What's the Matter with Helen?

What's the Matter with Helen?

Infobox Film
name = What's the Matter With Helen?

caption = Original theatrical poster
director = Curtis Harrington
producer = George Edwards
Edward S. Feldman
James C. Pratt
writer = Henry Farrell (screenplay)
music = David Raksin
cinematography= Lucien Ballard
editing = William Reynolds
starring = "Debbie Reynolds
Shelley Winters
Dennis Weaver
Agnes Moorehead
Micheál MacLiammóir
country = USA
runtime = 101 min.
language = English
distributor = flagicon|USA United Artists (theatrical);
MGM/UA Home Entertainment (VHS, 1992);
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (DVD, 2002)
released = flagicon|USA June 30, 1971 [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067975/releaseinfo Release dates for "What's the Matter With Helen?"] at the Internet Movie Database. Retrieved June 15, 2008.] (New York City)
amg_id = 1:54107
imdb_id = 0067975

"What's the Matter With Helen?" is a 1971 feature film starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters.


The movie starts with a Hearst Metrotone newsreel from the 1930s that tells of the Iowa murder of Ellie Banner by Leonard Hill and Wesley Bruckner. As they are shown being loaded into a paddywagon following the decree of life sentences in prison, the focus shifts to their mothers, Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds), as they fight their way through a crowd to their car.

Once 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 after arriving home and tending to her wound, Helen receives an anonymous phone call from a man who claims, "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 off to Hollywood, where Adelle opens a dance academy for little girls who want to be the next Shirley Temple.

Soon after their arrival, 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 -- Helen is openly frightened of the menacing man. It isn't long before the threatening phone calls resume and Helen spies a strange man watching their home from a street corner.

Adelle falls in love with Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), the father of one of her students, and Helen grows increasingly jealous of the budding relationship. Helen takes solace in her faith, religiously listening to radio show hosted by evangelist Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead).

Helen's jealousy of Adelle's romance with Linc leads to a fight between the two, at which point, Adelle demands that Helen moves out. Adelle then heads off for her date with Linc. As Helen readies herself to move out, a mysterious intruder enters the house, walks up the staircase and calls out her real name. Helen reacts by pushing him down the stairs. When he lands at the bottom, his head is gashed open, blood seeping across the floor, and Helen envisions both her late husband, who was mutilated by a plow, and the dead Ellie Banner.

Adelle arrives home to find the dead stranger and, fearing more publicity, she decides that they must dispose of the body. As the rain pounds down, she and Helen drag the dead man into the street and dump him into an open hole adjacent to their home where crews have been doing construction. The body is discovered the next morning, and it's presumed the man fell into the hole to his death.

Helen's guilt builds and she pays a visit to the church to see Sister Alma and atone for her sins. Sister Alma offers her forgiveness, but an irrational Helen makes a spectacle of herself and has to be 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 to her. He drives her home to make preparations to elope that evening. Soon after arriving home, Adelle notices Helen's not in her room and she follows a trail of blood out the back door and down to the rabbit cage, where she finds Helen's beloved pet rabbits have been slaughtered. Helen steps out of the shadows and reveals that she killed them -- and also pushed her husband off a plow to his death. Adelle leads Helen back into the house and is phoning Sister Alma, when she lets it slip that she plans to wed Linc. Helen reacts by pulling a knife from the pocket of her robe and stabbing Adelle in the back, numerous times. Just after Adelle falls down 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 had come to California with plans to murder the ladies.

A little while later, Linc arrives, expecting to whisk Adelle away for their elopement. From the street, he can hear someone pounding away Goody Goody on the piano. He enters the house calling out Adelle's name, and follows the sounds of the piano up the staircase to the rehearsal hall. There, he finds Helen giddily playing the song and Adelle, dressed in her signature dance costume, propped up and tied to a ladder on stage. The music grows more and more frantic as Helen laughs and the camera pushes in on her face.


Director Curtis Harrington and producer George Edwards approached writer Henry Farrell soon after "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" became a hit, hoping to get a screenplay out of him. [Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 59] Farrell told them of a story outline he had titled "The Box Step," which told the story of two contemporary ladies who ran a dance studio. [Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 59] The story was optioned by another studio before Harrington and Edwards could get their hands on it. Eventually the story did wind up with Harrington and Edwards, who offered input on the screenplay. It was their idea to change the setting to a 1930s dance academy for little girls. [Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 59] After the screenplay was done and developed, Universal Studios, where Harrington worked at the time, turned it down because they couldn't find a name star to take a role. [Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 59] Eventually, Debbie Reynolds took the role of Adelle. Harrington asked his friend, Shelley Winners, if she would take the lead role, and Winters agreed without even reading the script. [Chilling Winters: Shelley Winters Talks About 'What's the Matter With Helen?', Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 65]

There was little meddling from the studio during the production, though they 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 [Chilling Winters: Shelley Winters Talks About 'What's the Matter With Helen?', Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 66] . According to a Los Angeles Times article, Winters was difficult on the set and the studio threatened to replace her with Geraldine Page [ [http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=95454&category=Notes Notes] for "What's the Matter With Helen? at TCM.com. Retrieved June 15, 2008.] .

It was during 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 really come out for a moment" by kissing Reynolds on the lips [Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 61] . Harrington agreed and the opening of the scene was shot with this moment, but it was excised to keep the film from attaining an R-rating [Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 61] .

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," [Curtis Harrington Interview, Scarlet Street Magazine, No. 11, Summer 1993 p. 61] but the studio made him cut the moment down, because such violence would have garnered the film an R-rating.

Awards and nominations

*Academy Award for Best Costume Design



A soundtrack containing David Raksin's score from the film was released in 1975 by Dynamation. The album was "pressed and distributed on a limited, non-commercial basis" [Album jacket liner notes] and offered for sale via mail-order from magazine advertisements. The album includes two different piano variations of "Goody, Goody," but does not include any of the songs that were performed in the film. No names are given to the 14 divided album tracks -- either on the jacket or the LP label -- and one track has a four second gap of silence, as if it's two tracks jammed into one groove. During post-production, the film underwent some additional edits, so portions of the score were truncated and removed. The LP "presents the music as it was originally conceived and recorded," [Album jacket liner notes] with two tracks that don't appear in the final print of the film, and several that are considerably longer than the versions that appear in the movie.

Book version

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 quite a bit on several occasions.

Footnotes and references

External links

*imdb title|id=0067975|title=What's the Matter with Helen

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