Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

Font Size: 
Bruised and Confused: Helen Morgan on Stage on Screen
Amy Lawrence

Last modified: 2010-02-22


Singer Helen Morgan had a well-established persona as a stage performer as films began the transition to sound. This paper traces attempts to transplant the performer into a variety of film genres: short sound films, feature-length narratives, "guest" spots in musical revues, as a voice-over in the "overture" sequence of the 1929 film Showboat, and as a comic figure in cartoons. Despite attempts to broaden her film persona from singer to actress, Morgan is repeatedly represented on film in the limiting form of her stage act. In film appearances from 1929 to 1935, she is shown literally on stage, sitting on a piano, singing torch songs. She appears this way in Glorifying the American Girl (1929), recreating her performance in the Ziegfeld Follies and in sound shorts emphasizing her star image. Despite her achievement as an actress in Applause (1929), she appears again on her perch on the piano in the 1935 Al Jolson film Go Into Your Dance, a performance parodied in the 1936 Warner Bros. cartoon “The CooCoo Nut Grove.” Her performance in the 1936 Showboat is a major achievement for Morgan as an actress but it too returns her to the 1920s in terms of public perception, recreating her famous stage performance of the earlier decade. The identification of Morgan with the 20s is even more evident in the 1929 part-talkie of Showboat where Morgan is simultaneously included and excluded – not appearing in the film but included as a voice singing famous songs from the musical over the opening “overture” sequence before the titles and over the end credits.

In exploring the reasons why Morgan became confined to her stage persona and stereotyped as a symbol of the 20s, I shall discuss her persona as a female singer and the genre she created, the torch song. Comparable to the blues, the torch song emphasizes suffering, unrequited love, and abusive relationships between men and women. Comparing Morgan the torch singer with contemporary film representations of blues singer Bessie Smith (St. Louis Blues, 1929), I’ll compare Morgan’s depiction of a pathetic masochist to Smith’s more resilient, angry and defiant reaction to the men “who done her wrong.” Physically similar, Morgan’s vocal style (singing and speaking) contrasts with Smith’s rougher vocal delivery just as Morgan’s seated position contrasts with Smith’s challenging standing posture.

Widely publicized elements of Morgan’s biography reinforce her image as bruised and confused, a helpless figure trapped by suffering and deserving pity. This image had resonance in the 1920s as a corrective to the unrelenting gaiety of economic boom times; in the first half of the Depression, Morgan’s depiction of helplessness was less welcome. This persona also limits Morgan’s appeal to modern audiences. This paper contextualizes Morgan’s career in order to show the conflicting forces that prevented Morgan from developing a film persona different from the one that served her onstage in the 1920s.

Conference registration is required in order to view papers.