I DVR’d What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) from TCM because it starred Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, and the description included the word “murder.” I thought no further of it till last Sunday. Steven and I had watched a distinctly non-cheesy movie (which I may yet write about), and Steven suggested that Helen might contain some amount of cheese.
In pre-show commentary, Ben Mankiewicz tells us the movie was one of a few horror movies featuring middle-aged female protagonists which followed the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Jane was based on a novel by Henry Farrell. Farrell wrote the screenplay to Helen as well as the one to Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (which, incidentally, was originally titled Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? I sense a pattern here).
Shelley Winters plays Helen, the one with some something wrong with her. Debbie Reynolds plays Adele, the proprietress of a young ladies’ dance academy. It is a testament to the ladies’ acting ability that as I watched the movie and as I write about it, I see the characters as Helen and Adele, not Shelley and Debbie, nor yet Crazy One and Tap Dance Lady (as you know two less talented, unknown actresses would have ended up). For the purposes of this post, though, I will refer to them as Shelley and Debbie, to aid my readers’ mental imagery.
Shelley and Debbie play two women who are drawn together because their sons have committed a murder. The movie, which takes place in the 1930s, opens with a Hearst newsreel showing the two of them fighting a crowd to get to a taxi after sentencing. Life in prison, not the death penalty, which has caused some outrage. Shelley gets cut by someone in the crowd and receives a death threat over the phone from “somebody with athsma” (Debbie’s description).
I have to hand it to a movie that gets right into things and doesn’t waste a lot of time on boring flashbacks. Still, I could have used a little more backstory. Then too, after the promising start the movie bogs down a little. Debbie decides they will change their names and move to Hollywood, where hopeful mothers will pay good money to Adele in hopes she will turn their little darlings into the next Shirley Temple. Helen, it transpires, is the accompanist.
The most ominous foreshadowing to me was the collection of big white rabbits Shelley keeps in the back yard. She picks one up, caresses her, calls her beautiful, and I said, “Oh NOOO!” I spent the next hour or so saying, “Nothing bad better happen to those bunnies!” but not really holding out much hope that the poor things would make it to “The End” with skins intact.
The movie does create suspense, offering us several characters who may or may not be up to no good. Has the Texas millionaire who romances Debbie honorable or evil intentions? Why is the mysterious Englishman who enters without knocking so intent on teaching diction in this rinky dink school? And how about that stranger across the street, smoking a cigarette and watching Texas and Debbie “smooch” (Shelley’s word)? What is he up to? For that matter, are Shelley and Debbie what they seem, two innocent women caught up in bad circumstances?
I must sadly report that the ending did not justify all the suspense. Oh, I suppose it is shocking and creepy. To tell you more might ruin it for you and I am loathe to do that, because it is a pretty fun watch. I realize I did not include my usual Spoiler Alert, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of not spoiling anything. Except perhaps for the bunnies, and I consider that more in the nature of a warning, if such a thing is needed. I think anyone who’s watched a horror movie knows: don’t get too attached to small, cute animals.