Helen Morgan

Helen Morgan

Infobox Actor
name = Helen Morgan

caption = Helen Morgan photo taken by Carl Van Vechten, 1935
birthdate = birth date|1900|8|2
birthplace = Danville, Illinois
deathdate = death date and age|1941|10|9|1900|8|2
deathplace = Chicago, Illinois
birthname = Helen Riggins
spouse = Maurice Maschke, Jr. (1933-1935)
Lloyd Johnston (1941-1941)

Helen Morgan (August 2, 1900 – October 9, 1941) was an American singer and actress who worked in films and on the stage. A quintessential torch singer, she made a big splash in the Chicago club scene in the 1920s. She starred as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway production of Hammerstein and Kern's musical "Show Boat" in 1927, and appeared in its two subsequent film adaptations, in 1929 (prologue only) and in 1936, becoming firmly associated with the role. She suffered from bouts of alcoholism, and despite her notable success in the title role of another Hammerstein and Hart's Broadway musical, "Sweet Adeline" (1929), her stage career was relatively short. Helen Morgan died from of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 41. She was portrayed in the 1957 biopic "The Helen Morgan Story".


Helen was born 'Helen Riggins' on August 2, 1900 in rural Danville, Illinois. Her father was a farmer and a schoolteacher. After her mother remarried, she changed the last name to 'Morgan'. Her mother's second marriage ended in divorce, and she moved to Chicago with her daughter. Helen never finished school beyond the eighth grade, and worked a variety of jobs just to get by. In 1923 she entered the Miss Montreal contest, even going to New York to meet Miss America Katherine Campbell, but when she returned, her American citizenship was discovered and she was disqualified. She also worked as an extra in films. By the age of twenty Morgan had taken voice lessons and started singing in speakeasies in Chicago.

Helen Morgan's high, thin, and somewhat wobbly voice was not fashionable during the 1920s for the kind of songs that she specialized in, but nevertheless she became a wildly popular torch singer. Her heart bled about hard living and heartbreak onto her accompanist's piano. This draped-over-the-piano look became her signature look while performing at Billy Rose's Backstage Club in 1925. In spite of the National Prohibition Act of 1919 outlawing alcohol in the United States, Morgan became a heavy drinker and was often reportedly drunk during these performances.Fact|date=July 2008 During this period several Chicago gangsters tried to help fund her various attempts to open her own nightclub. However, Prohibition agents kept too strict an eye on her and these attempts failed.

In 1927 Helen Morgan appeared as Julie LaVerne in the original cast of "Show Boat", her best-known role. She sang "Bill" (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Hammerstein) and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in two stage runs and two film productions of the famous musical over a span of 11 years. (In the first film version of "Show Boat", made in 1929, Morgan appeared only in the song prologue; Alma Rubens played Julie in the film proper, which was mostly silent. However, Morgan did play the role in the 1936 film version of the musical.)

After appearing in the 1929 film version of "Show Boat", Morgan went on to star in Kern and Hammerstein's Broadway musical, "Sweet Adeline". The title was a pun on the famous barbershop quartet song. In the musical, Morgan introduced the songs "Why Was I Born" and "Don't Ever Leave Me". Oddly enough, when "Sweet Adeline" was filmed in 1934, Morgan's role went to her future "Show Boat" co-star, Irene Dunne, who possessed a lovely soprano, but was certainly not a torch singer.

Morgan was noticed by Florenz Ziegfeld while dancing in the chorus of his production of "Sally" in 1923 and she went on to perform with the "Ziegfeld Follies" in 1931, the Follies' last active year. During this period she studied music at the Metropolitan Opera in her free time.

In the late 1930s Morgan was signed up for a show at Chicago's Loop Theater. She also spent time at her farm in High Point, New York. Alcoholism plagued her and she was hospitalized in late 1940. Her career underwent something of a comeback in 1941, thanks to the help of manager Lloyd Johnson. However, the years of alcohol abuse had taken their toll. She collapsed onstage during a performance of "George White's Scandals of 1942" and died in Chicago of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1941.

Morgan was married three times, to a fan Lowell Army, whom she met at a stage door while she was performing in "Sally", to Maurice "Buddy" Maschke (they married on May 15, 1933 and divorced several years later), and to Lloyd Johnson, whom she married on July 27, 1941.

Morgan was portrayed by Polly Bergen in a 1957 "Playhouse 90" drama, directed by George Roy Hill, and won an Emmy Award for her performance. That same year, the feature film "The Helen Morgan Story" starred Ann Blyth as Morgan.


* "Six-Cylinder Love", 1923
* "The Heart Raider", 1923
* "Scandals", 1925
* " Show Boat", 1929 (in the prologue only, she appeared as Julie La Verne and sang "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill")
* "Applause", 1929 (sang "What Wouldn't I Do For that Man" and "Give Your Little Baby Lots of Lovin'")
* "Glorifying the American Girl", 1930 (sang "What Wouldn't I Do For that Man")
* "Roadhouse Nights", 1930 (sang "It Can't Go On Like This")
* "The Gigolo Racket", 1931 (sang "Nobody Breaks My Heart" and "I Know He's Mine")
* "Manhattan Lullaby", 1933 (sang "The Stork Song")
* "The Doctor", 1934 (sang "One Little Smile")
* "Frankie and Johnnie", 1934 (sang "Give Me a Heart to Sing To" and "If You Want My Heart")
* "You Belong to Me", 1934 (sang "When He Comes Home to Me")
* "Marie Galante", 1934 (sang "Song of a Dreamer" and "Serves Me Right for Treating You Wrong")
* "Sweet Music", 1935 (sang "I See Two Lovers")
* "Go Into Your Dance", 1935 (sang "The Little Things You Used to Do")
* " Show Boat", 1936 (as Julie La Verne she sang "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill")
* "The Coo Coo Nut Grove", 1936 (Warner Brothers cartoon, caricature singing "The Little Things You Used to Do" )


* "Sally", 1923 (chorus)
* "Scandals",1925-1926 (first principal role)
* "Americana", 1926
* "American Grand Guignol", 1927 (sang "Nobody Wants Me")
* "Show Boat", 1927-1929 (as Julie La Verne she sang "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill")
* "Sweet Adeline", 1929-1931 (starring role singing "T'was Not So Long Ago", "Here am I", "Why Was I Born?", "The Sun About to Rise" and "Don't Ever Leave Me!")
* "Ziegfeld Follies", 1931 (sang "Half-Caste Woman", lyrics by Noel Coward)
* "Show Boat", 1932-1933
* "Memory", 1934 (starring role singing "A Fool There Was")
* "A Night at the Moulin Rouge", 1939
* "Show Boat", 1940 (as Julie La Verne she sang "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill")



External links

* [http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?id=53685 Helen Morgan] at Internet Broadway Database
* [http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=10538 original 1927 "Show Boat" on Broadway] at Internet Broadway Database
* at Internet Movie Database
* [http://www.filmbug.com/asin/B00005JN9D Review of "The Helen Morgan Story"] at Filmbug

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