What's the Matter with Helen?
|What's the Matter With Helen?|
Original theatrical poster
|Directed by||Curtis Harrington|
|Produced by||George Edwards
Edward S. Feldman
James C. Pratt
|Written by||Henry Farrell|
|Music by||David Raksin|
|Edited by||William Reynolds|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|June 30, 1971|
The movie opens with a Hearst Metrotone newsreel from the 1930s telling of the Iowa murder of Ellie Banner by Leonard Hill and Wesley Bruckner. As they are seen being loaded into a paddywagon following life sentences in prison, the focus shifts to their mothers, Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds), as they fight a crowd to their car.
In the car, the grainy footage shifts to color, and Helen reveals that someone in the crowd cut the palm of her left hand. Soon at home and tending to her wound, Helen receives an anonymous phone call from a man, "I'm the one who cut you.... I wanted to see you bleed." This caller threatens to make the mothers pay for the sins of their sons. Helen and Adelle change their names, leave Iowa and head to Hollywood, where Adelle opens a dance academy for little girls who want to be the next Shirley Temple.
Soon after arriving, Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir), an elocution teacher offers his services to Adelle's school, and she takes him up on his offer, much to Helen's chagrin, as Helen is frightened of the menacing man. Soon, the phone calls resume and Helen believes a strange man is watching their home. She has hallucinations, especially at a show where she think she sees Starr with a knife.
Adelle falls in love with Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), the father of a student (Sammee Lee Jones), and Helen grows jealous of the budding relationship. Helen takes solace in her faith, listening to a radio show hosted by evangelist Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead).
Helen's jealousy of Adelle's romance with Lincoln leads to a fight, at which point, Adelle demands that Helen move out. Adelle then heads for her date with Linc. As Helen readies herself to move out, a mysterious intruder enters the house, walks up the staircase, and calls her real name. Helen reacts by pushing him down the stairs. When he lands at the bottom, his head is gashed open, blood seeping on the floor, and Helen envisions her late husband, who was mutilated by a plow, and the dead Ellie Banner.
Adelle arrives home to find the dead stranger, and, fearing publicity, decides to dispose of the body. As the rain pours, she and Helen drag the dead man into the street and dump him into an open hole adjacent to their home where crews had been doing construction. The body is discovered the next morning, and it is presumed the man fell into the hole to his death.
Helen's guilt builds and she visits to the church to see Sister Alma and atone for her sins. Sister Alma offers her forgiveness, but an irrational Helen makes a spectacle and is dragged away by Adelle. Off-screen, Helen sees a doctor and is ordered to bed rest.
Adelle goes to a miniature golf course with Linc, where he proposes. He drives her home to make preparations to elope that evening. Arriving home, Adelle notices that Helen is not in her room and follows a trail of blood out the back door and down to a rabbit cage, where she finds Helen's pet rabbits slaughtered. Helen steps out of the shadows and reveals that she killed them and pushed her husband off a plow to his death. Adelle leads Helen into the house and is phoning Sister Alma, when she lets it slip that she plans to wed Lincoln. Helen pulls a knife from her robe, stabbing Adelle in the back. As Adelle falls dead, the doorbell chimes.
Helen answers the door and finds a detective, who shows her a photo of the man she pushed down the staircase. When she claims not to recognize him, the detective reveals the man was Ellie Banner's boyfriend, who came to California with plans to murder the ladies.
Later, Lincoln arrives, expecting to whisk Adelle away. From the street, he can hear someone pounding, "Goody Goody" on the piano. He enters the house calling Adelle's name and follows the sounds of the piano up to the rehearsal hall. There, he finds Helen giddily playing the song and Adelle, dressed in her signature dance costume, tied to a ladder on stage. The music grows more and more frantic as Helen laughs, and the camera moves in for a final closeup.
Director Curtis Harrington and producer George Edwards approached writer Henry Farrell soon after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a hit, hoping to get a screenplay. Farrell told them of a story outline titled "The Box Step", the story of two contemporary ladies who ran a dance studio. The story was optioned by another studio before Harrington and Edwards could get it. Eventually the story wound up with Harrington and Edwards, who had input on the screenplay. It was their idea to change the setting to a 1930s dance academy for little girls. After the screenplay was developed under the title The Best of Friends, Universal Studios, where Harrington worked turned it down because they could not find a name star to take a role.
Eventually, Debbie Reynolds took the role of Adelle. Reynolds had a contract with NBC, to produce a film. "They put up $750,000 and hired Marty Ransohoff to be on the set, but I actually produced it," said Reynolds.
Harrington asked Shelley Winters, if she would take the lead role, and Winters agreed without reading the script. Winters recounted how she took the role saying, "I wrote a play called One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger... The previews caused such anxiety that I decided I shouldn't be there for opening night. I tried to figure out what to do, and Curtis Harrington called me about What's the Matter with Helen?" Winters changed her mind about missing opening night when she talked to The New York Times' Guy Flatley. "Three and a half years on those plays, and I’m not even going to be there for the opening!" she cried. "If it weren't for the actors' strike, we would have opened weeks ago. But now I've got this movie... It's about two women during the thirties who run a school to turn out Shirley Temples, and in my next scene I have to stab Debbie Reynolds to death. Poor Debbie — they'd better not give me a real knife."
Winters's comment to Flatley seems to tie in coincidentally to Reynolds's remembrances: the night before her death scene was to be filmed, Reynolds dreamed that the prop knife was replaced with a real one. She checked the next morning, and discovered the knife had been switched and found herself arguing with the prop master, who did not initially believe her. "Who changed it? Well, that's up for grabs," Reynolds laughed.
According to Reynolds, Winters's psychiatrist advised her not to portray "a woman having a nervous breakdown because she was having a nervous breakdown!" "But nobody knew that, and so all through the film she drove all of us insane! She became the person in the film." Reynolds witnessed Winters's questionable mental status off of the set. The two had been friends many years before, and Reynolds offered to chauffeur Winters to and from the set. "I was driving one morning on Santa Monica Boulevard and ahead of me was a woman, wearing only a nightgown, trying to flag down a ride," recalled Reynolds. It was Winters, who claimed, "I thought I was late." According to a Los Angeles Times article published while the film was in production, Winters was so difficult on the set that the studio threatened to replace her with Geraldine Page.
The film began work under the title The Best of Friends, but Otto Preminger protested to the Motion Picture Association because he had registered the similar title Such Good Friends. "I wanted Best of Friends," said Reynolds. "It was a battle; it cost money..."
There was little meddling from the studio during the production, though executives wanted Winters to tone down the latent lesbian aspect of her character. "They didn't want me to play [the lesbianism] too directly, but I did", said Winters. "I guess you could interpret it either way, but I played it very clearly. I hope I did, anyway."
It was in post-production when problems really arose. After Adelle and Helen disposed of the body, Winters had the idea that she should "let the lesbian thing come out for a moment" by kissing Reynolds on the lips. Harrington agreed and the opening of the scene was shot with this moment, but it was excised to keep from attaining an R-rating.
A similar cut came during the murder of Adelle. Harrington wanted the moment to be "as harrowing and brutal as the shower scene in Psycho", but the studio made him cut the moment down, because the violence would have guaranteed the film an R-rating. The film was liked by critics and audiences, but film historians said it was given the worst advertising campaign for the time as it featured a murdered Adelle in the ad, minimizing the shock value and giving away the end. Studios were careful after this to keep end stills and other sentences about horror films out of these ads.
Awards and nominations
A soundtrack containing David Raksin's score from the film was released in 1975 by Dynamation Records-- seemingly the company's only release. The album was "pressed and distributed on a limited, non-commercial basis" and offered for sale via mail-order from magazine advertisements. The album includes two piano variations of "Goody Goody", but does not include any songs that were performed in the film. No names are given to the 14 divided album tracks, on the jacket or the LP label, and one track has a four second gap of silence, as if its two tracks jammed into one groove. During post-production, the film underwent additional editing, so portions of the score were truncated and removed. The LP "presents the music as it was originally conceived and recorded", with two tracks that do not appear in the film, and several that are considerably longer than the versions in the movie.
A novelization, written by Richard Deming, was published (Beagle Books 94145) and rushed into bookstores to coincide with the release of the film. Based on Farrell's screenplay, the book follows the script fairly closely but deviates from the film on several occasions, most often in back-stories. Both Helen and Adelle are described as "slim and attractive" and as "women in their mid-thirties;" Helen's character is blonde and Adelle's is brunette.
Footnotes and references
- Release dates for What's the Matter With Helen? at the Internet Movie Database. Retrieved June 15, 2008.
- Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 59
- A Touch of Glamour: Debbie Reynolds, Scarlet Street (magazine), No. 50, 2004
- Chilling Winters: Shelley Winters Talks About 'What's the Matter With Helen?', Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993
- "The Winter of Shelley's Discontent". Retrieved 2011-05-30.
- Notes for "What's the Matter With Helen? at TCM.com. Retrieved June 15, 2008.
- Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 61
- Cult Oddities
- Album jacket liner notes
- What's the Matter with Helen at the Internet Movie Database
- What's the Matter With Helen? at AllMovie
- What's the Matter With Helen? at the TCM Movie Database