Posted by Moira Finnie on March 24, 2010
Normally, blogs that commemorate a “deathiversary” of a person are anathema to me. Still, when I stumbled across the fact earlier this month that March 10th marked the day that actress Helen Walker died in 1968 at age 47, my attention was drawn to her story. I’ve always been beguiled by the indelible impressions she left on screen in only a handful of performances I’ve seen. Best remembered today for her work in film noirs such as Nightmare Alley (1946-Edmund Goulding), Call Northside 777 (1948-Henry Hathaway), Impact (1949-Arthur Lubin), and The Big Combo (1955-Joseph Lewis), the actress remains a relatively obscure figure, in part because several of her forties’ movies have languished in archives for years, unseen by current classic film fans for some time. Maybe she was just one of hundreds of young women who became a limited-run product off the studio assembly line, but behind those dancing eyes of hers, a person seemed to be at home, projecting a blend of self-mocking bemusement, a kittenish warmth, and later, a chill of knowing recognition in her unsettling, unblinking gaze.
Thanks in part to the paperback reissue of Karen Lorraine Hannsberry’s Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film (McFarland) late last year, at least one, well-researched, factual account of the life of Helen Walker has become readily available today. After reading all of the profiles featuring 49 of the women who gave film noir its heart of darkness, I came away with renewed respect for the femme fatales, the survivors, the tough cookies, the babes and the vulnerable few on the pages of this book. Karen, who is also the editor of the bimonthly film noir newsletter The Dark Pages, spent five years compiling this resource as a labor of love.
Another reason for Walker‘s nebulous spot in our collective cinematic memory is the fleeting nature of her meteoric rise and long fall, thanks to a combination of bad luck, the flaws in human nature, and Hollywood’s chronic selective amnesia. Once viewers have a chance to see this actress, however, her cool blonde demeanor, throaty voice, and her ambivalent, impudently provocative air all indicate a talented, fiercely intelligent woman whose mark on the movies should have been considerably deeper than it was. Unlike some of the lasting famous, such as John Gilbert or Judy Garland, whose often troubled lives have enhanced their on-screen allure, Walker still survives in the shadows, though the issue of Nightmare Alley on DVD and the rise of interest in film noir has brought the actress more attention from many people in recent years. Maybe it’s the appeal of tragic self-destruction, or perhaps it is her evident talent, or the way that life intervened, preventing the fulfillment of her gifts, but I think her legacy as an admirable performer deserves a nod.
Arriving in Hollywood in June, 1942 with a Paramount contract when she was just past 21, Walker should have had the world by the tail. Helen Walker had been on her own for six years by then, beginning her hardscrabble climb in show biz as a sixteen year old from “the very far side of the railroad tracks” in Worcester, MA. Helen Walker was the middle daughter in a family of three sisters known as “the beautiful Walker girls” in that city, as her mother struggled to raise the girls after her husband’s death when Helen was four.
Theatrical success in high school, including a stint in the lead of a play based on Jane Eyre, had led to a stock company opportunity. This ultimately took her to New York, where the actress found that she “couldn’t get anyone to give me a single part.” When the money ran out, she went “to work at a shirt manufacturing company” writing copy, allowing the boss to chase her around the desk, and attempting some modeling (which she loathed), until she had a “war chest” to use for another attempted invasion of the Broadway stage. After months of searching for work, Walker finally landed a job understudying the robustly healthy Dorothy McGuire in Rose Franken’s Claudia, never once stepping on stage for the star.
It’s tempting to read what ultimately happened to Helen Walker into her roles, just as it is when you look at the roads traveled by other noir actors such as Tom Neal, Lawrence Tierney, or Gail Russell, another haunting actress whose lingering effect far outstripped that of her more productive contemporaries. Interestingly, the diffident Russell, according to Yvonne de Carlo’s autobiography, was befriended by another, more worldly Paramount contractee, Helen Walker, who was four years older than Russell. According to de Carlo, the more sophisticated, theatrically poised actress, hired by Paramount in 1942 after receiving praise for her work in Samson Raphaelson’s Jason on Broadway, may have been one of the people who introduced the overwhelmed Gail Russell to the soothing effects of vodka before facing the intrusive gaze of the camera. Given the “beauty with brains” air that Walker projected on screen from her first appearance opposite new star Alan Ladd in Lucky Jordan (1942-Frank Tuttle), it doesn’t seem to have occurred to most observers that she might be a vulnerable individual too.
According to several interviews, she had about $8 in her pocket when she came off the train to work for Paramount, but a studio minion placed her immediately in a posh apartment house in LA with hot and cold running bellboys and the de rigueur swimming pool. Needing transportation to and from her glamorous new job, she was also persuaded to buy a shiny convertible on the installment plan, reflecting some elusive, new-found glory appropriate for a new contractee, and putting her into serious hock. Paramount, in its wisdom, immediately put this new girl on hold, after using her for a few publicity shots and reportedly having her appear in a few of those three minute musical movies called soundies that played in bars and restaurants across the nation, well before television offered endless audio-visual wallpaper in the background of our lives.
One of the first big interviews that Paramount Pictures arranged for their new contract player in 1942 was entitled “No, This Couldn’t Happen” when it was carried in newspapers throughout wartime America. Ironically, the confident young rising star who was featured in this piece might have found those words too prophetic. By the end of 1946, Helen Walker had appeared in several movies that earned her a small niche in Hollywood as an articulate beauty whose poise and talent had a quicksilver quality, enabling her to play both comic and serious parts with equal ease.
Coming across as a down-to-earth person who was able to appreciate her luck, Walker earnestly told a reporter that the “first thing that happens when you get a chance like this is that you whoop with joy. Then, when the thrill passes, you start to thinking. What do you know about film acting anyway? Not much, not much. You’ve got to learn–and quickly.” Concerned that she might waste valuable time on the set and try the public and her employers’ patience, the actress initially applied herself, appearing in ten movies by the end of 1946.
These films included one divinely out of control screwball comedy, Murder, He Says (1945-George Marshall), which I regard as one of the wildest farces ever made. Some truly hilarious moments are evoked by an adept cast that included Fred MacMurray as a kidnapped pollster, caught in the clutches of a madcap band of hillbillies named Fleagle, played by Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, and Peter Whitney (in a dual role as a pair of deadly and dumb twins). In an absurdly hectic plot that included murder, hidden loot, and phosphorescent people and dogs, Walker bursts into the story as a cigar-chewing escaped convict who seems to have seen one too many Edward G. Robinson movies. Her part allowed her to be a kind of dea ex machina who is responsible for shifting the loopy action into high gear. Surrounded by experienced, skilled farceurs, Walker‘s capacity for playing comedy with a nice blend of humor and common sense shone as brightly as that glowing mutt who goes darting by, like the dark humor of Murder, He Says. This film, which was the first that introduced me to Helen Walker‘s appeal when I was a kid, ensconced itself and its players in my memory for life. A silly, frantically crafted little gem, it is only currently available commercially on VHS and has not been shone on television in years.
Another film that was a cut above the fare Walker was normally given, was a supernatural melodrama that told a haunting story of the longing for immortality. The Man in Half Moon Street (1945-Ralph Murphy) featured the under-appreciated Nils Asther as her leading man, prompting the impressed actress to recall waiting in line as a child to see Nils Asther opposite Greta Garbo in The Single Standard (1929). Helen Walker‘s romantic role as an Edwardian era woman unexpectedly suited the actress, whose appearance in turn of the century costume enhanced her beauty considerably. In love with a man of suspiciously unblemished youth, she, Asther and character actor Reinhold Schünzel helped to make a low budget movie effective through their eloquent acting. Pledging her character’s commitment to her fiancé, despite circumstances, the actress gave a poignant believability to her betrothal to a man who lived “opposed to all that was natural.” Using her deep, yet soft voice to express her wholehearted depth of feeling, Walker gave lines such as “I’ll share your madness because there’s grandeur in it. And I have faith–and love,” a fervor that was touchingly effective, despite the grand guignol flavor of the story, (and also allowing a viewer to suspend disbelief without feeling completely manipulated by the cockamamie plot).
Another film which presented the effervescent and incisive Ernst Lubitsch touch in the director’s penultimate film, based on Margery Sharp’s Cluny Brown (1946), allowed Helen Walker several moments to shine.
As Betty Cream, a haughty, aristocratic English beauty who cavalierly toys with the hearts of the rather dense men surrounding her, Walker is a delight in her supporting part in this vehicle for Jennifer Jones (who gives one of her most enchanting performances as a working class girl with a yen for plumbing) and Charles Boyer (as a refugee philosopher who is bemused by the notion of “squirrels to the nuts”…or is it “nuts to the squirrels”?). The ensemble nature of this beautifully constructed confection surrounded Walker with highly talented players such as Reginald Gardiner, Richard Haydn, Sara Allgood, and Reginald Owen, whose enjoyment of this droll satire on class and intellectual pretensions presented audiences with a certain level of Hollywood high style that was on the wane, even then.
Spoiled, bored and blithely dismissing the World War then erupting, Helen Walker‘s character seems lit from within to be in such company, purring like a cat and expressing her socialite character’s blasé manner in every sigh and raised eyebrow. There is also an underlying sense that her restlessly flirtatious, but ultimately complacent character, unlike that of the Peter Lawford character she eventually agrees to marry, has intuitively understood that she is not a “woman of substance,” but one whose life might just be more challenging if approached like a game, rather than in an earnest manner. Costumed by Bonnie Cashin in some elaborately amusing dresses and hats that suggest a form of feminine armor in the way that Walker wears them, she appears uncertain only when caught unawares in her nightgown late at night by a charmed but wary Boyer and her soon-to-be fiance’s mother (Margaret Bannerman). This role, as happily superficial as any that Walker played in several of her comedies, provides a nice counterpoint to Jones’ unsophisticated character, and earned her supporting work considerable praise from contemporary critics, who noted her “delectable” qualities upon release. The charming Cluny Brown (1946) is presently only available in a Region 2 DVD, but deserves to be more widely known. Fortunately, TCM has shown this movie within the last year, and may schedule it again in the future.
Between movies, Helen Walker also participated in a series of war bond drives that often meant visiting fifty cities in one whirlwind tour after another in the company of combat veterans whose stoicism touched her. Known as a soft touch, her home was regarded as an open house for many, at least until her luck turned on New Year’s Eve, 1946. That night, while driving to Los Angeles from Palm Springs, following a custom of many generous drivers of the war era, she picked up a young serviceman, 21 year old Pfc. Robert E. Lee, along with two other men, Philip Mercado and Joseph Montaldo, who were all hitchhiking along the highway.
Sometime close to midnight, near Redlands, California, Walker hit a median in the road, causing the car to flip several times, killing Lee, and badly fracturing the pelvis, collarbone and several toes of the actress. Hospitalized for almost two months, Walker was charged with manslaughter in the death of the young soldier, though by March, 1947 those charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. The actress was later sued for over $150,000 by both of the other surviving passengers, who testified that Walker may have been drinking and was driving at a high rate of speed, sometimes alleged to be 90 miles, though the actress publicly said it was closer to half that rate.
The immediate consequence of this horrific accident on her career was the loss of work. She was replaced by Marjorie Reynolds on the film that she had recently begun filming, Heaven Only Knows (1947-Albert S. Rogell), at a cost of over $100k. Some ill will was generated by the publicity that accompanied the reports of the accident within the respectability-worshiping Hollywood community and the nation, as people were understandably appalled at the headlines that indicated her possible culpability in the death of a young veteran.
Somewhat surprisingly, one unlikely voice spoke up for the actress, however. On Jan. 20th, 1947, Hearst columnist Louella Parsons wrote that it was “[i]ronic that Helen Walker should have killed a soldier. She, as much as any young actress, did outstanding war work. She has 13 citations from the blood bank, her house was an open canteen during the war, and she is credited with more appearances at the [M]asquers than any other young Hollywood actress.” The Hollywood gossip monger added that “[a]lthough she has been in great pain this week, her despondency is the thing that the doctors have to fight.” While this sort of public sympathy may have been well intended, the indication that depression was now a factor in the badly hurt woman’s life seems like an invasion of her privacy and an improbable way of eliciting practical help for the actress, whose wounds, psychologically and physically, never quite healed, though she was eventually absolved of guilt publicly. In an interview some time after this event, Walker, expressing regret over the event, and sorrowful over the incomprehensible reason for the death of Robert Lee, only hoped “that by reading about my misfortune, some folks will be more careful.”
After months of recovery, Walker appeared in an uninspired horse racing story, The Homestretch (1947), supporting stars Cornel Wilde and Maureen O’Hara. This movie was directed by Bruce Humberstone, Walker‘s boyfriend at the time of the car crash. She had been driving his car on New Year’s Eve. The outcome of this tragedy ultimately left its mark on Helen Walker for the rest of her life. In an intriguing sense, however, it also marked the beginning of her best work. As she tried to heal and return to work, her film acting became far less presentational, and took on more nuanced shades of gray, appearing to comment on the roles as she played them, and, from a 2010 point of view, remaining contemporary in several ways today.
Since I would like to examine this next, intriguing phase of Helen Walker’s career, the film noir period of her life on screen will be the subject of my next post. As one character prophetically comments to another in Nightmare Alley (1947-Edmund Goulding), “I can’t understand how anybody could get so low.”
“It can happen,” the other, a more experienced hand, comments drily.
The second part of “Helen Walker: A Well Kept Secret Part II” can be read here
*Robert F. Blumhofe (1909-2003) would later go on to produce Yours, Mine and Ours, Pieces of Dreams and Academy Award best-picture nominee Bound for Glory, as well as acting as a driving force in building up the American Film Institute. After the end of his brief marriage to Helen Walker, Blumhofe was married to noir fave, actress Doris Dowling, from 1956-1959, and had a long marriage to Joan Benny, the daughter of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, from 1963 until his death.
Back the Attack: Show Thrills Big Crowd in Capital, The Washington Post, Sept. 10, 1943.
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