With her sweetly quivering, light soprano voice, Helen Morgan charmed audiences in the theater and on the silver screen in its earliest days. For many years she owned the part of Julie in Show Boat – not only playing it in the original 1927 Broadway musical but also reprising it on stage and on film. She died young but had a life eventful enough to inspire two biopics.
Born in 1900 in Danville, Illinois, Morgan never finished grade school, taking on odd jobs early in life. She enjoying singing at a young age and landed a job as a chanteuse in a Montreal nightclub in her teens. A slip of a girl, she had to sit on the piano to be seen; the result was so pleasing, however, that perching on the instrument became a trademark pose for her. Back in the United States, she was an uncredited extra in silent films already in 1923, and she established a career in New York speakeasies as a torch singer, attracting a number of admirers, some of them unsavory. She also developed a taste for liquor that would eventually prove her undoing.
Morgan got her start on Broadway in 1925, performing in George White’s Scandals. But her breakthrough role came two years later, when she created the part of Julie in the Kern-Hammerstein landmark musical Show Boat – which, in dealing with delicate racial issues, gave a new seriousness to the genre of musical theater. Two classic numbers from that show, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,” were particularly associated with Morgan, not only for her renditions in the first production and the 1932 revival but also for her performances in the 1929 and 1936 movies of Show Boat. Hammerstein’s own verdict on her performance as Julie: “Everything she did was exactly right.”
Morgan continued to work in nightclubs, and her fame as a chanteuse grew to a point where some clubs used her name to add luster to their establishments (Chez Helen Morgan, The Helen Morgan Club). In 1929, Morgan starred in another Kern-Hammerstein vehicle, Sweet Adeline, playing Addie, the aspiring singer in the Gay Nineties who leaves Hoboken for New York, the land of promise, and before long finds herself performing burlesque. Morgan’s numbers included “Why Was I Born” and “Don’t Ever Leave Me.”
Returning to Broadway in 1931, she had several numbers in the Ziegfeld Follies of that year. She also appeared in B movies in the 1930s, with singing parts in Glorifying the American Girl, Roadhouse Nights, The Gigolo Racket, Manhattan Lullaby, The Doctor, Frankie and Johnnie, You Belong to Me, Marie Galante, Sweet Music, and Go into Your Dance.
Morgan continued to drink immoderately, and her alcoholism caught up with her in 1941, when she collapsed after a performance in Chicago and died shortly afterward, at age forty-one, of cirrhosis of the liver.
In 1957, two versions of The Helen Morgan Story were produced – one for television, starring Polly Bergen; the other for the big screen, starring Ann Blyth and Paul Newman.
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection