What the Matter with Helen Is....

Writer Henry Farrell was catapulted into the spotlight when his novel, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" was turned into a hit film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Although there had been one similar film twelve years earlier ("Sunset Boulevard"), it was 1962's "Baby Jane" that started an entire, short-lived genre of melodrama horror films (often dubbed "Grande Dame Guignol") that exploited aging actresses who could no longer find work in A-list pictures. Director Curtis Harrington and producer George Edwards were impressed with "Baby Jane" and sought out Farrell for a project. Farrell revealed his latest story was entitled "The Box Step," and it told the tale of two contemporary ladies who ran a ballroom dance school. The ten-page story outline, however, was optioned by another film studio.

Farrell went on to write the screenplay for "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," a movie that was supposed to reunite Davis and Crawford, but Crawford only shot a few scenes, feigned an illness and was replaced by Olivia DeHaviland. Nonetheless, "Charlotte" too was a success.

Strangely, "The Box Step" was kicked around and ultimately abandoned just as the Grande Dame Guignol genre was losing steam. The story finally wound up in the hands of Harrington and Edwards at the very end of the '60s. They worked closely with Farrell and immediately changed it from a contemporary film to a 1930s period piece and changed the name to "The Best of Friends." The studio that Harrington worked for agreed to make the movie -- if they could find a "name" to star in it. Joanne Woodward and Shirley MacLaine were each offered parts, but they both passed on the film. For the role of Adelle, Rita Hayworth was approached, but she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and unfit to take the part. Estelle Parsons was in negotiations to star, but that deal ultimately fell through.

In 1970, Harrington finally got the opportunity to direct a film penned by Farrell (who wrote both the novel and screenplay), "How Awful About Allen," a movie of the week for Aaron Spelling Productions which starred Anthony Perkins and Julie Harris. Perkins starred as a man who literally went blind from guilt over the accidental death of his parents. After a stint in an asylum, he returns home to be with his sister... where a shadowy figure begins terrorizing him. Being a method actor, Perkins went so far as to get contact lenses made that he couldn't see through, which he put in before he filmed his scenes. Despite a flimsy plot (with a somewhat predictable twist) and short running time, Harrington stuffed the film full of atmosphere and it was a ratings winner.

Meanwhile, Debbie Reynolds was offered the role of Adelle, in "The Best of Friends," a part that seemed tailored to her talents. The film was a departure from the goody two-shoes character comedies Reynolds had spent most of her career filming (with the exception, perhaps, of the acclaimed "Unsinkable Molly Brown"), and she was so taken with the script that she helped get the movie financed. Because of a television show Reynolds had briefly starred in (which was botched by network sponsorship), she made a deal so the primary financial backer of the film that ultimately came to be known as "What's the Matter with Helen?" was NBC, and she doubled as a(n uncredited) producer of the movie.

By this time, Estelle Parsons had backed out of the film, and the role of Helen was given to Shelley Winters (ironically, despite the fact that Winters was only 7 years older than Parsons, she was later cast as her mother, Nana Mary, in frequent guest-appearances on the sitcom "Roseanne"). Harrington had met Winters on the set of "The Diary of Anne Frank" in his days as a producer, so he outright gave the role to Winters. Winters had penned a play, "One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger," and had been so riddled with anxiety over it that she was determined not to be there on opening night. "Helen" gave her the perfect excuse to get out of New York, and she gratefully accepted the role without even reading the script, trusting Harrington's judgment. Winters later learned that Reynolds would be playing opposite her; the two had known each other socially for years.

As for red herring Hamilton Starr, Harrington wanted to cast Ralph Richardson or John Gielgud. Ultimately Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir was cast, whom Harrington had first taken notice of when he appeared in mutual friend Orson Welles's film "The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice." Perennial western star Dennis Weaver was cast, somewhat against type, as wealthy Southerner Lincoln Palmer, the love interest for Debbie Reynold's Adelle. Actress (and 1959 Playboy Playmate) Yvette Vickers was cast as stage mother Mrs. Barker, though she was asked to dye her blonde locks red for the role. "I didn't want any other obvious blondes in the film to complete with Debbie, with Debbie's image," said Harrington. Young Robbi Morgan was cast as precocious Rosalie... though Morgan would later earn the moniker of "scream queen" thanks to her appearance as a precocious teenage victim in the original "Friday the 13th."

It's often cited that there was tension on the set. Winters had a reputation for being a diva, and her starring role in this film would certainly not be an exception. An article in the L.A. times claimed that threats were made to Winters that she would be replaced by Geraldine Page if she didn't drop her attitude. Debbie Reynolds later had this to say of her co-star:

"Working with Shelley is extraordinarily challenging. She is extremely difficult to work with. I found that not to be helpful for my work. She said I was better because she was difficult. I say it would have been easier or better for my health to have a little less turmoil on the set... But I'm very fond of Shelley," Reynolds sweetly insisted.

Harrington had a different recollection about Winters' and Reynold's working relationship, stating that the two got along "just barely.... It was rather inevitable that they would have a conflict occasionally. Shelley imagined a rivalry with Debbie.... Debbie still had a very youthful figure and by this time Shelley was already dumpy and heavy. It was that sort of thing, a kind of female jealousy."

The trouble with Winters doubtlessly stemmed from her anxiety over the New York play. "Her psychiatrist told her not to play a woman having a nervous breakdown because at the time she was having a nervous breakdown!" Reynolds later revealed. "But nobody knew that, and so all through the film she drove all of us insane! And not only was she playing an unstable woman, but she was playing a murderess. I call her a killer to this day!" Reynolds picked up Winters on her way to the studio each morning, and one day Winters' mental status became perfectly clear. "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. Well, it was Shelley! I couldn't believe it! I said, 'Shelley, why aren't you at home waiting for me?' She said, 'I thought I was late.'"

Agnes Moorehead, who'd starred in Farrell's previous film, "Sweet Charlotte," is heard frequently throughout the film but only appears in one scene as Sister Alma, a role that sprang from the imagination of Curtis Harrington. It's generally reported that Sister Alma is based on a real-life radio evangelist from the 30s, Aimee Semple McPherson, however this is untrue. "Well, Sister Alma was based on the leader of The Mighty I Am," director Harrington said in a 1994 interview. Edna Ballard and husband Guy started this little-known religion in the 1930s -- a religion that's still around today.

"She always appeared in pure white with a huge white corsage," Harrington continued. "I guess Aimee sometimes wore white and a corsage, but I don't think she always dressed that way, whereas Mrs. Ballard always dressed that way."

Harrington noted that Moorehead was very professional, but there was one extremely uncomfortable moment. A few of Moorehead's lines were rewritten the day that her big scene was filmed. "I don't like getting lines at the last minute," Moorehead snapped. Nonetheless, she retreated to her trailer, learned the new dialogue, and filmed the scene like a pro.

The slaughtering of the bunnies was one of those pre-P.C. instances where they couldn't slap a disclaimer on the film claiming no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture. "They were rabbits who would have been butchered anyway. For food," Harrington stated. "We did it all through the ASPCA."

Reynolds' on-screen death at the hands of Winters seemed particularly troubling for the actress. "Poor Debbie -- they'd better not give me a real knife," Winters joked to The New York Times in 1971. Reynolds had her apprehensions about the scene, but a nightmare the night before the scene was filmed turned out to be serendipitous. "I went in and the prop knife, which recesses into itself when you stab someone, was gone and a real knife was there," Reynolds revealed. When Reynolds confronted the prop man, he was completely oblivious to the switch. "I had the prop man check the knife she held every time just before we shot it because I knew she was going to go for me for real! She'd gotten so into her character, she became it."

Harrington didn't have control over the final cut of the film, so several changes were made against his wishes. He had designed several sequences to be cut with dissolves -- the transition of Reynolds' cardboard cutout in Iowa/California, Helen dropping the balloons as it faded into the marquee of Adelle's kiddie revue -- but executive producer Martin Ransohoff announced at the last minute that he hated dissolves and wanted them cut. Harrington reluctantly pulled out the dissolves and transitioned the scenes with hard cuts... which bothered him so much that he mentioned it in nearly every interview about the film until the day he died.

The murder of Adelle was filmed and originally edited quite differently -- it was a longer, brutal, quick-cut sequence. "I wanted to make it as harrowing and brutal as the shower scene in 'Psycho,'" Harrington later stated. "I did and it was cut way, 'way, 'way down." The studio wanted to make it accessible to more viewers by slapping on a GP rating (the equivalent of today's "PG"), so the scene was severely truncated.

An additional scene that was unscripted also got cut, which would have earned the film an R rating at the time... After Helen and Adelle dumped the corpse, Winters decided to "let the lesbian thing really come out for a moment" by kissing Adelle on the lips when they returned to the dance studio. They filmed the beginning of the scene with this moment, which ultimately was excised.

The film was to be released under the title "The Best of Friends," but Otto Preminger had a film up for release later that year with the similar title "Such Good Friends." Preminger fought to keep his title intact and won. The movie was released by United Artists in June of 1971 under the new title "What's the Matter with Helen?," taken from Reynolds' line in the film (and playing up on the titles of genre films like "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?"). By this point, the psycho-biddy genre had lost steam (and audiences), and studio support wasn't strong. UA had sunk all of their money into the launch of the then-forthcoming "Fiddler on the Roof," and since NBC had footed the bill, all of the profits would be exactly that for United Artists. The film received minimal promotion, but the promotional campaign made Harrington, who was in England at the time shooting his next film, absolutely livid.

The photo of the dead Adelle was taken "with great reticence," said Harrington. "I said, 'All right, we'll make a still of this, but only for the record. It is not to be released...'" Imagine his reaction when he first saw that picture, which was never supposed to be released, adorning the posters. "I can't tell you how furious I was.... To this day, it's one of the worst moments in my career, that rotten poster -- besides the fact that it was was so cheaply put out. It was a hideous poster!" In addition to revealing the ending, the publicity department missed another golden opportunity: There was a tidal wave of nostalgic 1930s interest at the same time that the film was released, but the publicity department didn't focus on that angle -- or even hint at all that the film was set in the 1930s.

The dead Adelle art appeared on most of the ads for the film around the world. Strangely, however, in Mexico where the film is known as "¿Qué la llevó a matar?" ("What Made Her Kill?"), one variation of the poster art features Helen and Adelle standing in front of a casket that's overflowing with dead teenagers and bunnies. Obviously they were trying to sell the film as something it's not. Not only is the casket pretty off the wall, but the girl lying in it seems to be dressed in '70s fashion, not clothes reminiscent of those a teenage girl would have worn in the 1930s.  Strangely, this art also made it into some American newspaper ads.

The movie received a modest release and mixed reviews from critics --though the film's blatant lesbian subtext wasn't mentioned in any of the original reviews. After landing an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design, the flick soon vanished from theatres and drive-ins. Harrington, who fondly referred to "Helen" as his favorite film that he directed, was heartbroken, and the rest of the cast have since expressed regret that the film wasn't very successful -- Reynolds later cited the film as her best screen work.

Harrington worked with Winters again when she was cast as the lead in his next film, a grim retelling of the story of Hansel and Gretel entitled "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?" That film too failed to make much of an impact, but Winters became notorious a few years later when she starred in "The Poseidon Adventure." "Auntie Roo" was one of the final entries in the original line of films from the Grande Dame Guignol genre, though elements from the genre resurfaced in films like "Carrie" and "Friday the 13th," amongst others, and they still resurface from time to time. Winters continued to appear in horrorish films infrequently, such as the grindhouse, drive-in classic "Poor Pretty Eddie," the witchcraft/"Carrie" rip-off movie of the week "The Initiation of Sarah," and the reincarnation ghost story "Déjà Vu." Harrington too stayed rooted in horror, with numerous horror-themed TV movies like "Devil Dog" and "Killer Bees," the Piper Laurie vehicle "Ruby" (which held the honor of being the highest-grossing indie until "Halloween" came along; the film was subsequently butchered by the distributors for TV and video -- it's been mostly restored on DVD) and his final film, a 40 minute short called "Usher," based on the classic Poe story. Harrington wanted to make an elaborate, unique, mad scientist film, but he could never muster much interest from financiers, so he took the idea with him to the grave.

Reynolds, meanwhile, found herself in dire straits. It would hardly be fair to say that "What's the Matter with Helen?" killed her Hollywood career (the film didn't get enough attention to have that affect) but with the exception of "Charlotte's Web" (she voiced the title character), it would be her last film of the '70s. Her then-husband Harry Karl gambled away their combined fortunes and, with no film offers coming in, Reynolds found herself literally living in her car, and she headlined on cruise ships for a time. For a time, she had partial ownership of "What's the Matter with Helen?," but it was lost when she was forced to file bankruptcy. The '80s only offered a handful of appearances on TV and "Do It Debbie's Way," a home workout video... in which Winters also appeared. Reynolds finally made a big film comeback in the '90s... and she found herself working in light horror (aimed at children), starring as a witch in several "Halloweentown" films for the Disney Channel.

"What's the Matter with Helen?" premiered on NBC in September of 1974, and the network reran it numerous times over the next few years. The film has infrequently appeared at midnight movie screenings and has popped up on TV from time to time in the years since.

In 1975, David Raksin's score for "Helen" was finally released on vinyl. The album wasn't commercially released -- it was only available only by mail-order from ads found in movie magazines and the profits were donated to charity.

Home video hit in the late '70s but prices made it inaccessible to the average Joe. By the mid-80s, video stores had popped up everywhere, but studios were reluctant to release their older, non-hit films on VHS, Beta and Videodisc, then citing that it cost more to release the tapes than they'd make off of them. By the '90s, video prices steadily plummeted, more and more older films began being released on video and "What's the Matter with Helen?" finally got an official video release by MGM in 1992. By this point, the film had been forgotten and was pretty much only of interest to fans of the actors and the genre. The studio didn't even bother to issue it on laserdisc.

In 2002, "What's the Matter with Helen?" got a much-needed boost when it was released on DVD. MGM began releasing (and re-releasing) a lot of their culty films on DVD under the banner "Midnite Movies Double Feature." "Helen" finally made its widescreen DVD debut packaged with the aforementioned "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?." While many fans raved about the "Midnite Movies" collection, others have griped about the double-sided "flipper" discs (which are easily scratched) and the fact that MGM didn't bother to include any extras, other than a sole trailer for each film. Unfortunately, in a world of HD, the old transfer looks washed-out and pixely at times, and the picture quality's not nearly as crisp as "Auntie Roo."  Seems Helen just can't win.