The critic and historian, Martin Gottfried, in his excellent biography of the demonic Broadway producer Jed Harris, notes that the 1920's were "times of floridity, of vamps with panthers on leashes, of Rudolph Valentino and Bela Lugosi...in the 1920's it was not so odd to view and even live life in purple."
This is one of the finest--and spookiest--evocations of any era that I know of, in large part because it looks beyond the usual "gin some and sin some" party-time, Wall Street-booming, Charleston-dancing image that we generally assign to the period--the "Ain't We Got Fun" racoon coats at the Harvard/Yale game bit. Indeed there was much about the 1920's, as reflected in its popular culture, that was exceedingly dark, strangely perverse, masochistic and sadistic to a degree that it may be hard for us to understand today. For in the twenties, the lines between sex and death, booze-fueled fun and booze-fueled collapse, living life on the razors edge and being willing to cross the line into the abyss, were strangely fused and often non-existent. Deaths from bad liquor, from gangsterism, from passion gone awry, were the accepted norm of the period--the lingua franca, if you will, of the normal, urban inhabitant of the decade. One of the best examples of this culture in action can be found in Joseph Moncure March's magnificent poem (ballad? legend?) "The Wild Party", written in the thick of the period. Another source is one of my favorite obscure novels, Ben Hecht's "A Jew In Love" which tells the story of an immensely successful young man of the period (based on the above mentioned Harris as well as the publisher Horace Liveright) and the delight he takes in sadistically controlling and interfering in people's lives. One gets the sense, when reading these works, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was, on the whole, dealing with a much more polite set of neurotic swells than the average urbanite of the day; that when Times Square grew dark--and nights were awfully long then as people seemed truly not to need sleep--a lurid and darkly sensual nature swept the urban culture, seizing the denizens of the back rooms of the speakeasies.
And so we come to Helen Morgan. Totally forgotten today, she was the first torch singer--before Piaf, before Judy Garland--who managed to infuse her dark and tormented songs with her own personal traumas. No hotsy-totsy of the bootleg era was Helen--she was a somber and brooding presence, draped over a piano, singing of heartbreak, booze and depression to an audience that was titillated by her sense of willing self-degradation at the hands of the violent (physically and emotionally) brutes to whom she was enslaved. Born at the birth of the twentieth century, Morgan was first noticed by Ziegfield dancing in the chorus of his 1923 show "Sally". She became a nightclub fixture in Chicago in the mid-twenties and descended, almost immediately, into a dipsomanical frenzy from which she never recovered. Many of her performances were given while drunk. Far from hurting her reputation, however, this seems to have clinched it; to experience Helen weaving to and fro atop a piano while singing about a lush's life was, indeed, the whole point. She was a "performance artist", a "method actor" before the terms were created. The ultimate performance by Helen Morgan would end not with a series of encores but with the diva passing out on stage; apparently this happened on more than a few occasions.
Morgan's great triumph was as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway production of "Show Boat" in 1927--famously singing "Bill" and the gorgeous "Can't Help Loving That Man Of Mine". (She would play the role in the 1936 James Whale-directed movie version as well). This was another side of Helen--the respectable Helen, the big time Broadway performer Helen: she apparently studied a bit at the Metropolitan Opera whenever she could manage to come out of her stupor on time and lurch her way over to the rehearsal hall. In the '30's, though, she was already a name from the past--the twenties died not gradually like most decades but literally overnight as if the entire experience needed to be erased from the national consciousness. (In an instant, it seems, song styles, performers and even ways of speaking were replaced forever, relegated to the ash-heap of cultural history. 1928 looked a lot older to 1933 than 2003 looks to 2008). Nonetheless, Morgan tried gamely to beat the booze and continue her career as a stage performer. But it was not to be so: she died--dramatically and appropriately--while performing on stage in Chicago in a George White's Scandal's show. She had cirhossis of the liver. She was just 40 years old.
While Morgan makes a fine Julie LaVerne (and the '36 "Show Boat" is well worth seeing--much better than the '53 MGM version) I prefer the lowdown Helen--the nightclub chanteuse being carried from her dressing room on stage, propped up on the piano like a stuffed doll and then--assuming consciousness reigned--reaching deep into her dark soul for the songs that mirrored her tormented life, her soggy self. Unlike so many ghosts of the vaudeville and nightclub era, a good bit of film exists of Helen. Below are two clips that give a sense of the haunted, drowsy and decadent nature of her persona--first is "It Can't Go On Like This" from a 1930 movie called "Roadhouse Nights" (featuring the young and hairy Jimmy Durante playing a waiter and making a lot of strange faces for reasons that are unknown to me); and second is the eerie "What Wouldn't I Do For That Man" from the 1929 Ziegfield movie "Gloryfying The American Girl". By the way, here's a site with a Helen Morgan discography.
That word eerie sums up what most intrigues me about the twenties; I get the sense that it was a period in which humanity lived in the moment in a way we humans simply aren't built to endure; that there was an urgency to feel, to experience, to push beyond the normal perception of lived life, that led to a jangly, up and down and extremely kinky sense of reality. If you've ever drank way too much gin, smoked a bunch of unfiltered cigarettes, stayed up all night and then added black coffee to the equation (forgetting to eat of course) you get a sense of how urban people of the 20's felt...upon awakening. The rest--the violence, the emotional plumbing of the depths, the guns and lovers--came after dark, when urban America and its denizens awoke and--seeking to live life to the fullest--prepared for another dance with death.