Saturday, March 9, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Life Stories

Camp is the glorification of "character."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Miss Susan Hayward works her way through "Sing, You Sinners" in I'll Cry Tomorrow, her biopic of early Talkies casualty Lillian Roth.  It's a number that it works perfectly well on its own - not least in regard to Miss Hayward's own, un-dubbed singing voice, unpolished but effective.  What makes it camp, though, is that from the distance of half-a-century, one can so neatly regard it from so many different directions.

First, it has absolutely nothing but nothing to do with the actual work of Lillian Roth, a vivacious prole cutie who cut a swath through early musicals before Losing It All to the bottle (as vividly depicted in the Hayward picture).  The actual "Sing, You Sinners," from 1930's Honey, starts with a gospel rave-up that must have involved every African-American actor in Hollywood, then turns into a showcase for inexplicable child sensation Mitzi Green, and only at its end features Roth in a final chorus, leading a gang of swells who fall sway to that irresistible jazz rhythm.  Hayward's iteration, by contrast, is a typical MGM mid-budget Big Lady number that looks to me like it recycles some costumes from Singin' in the Rain three years earlier as its sole gesture toward period style.

From another angle, though, one realizes something rather marvelous:  were one ever to want to make a faux-biopic of Broadway legend Helen Lawson, this is a number that could feature centrally.  It's exactly the kind of thing that Valley of the Doll''s immortal antagonist would have done in her prime.  By the time Hayward came to impersonate Lawson a dozen years after I'll Cry, she was apparently in no vocal shape to take on the towering challenge that is "I'll Plant My Own Tree" and so was dubbed by Margaret Whiting, which layers on another helping of camp in the person of Mrs. Jack Wrangler (avant la lettre, of course, but still).

Hayward's Roth fades out with the usual redemption via the love of a good man (with some help from AA).  Roth's own unwinding was less tidy, although it did embrace some Broadway (including above-the-title billing in I Can Get it for You Wholesale) as well as a plum part on tour in Funny Girl.  She surfaced in what looks like the mid-'70s for an interview with reporter Bill Boggs that shows her to be still pert, if a tad incoherent.

Oh, and the man that saved her in back in MGMland?  Apparently he dumped her for another man not long after they got together.  One wonders if she ever chatted about that kind of thing with Margaret Whiting...


  1. How interesting that you raised the idea of a Helen Lawson biopic using Lillian Roth's "Sing, You Sinners," as Helen Lawson was famously based on Ethel Merman who introduced "Eadie Was a Lady" in the 1932 Broadway musical "Take a Chance" which was filmed the next year starring Lillian Roth... who got to sing Merman's song, "Eadie Was a Lady."

  2. This is all like some musicale Mobius strip. The only thing that could improve it is Jack Wrangler tap dancing.

  3. "You're so wicked, and you're depraved!"