright spots in Walk on the Wild Side

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I'm not sure if the genre has been afforded any name other than "southern gothic," but whatever it's called, I am a major fan of the overheated sex and psychosis dramas of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Carson McCullers. When these southern-fried potboilers are crossed with a touch of the soap-opera overstatement associated with Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and Sidney Sheldon ...well, I'm in 7th Heaven. Walk on the Wild Side has all the luridness of Williams, the pretentiousness of Inge, plus all the unintentional humor of anything bearing the stamp of Susann.
There's dialoguethat sounds as though it were written by a robot; overearnest performances that are nevertheless as limp as clothesline; the ever-present topic of sex which is hinted at and alluded to but never spoken of in even remotely direct terms; and clashing accents left and rightTexas drawl, Southern twang, Georgia singsong, French, British, and Mexican (sort of).
Riding the Rails
Jane Fonda looks a good deal like her father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath in this shot of Dove and Kitty catching a ride in a freight car
Fans of the by-now-anticipated unwillingness and inability of '60s films to remain faithful to the era they're depicting will have a field day with Walk on the Wild Side's interpretation of the Depression era South. Outside of a few automobiles and some distant dress extras, the look is 1961 through and through. A long time ago a friend of mine who once designed costumes for film told me that this is not an unintentional or careless phenomenon. It's an industry's appeal to the contemporary aesthetic tastes of their audience.
We're asked to believe that Hallie, a woman who quotes Eliot and asks johns for Brancusi sculptures as gifts, ever had anything to do with a man as "basic" (read: boring) as Dove 
When a studio is forking over big bucks for a glamour actress, they want the audience to see her as glamorous. The concern is that the baggy fashions and severe makeup styles of the '30s (thin eyebrows, bow lips, thick stockings, figure-concealing frocks, etc) will look odd or comical to '60s audiences.
A point well taken, I concede. but it doesn't address the jarring incongruity of seeing 1960s bouffants and bullet bras stepping out of 1930s DeSotos.
The late-great Juanita Moore as Mama

PERFORMANCES
Where to start? To say that I enjoy all the performances in Walk on the Wild Side is not at all saying that many of them are any good. If anyone emerges from the chaos with their dignity intact, it's Barbara Stanwyck. Not really called upon to deliver more than a professional, standard-issue Stanwyck tough-broad performance, she's nevertheless the most believably passionate person in the entire film for me. She wants Hallie and I don't doubt it for a minute. I'm actually rather crazy about Barbara Stanwyck as an actress, anyway. She's one of my favorite classic-era actresses.
The strikingly beautiful Capucine may not be much of an actress, but she's not helped much by a script that asks her to be a non-stop pill from the minute we see her. Male screenwriters are sometimes guilty of writing "beauty" as a character trait in women, and in the case of Hallie Gerard, so little of her passion, restlessness, or joy is captured that we're left to think that she's so desired simply because she's so outrageously pretty. If the Hallie we now see is supposed to represent a broken woman whose life-force has been drained out of her due to having "fallen down the well," the entirety of backstory we're left to imagine requires an actress substantially more skilled than what we're given. You get about as much emotionally out of Capucine here as you would from one of her model photo shoots from the '50s.
Jane Fonda wins points for giving the film's liveliest performance. Liberated from the lacquered, overly-mature look studios foisted on her for The Chapman Report and Period of Adjustment (both 1962), Fonda is sexier and looser here. Perhaps even a little too loose in her early scenes, as there is something about "earthy" characters that brings forth the inner ham in actors. In her early scenes, Fonda can't seem to keep her finishing school refinement from creeping into her overly-mannered interpretation of Kitty Twist, railway ragamuffin. Parts of her performance have the feel of an over-coached acting school scene. But she's never a dull presence (unlike some of her co-stars) and really comes into her own in the sequences in The Doll house. She looks amazing as well. The cameraman obviously thought so too, for Fonda's shapely backside has arguably as many closeups as her face.
Anne Baxter's terrible Mexican accent ("Wha hoppen?") never fails to incite giggles
Laurence Harvey has always been a favorite of mine (owing at least in part to my tendency to develop matinee crushes on birdlike, Tony Perkins types), but he really seems out of his element here. The thoroughly engaging (and sexy) energy he brought to 1959s Expresso Bongo is nowhere to be seen in the tediously virtuous Dove Linkhorn.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Is there some axiom that says the cooler the opening credits sequence, the more likely one is apt to be let down with the film? Outside of the brilliant and stylish art-deco title sequence for the 1974 screen adaptation of Mame which got me all hyped-up only to then lead me down a path of soft-focus croaking, Saul Bass' snazzy, jazz-tinged title sequence for Walk on the Wild Side (assisted immeasurably by the Oscar-nominated Elmer Bernstein, Mack David theme music) sets one up for a film that never materializes.
Edward Dmytryk would go on to direct Richard Burton and Joey Heatherton in Bluebeard.

The beginning and end title sequences are the very best things about Walk on the Wild Side. 
If you've seen the movie, the question that immediately comes to mind is, who took that photo on the left? 
You can take a look at the Saul Bass title sequence on YouTube

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Walk on the Wild Side is, like the 1976 US/USSR collaboration that resulted in the dreadful musical mistake that was The Bluebird, a film whose backstory is infinitely more interesting than the motion picture released. Conflict-of-interest deals were behind much of Walk on the Wild Side's grab-bag casting (Laurence Harvey was being promoted by the wife of the head of Columbia Studios, while Capucine was being promoted by producer Charles K. Feldman). The film was plagued by constant rewrites, deleted scenes (the internet is full of rumors regarding a curiously missing-in-action hairbrush spanking scene between Stanwyck and Capucine...be still my heart), costly delays, and a cast that was often openly antagonistic to one another as well as to the director.
Nine years later, Jane Fonda would win a Best Actress Oscar for playing a prostitute in Klute (1971)
The end result is a film that is a disappointment as both drama and love story, but a bonanza of unintentional humor and delicious badness. And you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably watchable film. Easy on the eyes and no strain on the brain, your biggest concern will be stomach cramps from laughing aloud at the dialogue.Woefully tame and coy by today's standards, Walk on the Wild Side maintains its historical notoriety as one of the earliest major motion pictures to feature a lesbian character. As the years have passed, the film has revealed itself as a movie with a pretty high behind-the-scenes LGBT pedigree as well. The names of Laurence Harvey, Capucine, and Barbara Stanwyck have all been mentioned in various celebrity memoirs as being gay or bisexual, while Jane Fonda has written in her own autobiography about participating in bisexual three-ways with her husband Roger Vadim.

You'd think a little bit of all that sexual democracy might have wound up on the screen, but no. At best, Walk on the Wild Side remains an entertaining but tame timepiece and cultural curio for those interested in seeing what kind of film Hollywood thought it was ready to tackle during the early days of the abandonment of the Motion Picture Production Code.
Walk on the Mild Side
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? 1971

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
In What’s the Matter with Helen?, Reynolds and Winters play Adelle Bruckner and Helen Hill, two dowdy, Depression-era moms in Braddock, Iowa who forge an unlikely friendship (Winters’ Helen is a slightly dotty religious fanatic, Reynolds’ Adelle is a self-deluding dance instructor) born of a shared burden of guilt and fear of retribution arising out of the conviction of their adult sons in the brutal mutilation murder of a local woman. Hoping to flee both the scrutiny of the press, and, most significantly, mysterious phone calls from a stranger threatening murderous revenge, the women flee to Los Angles to start a new life as partners in a dance studio catering to aspiring Shirley Temples.
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
Released into theaters (well…dumped, actually) on the heels of the single-season cancellation of Reynolds’ rather grim NBC sitcom The Debbie Reynolds Show, What’s the Matter with Helen? is a first generation cousin to the unofficial trilogy of Robert Aldrich-produced horror thrillers centered around elderly female twosomes of questionable sanity (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - 1962/ Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte - 1964/ What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? – 1969).

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 
No film about Hollywood's creepy blend of artifice and showmanship would be complete without referencing the oddball phenomenon of celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. A similar character known as "Big Sister" is portrayed by Geraldine Page in The Day of the Locust.
(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!")
When What’s the Matter with Helen? came out, I was familiar with the likable Debbie Reynolds from her TV appearances, from having seen The Unsinkable Molly Brown four or five times at the local theater, and from surviving How Sweet It Is - a smutty, 1968 “family” comedy with James Garner that by any rational standard should qualify as Debbie Reynolds’ first real horror movie. As a fan of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, I was fairly eager to see a What’s the Matter with Helen?, but it came and went so quickly from theaters that I didn't get to it until many years later.

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.
Watching the usually cheerful Debbie Reynolds playing a somber and self-interested character who stands in stark contrast to her well-established girl-next-door image, contributes immeasurably to making the psychological horror of What's the Matter with Helen? all the more unsettling.

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.)


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
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 BoysGrumpy Old Men), old women are gargoyles (Sunset BoulevardStrait-Jacket).
Structured as standard gothic melodramas, these films replace the traditional movie monster with actresses "of a certain age" and exploit our attraction/aversion to seeing once-youthful and glamorous stars in various states of mental and physical decline. Camp rears its head in the spectacle of excess: too much makeup on wrinkled, sagging flesh; opera-scale performances;  overdramatic dialogue; and the occasional outburst of female-on-female violence (which, regardless of the intensity, is depicted in the scope of the irrational "catfight").

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 
Body of a child, face of an older woman. Mature, heavily made up Little Person, Sadie Delfino (who looks like a doll-come-to-life to the children at the tap school) is  presented as jarring contrast to the armies of little girls tarted up by their stage mothers to look like grown women 
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!"
The Best of Friends
Adelle's porcelain dolls passively reflect both her external perception of her friendship with Helen (she's glamorous to Helen's dowdy) and her inner sense of their inherently unequal status (Adelle the sophisticate outclasses Helen the farm girl). 

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

PERFORMANCES
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.
Sexually repressed Helen caresses (and sniffs!) Adelle's satin teddy.
The film's lesbian subplot is enhanced by claims in the rather nutty memoirs of Reynolds' ex-husband Eddie Fisher that Debbie Reynolds and Agnes Moorehead carried on a years-long affair

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.
In a rare, intoxicating moment when her real life briefly lives up to her fantasies, Adelle becomes the center of attention when she dances the tango at a speakeasy with a suave stranger. In keeping with the film's themes of  peeling away at Hollywood artifice, unknown to her, the handsome stranger is actually a gigolo surreptitiously paid for by her date.

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.
What’s the Matter with Helen? is a true favorite of mine, hindered chiefly by slack pacing and perhaps, in angling for a GP-rating over a boxoffice-prohibitive R, too much postproduction tinkering. Nevertheless, it is a movie I consider to be a good deal smarter than usually given credit for, and it boasts a memorable dramatic performance from living-legend Debbie Reynolds. (The supporting cast is also particularly good. Look for The Killing's Timothy Carey and Yvette Vickers of Attack of the Giant Leeches - a personal fave.)
So if you don't mind knowing the ending beforehand and are willing to risk having the Johnny Mercer song "Goody Goody" stuck in your head for days afterward, I'd recommend paying Helen and Adelle an extended visit. They're a scream.


BONUS MATERIAL

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
Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters reunited in 1983 for the laugh-a-minute home exercise video, Do It Debbie's Way (YouTube clip HERE). You haven't lived until you've seen an aerobics class in which a continually disruptive Shelley Winters (in a "I'm Only Doing This For Debbie" sweatshirt) cries out, "How many girls here have slept with Howard Hughes?" (a surprising number of hands go up), or hear Reynolds say aloud to no one in particular, "If I only had a hit record I wouldn't have to do this!" 

What's The Matter With Helen? Radio spot HERE

What's The Matter With Helen?: The entire movie is available on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson