Street Date 3/7/23;
Stars Susan Hayward, Richard Conte, Jo Van Fleet, Eddie Albert, Don Taylor, Margo, Ray Danton, Tol Avery, Timothy Carey, Henry Kulky.
With the number of pedestrian celebrity biopics at an all-time high, and the Academy’s annual beauty contest about to be, what better time than the present for Warner Archive to release a Blu-ray jack up of Daniel Mann’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the Oscar-sanctioned 1955 adaptation of Lilian Roth’s same-titled autobiography? Susan Hayward took home a golden doorstop for her performance as the vaudeville, Hollywood and Broadway star who became a skid row rummy before turning her life around. Hollywood loves success stories almost as much as the Academy embraces actors who pretend to beat the bottle and live a life of virtue. Long before Nancy Reagan cautioned “Just say no!” Hollywood’s approach was flaunting vice and degradation for five reels before reel six capped the show with overstated lessons in temperance.
Two minutes in the presence of Katie Rubenstien (Jo Van Fleet), and the director who little Lillian first auditions for growls, “Stage mothers, they’re all alike!” Sadly, he’s right, which makes one question why Van Fleet’s formidable talent wasn’t relied upon for much more than putting on a Brooklyn accent and going through the fuggy paces of celluloid mothership. In the Stage Mothers Pantheon, monster mom Katie bridges the gap between Ethel Gumm (Judy Garland’s bulldozing mater) and Rose Hovick, who had a dream to live through her daughters Gypsy Rose Lee and “Baby” June Havoc. It’s borderline impossible to regain faith in a mother who, after her 8-year-old daughter fails an audition, literally knocks the kid to the curb while a crowd gathers. No matter how many times Katie whispers the titular bromide in her baby girl’s ear, having a mother as suffocating as she is justification enough for any child to seek salvation in a bottle.
The script by Helen Deutsch and Jay Richard Kennedy is riddled with hooey. By the time the curtain rang down in 1954, the real-life Roth was on hubby No. 6. According to the film, the closest she comes to walking down the aisle is with the fictional David Tredman, played by Ray Danton. Tredman is Roth’s childhood pal with whom she reunites years later, just in time for him to up and croak on her. Of Roth’s numerous beaus, Tredman is allotted the least amount of screen time. He spends more time chatting up Katie than he does Roth. Rather than doting on a pace-slackening nice guy, the filmmakers, knowing of the scene-stealing brutes, drunks and rapists that lie ahead, work past Tredman tout de suite.
After a bed check at the hospital confirms Tredman’s death, Roth hops a tramp steamer, setting sail down a sea of booze, steered by one drunk after another. First comes Wallie (Don Taylor), a soldier on leave who admirs Roth’s stage presence. (A booze-soaked debate over the merits of plywood is a low point.) Next up is Tony Bardeman (Richard Conte), a lush who can hold his liquor long enough to convince Roth he has an “off switch” to combat drinking. If Bardeman detests men who couldn’t hold their liquor, imagine how he feels about drunken women. When the subject of abstinence comes up, Roth is rewarded with a beating. Oddly enough, it isn’t a man on the make who pours our heroine her first 8 oz. tumbler, but Ellen (Virginia Gregg), a registered nurse. It’s the caretaker’s sole function in the script. After suggesting Roth take a few snorts before bed to help her sleep, Ellen is shown the door.
In no time, Roth is Broadway’s youngest star: next stop Paramount Pictures. The last thing one expects to see in an MGM picture from this period is the appearance of Paramount’s illustrious Bronson Gate. By their very nature, studios abhorred promoting the competition. Roth was in fact a Paramount contract player in the early ’30s. (She’s prominently featured in the Marx Bros. second feature, Animal Crackers.) For a film that contains more mistruths than a George Santos campaign speech, this unexpected jolt of verisimilitude almost results in whiplash injuries.
Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!
Roth did fall in love at an AA meeting, but her last husband, Burt McGuire (Eddie Albert) was a member, not a peer-leader as depicted in the film. This would be the only time Albert and his wife Margo worked together onscreen. It would also mark the first time Hayward sang in a picture. (Her previous musical performances had been dubbed.) A vocalist was hired to impersonate Hayward’s singing voice, but after listening to her rehearsal, the studio decided to let the actress do her own singing. Roth felt the job of lip-synching should have gone to her. An album of Roth singing her greatest hits was released the week the film opened.
In his entry on Anthony Mann in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris reminds us that the director of such dynamic genre films as The Naked Spur and El Cid was, “not to be confused with dreary Daniel and Delbert Mann.” The direction belies the work of a frustrated traffic cop, doing his best to steer actors away from bumping into the furniture. From Roth’s performing at the height of her stardom to hitting rock bottom singing for drinks in a gin mill, Hayward’s intensity steals the show.
Bonus features include the trailer and newsreels as well as period interviews with Hayward from “The MGM Parade” TV series. For those not familiar with Roth’s work, there’s Short Story Conference, a delightful 20-minute musical Vitaphone Short. And if it’s laughter you’re after, don’t forget Animal Crackers.