Saturday, September 19, 2015

I’ll Cry Tomorrow (MGM, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched I’ll Cry Tomorrow two nights ago as TCM was airing it as part of their current “Star of the Month” tribute to Susan Hayward — alas, it had a couple of long stretches during which the picture froze and the sound cut out, and these lengthened the showing so much that they cut off the film’s ending abruptly (they ran out of the pre-programmed length of time they had allotted to it) and so I didn’t get to see the final scene in which Ralph Edwards (playing himself) introduces Lillian Roth on This Is Your Life to tell her life story, including the battle with alcoholism that was the subject of Roth’s memoir I’ll Cry Tomorrow, on which the film was based, and which made it an echt Susan Hayward role. Hayward had been playing women with too great a love for the bottle ever since her emergence from the pack of Hollywood starlets in the late 1930’s — and her star-making role from 1947 was called Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, in which Hayward’s character “smashed up” into alcoholism to deal with the strain of being married to a compulsive gambler (another addiction). I’m not sure I’d ever seen I’ll Cry Tomorrow from start to (almost) finish before, but I’d seen a great deal of it — mostly from the second half, in which real-life singer Lillian Roth (who appeared in a number of movies in the early sound days, most notably the Marx Brothers’ second film, Animal Crackers, of which Marx Brothers biographer Joe Adamson wrote, “The more she mangles her lines, the more we wonder what possessed the Great Playwright George S. Kaufman to write them”) descends into alcoholism following the death of her childhood sweetheart David Tredman (Ray Danton) just as she was about to marry him, and the relentless pressure from her mom Katie (Jo Van Fleet, who in real life was just three years older than Susan Hayward but who just then was making a specialty of playing psycho mothers, including James Dean’s in East of Eden). Katie Roth, a “stage mother” of such relentless severity she makes Mama Rose in Gypsy seem like Mother Teresa by comparison, drives Lillian into vaudeville at age eight, and when she catches Lillian crying before she’s scheduled to go on stage, tells her, “You can cry tomorrow” — hence the title of both the movie and the book on which it’s based. The screenplay by Helen Deutsch (who here at least partially redeems herself for the sin of rewriting Sam Fuller’s script for Douglas Sirk’s Shockproof and taking out most of the weird and kinky elements of the plot that had made Sirk want to do it) and Jay Richard Kennedy, based on the memoir Roth wrote in collaboration with Mike Connolly and Gerold Frank (Frank would later write a big biography of Judy Garland, with whose career Hayward’s would intersect when Garland bombed out of her last attempt to make a movie, Valley of the Dolls, and Hayward replaced her), goes for the tear ducts a lot of the time but is legitimately tough — and so is the direction by Daniel Mann, who replaced Charles Walters at Hayward’s insistence after Walters dropped out of the project when the studio gave the lead to Hayward instead of Walters’ choice, June Allyson. (Charles Walters, you had to have been kidding.)

Though she’d been dubbed in her previous biopic, With a Song in My Heart (20th Century-Fox, 1952), by the singer she was playing, Jane Froman, for I’ll Cry Tomorrow Hayward insisted on doing the vocals herself — which upset Lillian Roth, who hoped the combination of another person playing her and her singing on the soundtrack would propel her to a comeback the way it had for Al Jolson after The Jolson Story and Jane Froman after With a Song in My Heart. Interestingly, Hayward had a less “good” voice than Froman but a considerably ballsier one; like Doris Day in another MGM entertainer’s biopic being filmed around the same time, Love Me or Leave Me (featuring the finest performance of Day’s career as 1920’s singing star Ruth Etting), Hayward attacked the songs with venom, revealing Lillian Roth’s self-hatred under the thin guise of happiness and devil-may-care good times. Compare the pseudo-gospel song “Sing, You Sinners” here to the pseudo-gospel song “Get Happy” in With a Song in My Heart and you’ll hear the difference between a strong-voiced professional singer like Froman and an actress determined to inhabit the role — Hayward’s own singing is edgier and far more emotionally moving. The whole movie is a tour de force for her even though it’s such a serial-like sequence of damsel-in-distress scenes they might as well have called the movie The Liabilities of Lillian: after surviving a career in vaudeville as a child, making it in show business as an adult, losing that rather twerpy boyfriend early on to a surprisingly fast-acting disease, she becomes an enormous star in both Broadway and Hollywood. Only when she’s 18 her nurse Ellen (Virginia Grey in a part briefly intended for Hayward’s With a Song in My Heart co-star, Thelma Ritter, who would have been superficially “better” but less believable doing something that socially irresponsible) says she can calm herself and get over the shock of David’s death if she starts drinking. From there her alcohol habit snowballs as much as her showbiz career, until as the toast of New York in the early 1930’s she’s living in a space that appears to be a giant bar with a living room attached. She also gets impulsively married to a sailor named Wallie (Don Taylor), a man she doesn’t love but got hitched to in a drunken stupor, and when she finally throws him out she hooks up with an even nastier piece of work: Tony Bardeman (Richard Conte), for a relationship built on mutual alcoholism and co-dependency — he says he can stop any time he wants to and he has a “little policeman” inside him telling him when he’s had enough, but of course that’s just more alcoholic-rationalization B.S.

Two years after her final Broadway show (in which she sang superbly but needed a chair on stage to lean against so she didn’t fall over drunk during her number) she’s living in L.A. with her mother in a cheap flat, stealing her mom’s purse and pawning her fur coat to buy booze, and she reaches the obligatory “bottom” until she stumbles into Alcoholics Anonymous — which I believe was depicted her on film for the first time. AA and 12-step programs in general have become so numbingly familiar that sometimes when a major celebrity enters rehab, Hollywood observers often say, “Good career move,” but in those days it took real courage for someone of Lillian Roth’s former stature (she’d made films with Cecil B. DeMille and the Marx Brothers) to come right out and say in print (albeit heavily ghost-written print), “My name is Lillian and I’m an alcoholic.” The film is a tour de force for Susan Hayward, who’s in virtually every scene once she enters, and who got a deserved Academy Award nomination for a part that shows her off to perfection; she’s absolutely in command of the many moods of her character, from self-hating victim to high-living star to skid-row flotsam to her redemption at the hands of AA in general and her sponsor, Burt McGuire (Eddie Albert), in particular. The real-life ending may not have been as happily-ever-after as the movie, at least according to an “Trivia” poster, who claims that according to Arthur Laurents McGuire left Roth about five years after the movie was made to be Gay and move in with a male partner (and quite frankly one can see that coming from Eddie Albert’s rather queeny portrayal of him!). It’s one of the most remarkable movies of its type ever made, far outstripping both With a Song in My Heart and the Neely O’Hara character arc from Valley of the Dolls — of which I wrote in these pages that I couldn’t help but think Susan Hayward must have had a sense of dèja vu about: “You think this piece of shit is great? I did a much better movie on this premise 13 years ago! It was called I’ll Cry Tomorrow — did any of you see it?” (And in Valley of the Dolls Hayward was returned to the world of being voice-doubled; her song, “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” clearly written around what was left of Judy Garland’s voice by 1968, was sung on the soundtrack by Margaret Whiting.)