Your Cheatin’ Heart (DVD Review)6 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars George Hamilton, Susan Oliver, Red Buttons, Arthur O’Connell.
In terms of historical/aesthetic importance, Hank Williams is on the Frank Sinatra-Bob Dylan level. And — at least in terms of how his life ended — his story is the most dramatic of the bunch. Thus, you’d expect any screen treatment of his sad story to be fashioned from the utmost in first-rank talents and not the late producer Sam Katzman (of Jungle Jim in Pygmy Island, Cannibal Attack, Rock Around the Clock, Cha-Cha-Cha Boom!, The Giant Claw, Twist Around the Clock and Hootenanny Hoot). To be sure, all of these quickies enriched my childhood and adolescence a lot more than reading George Eliot’s Adam Bede in high school … but still.
Katzman’s Williams biopic is probably the most respectable movie he ever made, leaving aside It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which have the unfair mutated-creature advantage of further boasting a certain Ray Harryhausen panache. It has the modest guilty-pleasure charms that many shaky ‘A’-pics have — if you can get over the fact that a great story has been squandered. That is, one of a prolific unschooled genius who couldn’t stay off the booze and pills any more than could fictional Maury Dann, the country singer Rip Torn plays so memorably in 1973’s Payday.
George Hamilton plays Williams in a likably adequate manner, though he (who bore a more than passable resemblance to the subject) has never been among the first actors who come to mind when the assignment is to rip open the soul of anyone (much less an artist) with demons. On the other hand, you do have to bow and curtsy to a single organism who has managed to play Williams, Dracula, Zorro, playwright Moss Hart and Evel Knievel on screen — a biographical body of work perhaps only surpassed by Gary Oldman’s (Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, Beethoven and Pontius Pilate).
Heart the movie was probably doomed when Williams’ first wife Audrey (played by Susan Oliver) came along with the project as technical adviser, which may explain why there’s no mention of a second wife the singer married less than three months before his death. Just beginning his career, Hank Jr. sings the incredible catalog (“Cold, Cold Heart” and so on) that Hamilton lip-synchs — hardly an unthinkable touch though somewhat of a questionable one considering that rights to the originals were controlled by MGM Records and this was an MGM film.
There’s also a fictional drummer, confidante and picker-up-of-empties played by Red Buttons — who, given his casting in the following year’s Carroll Baker version of Harlow, pretty well had the market cornered in those days in terms of biopic that treated the truth as a chunk of elastic. And, of course, no Hollywood musical in the early 1960s was going to address the drug use of its protagonist, though the evidence is fairly persuasive (as far as anyone really knows) that drugs were a factor in Williams’ mysterious death in the back seat of a limo taking him to an Ohio concert on New Year’s Day 1953.
Despite all this, the movie is easy to take unless you’re infuriated over what could have been (or maybe could be if someone would remake this story, which I really wish would happen). But so as not to be hypocritical about the whole thing, let me add that I have never seen anyone look better in a cowgirl outfit than Oliver does in the early scenes, which are among the movie’s best. Heart’s direction is by Gene Nelson, a whale of an athletic dancer who unfortunately came along at the time when Hollywood was beginning to phase out dance musicals. Katzman didn’t exactly reward Nelson for a serviceable job: The next year, he re-hired him for Harum Scarum, possibly the most foredoomed of all Elvis pics and the one that most established technical advisor Col. Tom Parker as an auteur of cluelessness.