Susan Hayward's portrayal of actress/singer/alcoholic Lillian Roth in the 1955 film "I'll Cry Tomorrow" was a harrowing portrait of a woman pushed into show business by a demanding mother (wonderfully played by the also-tortured Jo Van Fleet) who self-implodes at the moment when she should be enjoying the peak of her fame. The movie was based on Roth's memoir (same title) which was certainly one of the first--if not the first--tell all show-biz/drug abuse books, a genre which might not have been invented if not for Roth's courageous telling of her tale. (Do we applaud her for this? Or blame her?) When Roth appeared on Ralph Edwards "This Is Your Life" in 1954 and talked openly of her struggle with the bottle and "cure" via Alcoholics Anonymous, the show received the largest amount of viewer mail in its history--the subject of addiction and treatment not yet having entered the national vocabulary. I've actually read Roth's book and it's well written and terribly sad (I came across a dog-eared paperback copy in a house we were renting one summer in Maine and promptly stole it, along with "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich").
Just who was this Lillian Roth, though, before she became famous for being famously portrayed by Susan Hayward? Well, in terms of analagous perfoming careers, Roth resembles nobody else today so much as Lindsey Lohan. Like Lohan, she was shoved by her demented parents in front of the cameras practically before learning to walk--her earliest screen credit is from 1915 (!) when she's five. She and her sister Anne had a vaudeville act together while growing up (doesn't Lindsey have an kept-in-the-shadows sister? Or is that Brittney?) She was a Ziegfield starlet while technically under age--she and her mother blithely lied when she was seventeen in order to get the gig as ingenue in Ziegfield's 1927 "Midnight Frolics". She made enough of a name for herself on Broadway to be transported out to the Astoria, Long Island Paramount Studios for a couple of quickie musical shorts. Ernst Lubitsch saw her in one and cast her in 1929's "The Love Parade." Paramount signed her and worked her hard over the next year and a half--eight movies including De Mille's "Madame Satan", the two-strip technicolor Dennis King rarity "The Vagabond King" and--probably her best known role--the Marx Brothers "Animal Crackers" (though apparently assigning her this role was Paramounts idea of punishing her for unreliability).
The killing pace is similar to Lohan's 2004-2006 streak which led to the "Georgia Rules" implosion and her current...issues. Barely twenty years of age, Lindsey--er, Lillian--took to partying hard, showing up late for work, marrying and divorcing men at an alarming rate and drinking ever more heavily. Paramount washed their hands of Roth in 1932 and things went south fast. Washed up and still in her early twenties, Roth spent the next two decades in and out of sanitariums, lost and forgotten. (The section of her book about these years is particularly grim and fascinating and much more vivid than the movie). Her recovery was seemingly successful, though and she re-emerged in the fifties as a Broadway character actress in such shows as "Funny Girl" and "I Can Get It For You Wholesale." Arthur Laurents, in his fascinating autobiography "Original Story By" recounts working with Roth in the latter show at a time when her husband--whom she met in AA--left the marriage and absconded with her funds. (This is the part played by Eddie Albert in the movie). Hard luck girl Lillian toughed it out though and made it through the show by the skin of her white knuckles. A decade or so later, she makes an appearance in one of Richard Lamparski's gothic "Whatever Became Of " volumes, living with a roomate and a half-dozen dogs on Manhattan's West Side in the early seventies. And she actually has a screen credit (see above IMDB listing) from the year before she died, 1979. Was there anyone else on the SAG rolls credited in 1979 who made their first film in 1915? Not even George Burns qualifies for that particular honor.
Due to various YouTube malfunctions, I'm not embedding today's clips. But knock on this door to see Lillian sing Kalmer and Ruby's "Why Am I So Romantic" from "Animal Crackers." And bang on this puppy to watch the older Lillian in a television interview with the dorky Bill Boggs, the victim of the torturous Jerry Lewis interview that I posted a few weeks ago.
It's a little hard to judge Lillian's appeal from this distance--she wasn't a vamp, though she's very appealing. And yet I'd hesitate to call her a comedienne though she skews more funny than serious. Perhaps what Lillian Roth represented at the tale end of the Jazz Age was something rare for the times--innocence and good humor found in a young woman of liberated sensibilities. Indeed she may have been the era's most wholesome jazz-baby, a girl you could bring home to mother but who also carried a hip flask.
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