Helen Morgan was a singer/actress who played the role of Julie LaVerne in Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. She created the role in the 1927 Broadway premiere and also played it in the 1936 film. Morgan, who was an alcoholic like the character she played in Show Boat, had a rocky career. Like some singers who would come after her, two who come to mind are Judy Garland and Janice Joplin, her pain, inner conflict and vulnerability were on display when she sang. This is evident in the movie version of Show Boat.
Morgan Sings “Bill”
When Morgan sings the song “Bill” you can see her pain and it’s personal. The character, Julie, has lost just about everything except her career, and “Bill,” which is a torch song about pure, blind love, is sung in the musical in a variety show rehearsal. Years before this scene, Julie was forced to leave the Show Boat because it was discovered that she was half “negro” and was perhaps married to a white man, Steve Baker, and performing with a white company. At that time, interracial marriage and whites and blacks appearing on stage together were illegal in the South.
Helen Morgan sings “Bill.”
Thus, Julie and Steve must leave the Show Boat and fend for themselves. When she sings “Bill” it is years later in a Chicago variety theatre. Steve is no longer in her life; she is all alone and dealing with an addiction to alcohol. Even though “Bill” is about someone the singer loves and is still with, when Morgan sings it you can’t help but feel Julie’s terrible loneliness and emptiness. Julie has nothing left but her singing and the bottle.
Early Career: Speakeasy Associations
When Morgan was 20 she started singing in speakeasies in Chicago. Speakeasies illegally sold liquor, the sale of which had been prohibited in the U.S. in 1919. She became a torch singer and at the same time started drinking heavily. By 1925, she was a favorite at the Backstage Club in NYC, which was owned by Billy Rose. It was said that she was drunk during her performances and that her trademark of singing perched on top of the piano was the result of being too tipsy to stand up.
Helen Morgan sings “I See Two Lovers” with Rudy Vallee conducting and Ned Sparks and Ann Dvorak looking on – 1935
Despite her problems with alcohol, which would continue until her death in 1941 at the age of 41, Morgan continued working in and being associated with illegal establishments. While in the original production of Show Boat, she opened her own club, which was called Chez Morgan. It was closed down for violating the National Prohibition Act of 1919. Those charges were dropped. She reopened the venue as Helen Morgan’s Summer Home and once again it was closed down for liquor violations. This time she was indicted but a jury found her not guilty. Morgan abandoned the club life until the repeal of Prohibition.
Theatre and Film
Along with the original production of Show Boat on Broadway and the first full film version, Morgan played Julie in the first Broadway revival and in other companies around the country. She was also a featured performer in Ziegfeld Follies (1931).
In 1929, Morgan was cast as burlesque star Kitty Darling in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic film Applause. She won plaudits for her acting and singing. On Broadway once again, she starred in Kern and Hammerstein’s Sweet Adeline (1929). In that musical, Morgan introduced the songs “Why Was I Born” and “Don’t Ever Leave Me.”
By the time she appeared in the 1936 film version of Show Boat, Morgan was struggling mightily with alcoholism. Show Boat would be her final film. In 1940, she was hospitalized after playing Julie in the Los Angeles production of Show Boat. In 1941, helped by her husband, theatre manager Lloyd Johnson, who she had recently married, she started a comeback and was signed to appear in George White’s Scandals of 1942. During a performance in Chicago, she collapsed on stage and died in the hospital of cirrhosis of the liver on October 9, 1941.
The pain of his inner struggle and the toll it was taking on her is evident as she performs in her signature manner, on top of a piano.
Morgan’s love life was filled with tumult. She was married three times. Her first was to Lowell Army, a fan whom she met at the stage door while appearing in the chorus of Sally in 1923. Her second marriage, which occurred on May 15, 1933, was to Maurice “Buddy” Maschke. They divorced in 1935. On July 27, 1941, Morgan married Johnson.
Remembering Helen Morgan
In 1957, Polly Bergen appeared on Playhouse 90 in The Helen Morgan Story. The show was directed by George Roy Hill and won Bergen an Emmy Award. There was also a feature film, based on the Playhouse 90 version, which starred Ann Blyth, but this version did not fare well.
Helen Morgan’s performance of the tortured Julie LaVerne in Show Boat was moving, real and honest. Although Morgan is a forgotten performer today, her portrayal of Julie deserves to be remembered. In it you’ll see the character and her demons and Morgan and her own personal demons.