Posted by Moira Finnie on March 31, 2010
This is the second part of a profile of actress Helen Walker. The first part can be seen here.
“No wonder so many actors are out of work,…considering all the lousy scripts the agents hand you…with such big build-ups. They’re nearly all tripe. The dialogue is all the same. Everything’s been done before. I’ve read 15 or 20 scripts in the last three weeks and only one was any good.”
–Helen Walker, in one of her more impolitic public comments to a reporter in the 1940s.
After almost three years in Hollywood, Helen Walker‘s life and career came to a turning point by the mid-1940s. As seen in the first part of this two part blog on the actress, found here, Walker had proven that she could hold her own in fast comedic company with popular successes such as Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Murder, He Says (1945). She had also shown an untapped capacity for drama evidenced by her effectiveness in The Man on Half Moon Street (1943). Critics had begun to describe her as a “charmingly different personality,” noting her poise and ability to uncover a laugh or a character nuance–sometimes despite the quality of the rest of the production. Still, Paramount persisted in using their contractee’s services in several B movies destined for Broadway grind houses and a dismal spot on the lower halves of double bills. Walker refused to appear in one more ill-conceived comedy, (1945′s all-star melange, Duffy’s Tavern (1945), based on a popular radio show), followed by another, Follow That Woman (1945). She also made the tactical error of bluntly pointing out to a Los Angeles Times reporter that she felt “stymied…while waiting confidently for ‘grown-up’ parts.”
Expecting a suspension followed by a more acceptable part, the actress instead received the contractual heave-ho from Paramount, which, like most movie studios of the period, was top heavy with talent. The studio had previously announced that Walker was cast in roles in everything from The Uninvited (can you imagine that without Gail Russell?), a comeback vehicle for Helen Hayes and Ethel Barrymore, a role in a Cecil B. DeMille epic, The Unconquered (Helen Walker in buckskin?) and a leading part in something called “Girls’ Town,” which was supposed to have pitted Walker, Veronica Lake, Marjorie Reynolds, Ella Raines and every other Paramount female under 40 against one another. After her last script rejection, however, the earnest actress rounded out her time at Paramount with a punishing assignment in another low brow film based on a radio program, the limp, D.O.A. product called People Are Funny (1945-Sam White).
Walker shared screen time with a bland array of talent in this B movie purgatory about an entertainment “genius” (Jack Haley, in a part that was a long way from the Tin Man) found on an alleged talent radio show in the boonies by a couple of city slickers. Others in the cast included an affable Ozzie Nelson, a snarky Rudy Vallee, and emcee Art Linkletter, in a threadbare story satirizing radio entertainment. Walker looks a bit nonplussed by the variety of amateur hick variety acts paraded through the movie as endearingly “real.” Think of the most mind-numbing patches of America’s Got Talent and American Idol set in the vacuum tube era, and you’ll have a good concept of this unfortunate piece of celluloid, though you can also see the now public domain film in its entirety here on the Internet Archive, if you must. Despite the anemic script, Walker managed to make her part as a hotshot radio producer into the sole intelligent, if ethically challenged character. She seems to be imagining herself as a younger version of a Rosalind Russell “career girl,” complete with a brisk attitude and an amusing wardrobe that made her appear more formidable, thanks to the studio designer, Odette, (whose costumes for Kitty Foyle had also added a layer to that story). Fortunately, a short term contract with 20th Century Fox resulted in more sophisticated fare, such as the Lubitsch charmer, Cluny Brown (1946), which was touched on in the first part of this blog.
After Helen Walker‘s disappointment with Paramount, her divorce from attorney Robert Blumhofe, and the shattering effect of the car accident on New Year’s Eve, 1946 on her career and health, it is tempting to wonder if the renewal of her contract at 20th Century Fox in April, 1947, might have been a lifesaver for the newly mature actress. Believing, as she hoped, “that things happen for a reason,” and saying she was “very happy” after manslaughter charges were dismissed by the judge due to “insufficient and uncertain evidence,” the actress was faced with civil litigation from the two survivors of the crash. Based on a perusal of subsequent mentions of her work in the entertainment press, Walker‘s involvement in this tragedy often cast a shadow across reportage on her activities in the movies from then on. In one example, Louella Parsons, in her best sob sister manner, reported the new Fox contract with the aside that she was “the girl acquitted (sic) of manslaughter charges following the death of a soldier to whom she had given a lift in her car before it crashed.” The end of this item concluded by mentioning that Helen Walker‘s “new role in Nightmare Alley is very good–or should I say very bad–since its Lilith…” 20th Century Fox studio was capable of cranking out its share of profitable lightweight films featuring a candy-colored Betty Grable or the eccentric Technicolor talent of Carmen Miranda, but their fare also included more realistic and controversially-themed movies as well, especially as the dark side of the American Dream of success and transcendence began to be examined in film noirs in the postwar era.
Directed by Edmund Goulding, Nightmare Alley was made shortly after he had crafted a more respectably ambitious movie from W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946) for 20th Century Fox, also with Tyrone Power, (the latter film is one that some of us still cherish, despite being unfashionable among most critics today). Goulding‘s restrained and elegant romanticism on screen contradicted his own private taste for outré pursuits, but this movie brought out the old Hollywood hand’s best, as he coaxed exceptional performances from each actor in this movie, suggesting rather than spelling out the corruption beneath the surface in the story, made in a time when the Production Code made ellipses and implicit moments necessary. Today the movie might be adapted in all its tawdry reality to the screen, but I doubt it would have the power that this story still retains, based on the performances, the black and white chiaroscuro of Lee Garmes‘ beautiful cinematography and Cyril Mockridge’s score (laced with Goulding’s own melodies as well). Nor would it have the restless Tyrone Power, who had grown weary of the roles in adventure and romantic pictures that had made him a highly profitable star while exploiting his astounding good looks. The role in Nightmare Alley may have appealed to him in part because the story was a commentary on the vacuousness of an American society preoccupied with surface success and increasingly taken in by the sham aspects of show biz, made more troubling when religion was involved. It might also be interpreted as a commentary on his own beloved screen persona, while the part also revealed his own ambitious depth of talent, which he would never express as fully or as well on film again.
(Note: There are some mild spoilers below)
Adapted by veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman and author William Lindsay Gresham from his own savagely poetic and tawdry novel, Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle, (Tyrone Power) an amoral carnival barker turned high class mentalist who occasionally asks himself why he is a manipulative sham–in between using those around him for his own ends. Treating life as one vast con game, those in Power’s path include the maternal figure of the superb Joan Blondell in one of her best roles of the 1940s. As Zeena, the careworn Tarot card reader who shares her bed and eventually her mind-reading code with the roustabout on the make, she is tied to a sot of a husband, played beautifully by Ian Keith in one of the best examples in movies of an actor making a small part into a miniature masterpiece. Ingenue Coleen Gray played the relatively innocent, nurturing Molly, who marries Power‘s character after their liaison becomes public knowledge. Gray, who is the only cast member still living, recalled that the director reserved most of his attention for the other three principals, though he would also mimic them on occasion, even doing a fine imitation of Helen Walker‘s “no-blinking trick.”
Walker‘s character, a society psychoanalyst whose credentials and motives are suspect, is first encountered in the scene below. Her sleek and rapacious look in the nightclub scene gives her an Amazonian aura, as though she has been preparing for combat, as much as a night on the town. As her attempt to unmask the tricks beneath Stan Carlisle’s fake mind-reading act reveal, her self-assured manner and smirk indicate a woman capable of challenging the slick, character projected by Power on the gullible rich. The juxtaposition of her somewhat masculine demeanor when the pair joust a second time when they meet next, in her hermetically sealed office, might have been the beginning of a love affair in a different movie. Yet, although Stan doesn’t realize it until it is nearly over:
The unique role of Lilith Ritter, the icy shrink whose sense of superiority in a world full of rubes matches that of Tyrone Power‘s fake mentalist, seems different from other femme fatales in film noirs, whose actions are often a blend of greed for money and sex. Was it money that she wanted? Perhaps, though the avid love of her own power over others seems to suggest something more. Others see her as a closeted lesbian, though I believe that is too simple an explanation of her character’s cryptic air and misanthropic manner. Egging on The Great Stanton’s dreams of conning the rich by sharing her own knowledge of their often sad and pathetic desires, she doesn’t really seem to need anyone or anything other than her own faith in her supremacy.
As played by Walker, Lilith recalls the biblical phrase expressing awestruck admiration for a creation who is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” She is never entirely knowable, shifting shape throughout the film, going from a glamorous vision of womanhood when we first meet her in a confrontation with Power in a nightclub, adopting a starchy arrogance and a more masculine form in her starkly expressionistic office when they have another meeting and become co-conspirators, (though not lovers, as they are in the book). Still later, her attitude takes on a stealthy seductiveness when she learns his innermost doubts and secrets. Eventually she dismisses Stanton when she is finished with him (taking his money too). The revelation of the superiority of this chilling la belle dame sans merci is more remarkable since the triumph of Helen Walker‘s character is not punished in the manner of most films of the time, which tailored their content to fit Production Code’s still rigid templates of acceptable human behavior in the movies. The 27 year old Walker had found the ‘grown-up’ role that she had longed for earlier in her career, though now only the small, unmaskable lines beneath her eyes imply the strains that her life made on her.
Unfortunately, the film’s advertising and the public’s lack of interest in what seemed to be merely seamy led to a lackluster time at the box office for the mere two weeks of its first run. “The studio,” recalled Coleen Gray, “thought it was a bummer, too downbeat, and did nothing publicity-wise; there was no campaign. Consequently, it came and went without notice.” With few critics championing the quality of the story and the performances, Nightmare Alley was shifted aside by 20th Century Fox’s belief that Power‘s next prestigious adventure tale, Captain From Castile, had a better chance of being box office and even a possible award winner. It would be ten years before the movie began to be appreciated when it was revived and broadcast on television. Though Nightmare Alley was tied up for several years in a copyright dispute related to Zanuck crony George Jessel‘s rights as producer, it was issued on DVD in 2005 and is now aired regularly on cable.
With her finest work to date in an overlooked movie, Helen Walker‘s next role was probably one of her most conventional, though it was featured in a financial and critical success. Despite brief screen time and an underwritten part, Walker exuded her now customary intelligence along with a watchful, nocturnal vigilance in her scenes opposite crusading reporter Jimmy Stewart‘s in Call Northside 777 (1948). She played a warmly supportive wife, sounding board and conscience in this excellent docu-noir directed by Henry Hathaway, which wove fictional elements into a shot-on-location story about a miscarriage of justice that occurred in Chicago. The film, which Suzi Doll described particularly well here in an earlier blog, probably could have been completed without Walker‘s contribution, but her brief but powerful presence humanizes the cynical character of the reporter, making his transition into a man on a mission dramatically credible and emotionally richer for a viewer. Issued by Fox Noir in one of its excellent series of DVDs, Call Northside 777 (1948) has received extensive airplay in recent years on cable.
The following year, Helen Walker‘s tart way with a line helped her appearance in a role as Kirk Douglas‘ former secretary/mistress in My Dear Secretary (1949-Charles Martin). This movie was apparently a vain try by newly minted star Douglas to leaven his serious films with lighter fare. Walker was a bright spot in a truly dismal comedy, along with the rest of the great supporting cast, which included Keenan Wynn, Florence Bates, Alan Mowbray and Irene Ryan, as well as Laraine Day in the distaff lead. (Among the minor players was even that perplexed man of many bit parts, Grady Sutton, a favorite of the Finnies). While Kirk Douglas would have considerable success with pointed comic lines when he appeared in a beautifully written Joseph Mankiewicz film, The Letter to Three Wives (1949), his ability to mine laughs from this stony script and unimaginative direction was beyond his then growing star power. (My memory of another, much later Kirk comedy, For Love or Money (1963) may be a bit hazy, but I believe that movie, even though graced by the glorious Thelma Ritter, proved conclusively that Douglas should probably avoid deliberate mirth fests from then on). You can also see My Dear Secretary (1949) here at the Internet Archive and it is readily available on DVD–though one wonders why.
In this same year there were brief mentions in the press of a possible pre-Broadway tryout with Walker and Francis Lederer in a play with the unpromising title, Springboard to Nowhere by Alexander Libor. Except for two short forays back to the stage in the last half of the fifties on the West Coast, however, a return to the stage came to nothing as the actress’ career went along.
One of the other outlets that the actress tried in making her path back into a viable career was in radio. In this 1948 adaptation by Irving Ravetch‘s of Cornell Woolrich‘s Deadline at Dawn for the radio program, Suspense, Helen Walker uses her beautifully modulated speaking voice in a radio version the story of two lost souls in a lonely city. As the leading lady, she encounters John Beal, who co-starred as the confused young man she meets while working as a taxi dancer. She does a wonderful job in setting a scene and creating a vivid character in Woolrich‘s dream-like nocturnal story. (Interestingly, this version of the original tale is also much closer to the book than the 1946 Harold Clurman-directed movie with Susan Hayward, Bill Williams and Paul Lukas).
Impact (1949-Arthur Lubin) gave Helen Walker a chance to play mischievously in a noirish film that gave her a fascinating role as business giant Brian Donlevy‘s cosseted, duplicitous wife. This independently made movie featured several interesting plot twists from seasoned film noir hand Jay Dratler along with Dorothy Reid, highlighting intriguing contrasts between the complexities of urban life, (featuring San Francisco locations) and rural life, (in scenes set in Larkspur, CA, standing in for a fictional town in Idaho).
In one of the roles that made me realize how exceptionally gifted Walker was, I was drawn in by her ability to play a seemingly sweet and attentive woman with a dash of sarcasm just under the surface as she coos insincerely one minute while plotting her hubby’s demise with her unappealingly bland lover in the next.
In the beginning of the movie, the pampered wife appears to be like a silk-wrapped diamond set inside a plush but airless Dorothy Draper-designed jewelry box in that over decorated apartment that her husband’s money and devotion has purchased for her. (She is even one of those odd, narcissistic characters who populate movies of this period who has her own picture in a silver frame next to her lounging chair). In a way Helen Walker‘s character, Irene Williams, has allowed herself to be objectified and placed on a pedestal, with her overly emphatic responses to Donlevy‘s stomach-turning term of endearment, “Duchess,” a sign of the wife’s tension. As my friend Wendy wrote about her recently, “her demeanor was so suggestive of dalliance and at the same time entitlement. She thought she deserved all the money AND a guy on the side.” I suspect that, if one could overlook her character’s deviousness, Walker‘s restless intelligence made it more likely for her character to seek another outlet for her drive other than looking like she belonged to a successful man. Given the social restraints on the time, perhaps there was a dramatic inevitability to her character’s descent into conspiracy and murder. The role of the hypocritical, well-groomed wife also offered the viewer a nice contrast to the striking beauty of Ella Raines‘ “natural woman,” whom we first meet when an amnesiac Donlevy, wounded and dazed after an attempt on his life, stumbles across Raines‘ character of Marsha Peters as she is working on a car in her family’s service station.
As the corkscrew story progressed, and the wife’s strategems are gradually revealed, her manner shifted when she is brought to trial for her role in the alleged death of her husband, confined to a jail and saddled with a lawyer (Harry Cheshire) who is looking out for Number One, though he might deign to help his client if there is a promise of money in it. As the perceptive Wendy described this transition in Walker‘s character, when “she found herself more and more under suspicion, she started ripping and tearing out the words like a pit bull,” she seems outraged to be stripped of her finery, her schemes and what she thought was her cushy, self-determined fate. By the end of the movie, despite the natural sympathy that this viewer felt for Ella Raines and Brian Donlevy, (who gives one of his most sensitive performances), I found myself feeling a pang for this spider woman as she was demolished on the stand à la Perry Mason (by Art Baker, of all people!), and wished that her comeuppance might have been meted out by the hands of a more worthy opponent. According to Helen Walker, she had originally received the “nice girl role offered [to her, but] I turned it down. I wanted the other role, which had guts.” Impact (1949), which is also available here on the Internet Archive, can be seen in a better than expected print on DVD from Image Entertainment as well.
In the same year that she made Impact, the actress met and married Edward DuDomaine, a furrier who was a department store executive. Unfortunately, their marriage, which ended in 1952, was marked by strife. This conflict may have grown out of what Walker described in court as DuDomaine‘s reported disdain for the movie industry, but it may also have been the result of the gradual deterioration of Helen Walker‘s health as she began to experience hospitalizations, and her drinking played a greater role in her life. Despite these issues, in 1951 a markedly aged but still appealing 31 year old Walker stepped before the cameras again in the directorial debut of Mickey Rooney for Columbia pictures, with My True Story (1951).
The plot, centered around an elaborately planned heist from an old lady, (Elisabeth Risdon, who is quite effective, especially in her scenes with Walker), and it might be categorized as a “minor” role for the compelling Walker, whose characterization of a parolee only came to life momentarily for me. When her character, after being sprung from the pen to assist a “mastermind” in the robbery, finds herself surrounded by men in this den of thieves, she muses while nursing a potent-looking martini. Almost resigned to becoming involved with the same sort of schemers who landed her in jail, she sighs and comments bitterly that the worst thing about being in prison for two years was being locked up “with a lot of dames.” The 67 minute film, which limps to its inevitable close, also featured the screen debut of Aldo DaRe, another actor whose real promise was never quite fulfilled in Hollywood, even after turning in good performances in The Marrying Kind (1952), Pat and Mike (1952), We’re No Angels (1955) and Nightfall (1957), among other films, even after the one-time policeman changed his name to Aldo Ray after this movie. My True Story has appeared on TCM in the past, though it does not appear to have ever been issued on video in any form.
While I have not been able to see Problem Girls (1953-Ewald André Dupont), an obscure exploitation film about life in a Los Angeles reformatory for rich girls, the film apparently elicits responses from viewers impressed with Jack Pollexfen‘s lively, if campy script and the prospect of Helen Walker striking a blow for B movie authority figures. She plays the overseer of the likes of Beverly Garland and Mara Corday, two younger actresses of the period who were survivors of this level of melodramatic moviemaking that one commentor on IMDb described as “in the Ed Wood tradition.” This movie has apparently appeared on TCM in the past, so perhaps if you are a Helen Walker completist or a fan of this stuff, you might look for it again on the schedule.
Significantly, Helen Walker‘s last big screen appearance came in one of the last movies of the film noir genre of the fifties, in The Big Combo (1955-Joseph Lewis). This highly enjoyable, well cast movie, which featured a pair of noir stalwarts, Richard Conte and Brian Donlevy, in two of their better roles, along with a slew of younger supporting actors, including Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman, once pushed the envelope of acceptable on-screen content thanks to sexual frankness and chilling violence. The movie also gave a nearly unrecognizable Walker one last, brief but meaty role. As Alicia Brown, the psychologically fragile character who is in hiding, Helen Walker‘s intensity as mobster Richard Conte‘s discarded first wife is both touching and repellent in her fear and her bitterness. In response to obsessed police detective Cornel Wilde‘s insistence that she testify against her brutal former spouse, she finally relents. Before she does, however, she spies Jean Wallace (who played the entrapped, rich young mistress of Conte‘s Mr. Brown). Recoiling, the actress venomously delivers screenwriter Philip Yordan‘s acidic lines as she promises that “I wouldn’t raise a finger to help that girl. Let her go through what I went through, I hate her. Her and every other woman who ever had anything to do with him. I don’t want to help,” she adds, “but I will.”
While her acting in this controversial film earned Helen Walker some good notices, her chagrin over her career–and her life–once led her to wrap a birthday present in her old movie stills that she delivered to a party she attended, commenting that “they’re aren’t good for anything else.” Sadly, the downward spiral that her life took after The Big Combo seemed to accelerate. Her life began to consist of hospital stays, occasional appearances in a few television shows, including a spot on The Ozzie and Harriet Show, a DUI arrest, an unexplained fire that destroyed her home in 1960, a subsequent benefit organized by Ruth Roman, Hugh O’Brian, among others, and, tragically, cancer of the jaw in the early ’60s caused her to withdraw from public life to a small North Hollywood apartment and her early death in 1968.
Before we start hanging the crepe for this talented lost soul, it might be good to remember the politically incorrect words of Runyonesque New York journalist Mel Heimer in 1968, who recalled his friend, Helen Walker, after her passing. For him it meant that “… a little of Peter Pan has gone out the window and won’t be back. Some of us…like to guffaw our way through life, and Helen, whom I met 20 years ago, belonged to our select company. She was a tall, lovely blonde with gray eyes–even if your manners were impeccable, you had to whistle at her–and in the 1940s, she was on her way to reasonable fame and fortune…but everything was a big laugh.”
According to one news report in this last stage of her short, but, I hope, occasionally joyous life, Helen Walker found herself occasionally dismayed when strangers approached her. Half-remembering her work of the previous decades, they would sometimes insist that she was Betty Hutton, as they confused her appearance in the Fred MacMurray comedy with the singer of the novelty song, “Murder, He Says” in the movie Happy Go Lucky (1943). “I’ve been in Hollywood for 15 years, and have done almost 20 pictures,” she told a reporter, “and all they remember me for is Murder, He Says–and they don’t really even remember that, or me!”
The actress was wrong. Some of us remember her well.
My deepest thanks to Wendy for permission to quote her words, and to Karen Burroughs Hannsberry and Alan K. Rode for their shared enthusiasm during the preparation of this blog.
Film Actress Cleared By Court, The Telegraph, April 9, 1947.
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