Susan Hayward in "With a Song in My Heart"
Lost the 1952 Best Actress Oscar to Shirley Booth in "Come Back, Little Sheba"
During one of our recent Twitter conversations about Susan Hayward, James Henry, of Rants of a Diva, observed that even her "bad" performances are interesting. This philosophy perhaps best applies to her turn in Walter Lang's "With a Song in My Heart," in which she plays Jane Froman, a woman who juggles physical ailments and love triangles throughout her successful singing career. The opposing outcomes of Jane's personal and professional life do little to distill the fact that Walter Lang's film has relatively little to say as a biopic, content to become a glorified concert consisting of old favourites, a new title track designed to pluck at the heartstrings, and some blatant nationalist pandering.
As capable an actress as she is, I've continually felt that Hayward's exertion of effort is often her wrongdoing, much too eager to implant empathy with outward physical elasticity rather than introspective thought. It feels as if she's trying to win us over too much with her shifting, overly-inclusive "poor me" expressions, and one may even be forgiven for thinking that there are only two gears to Hayward's characterisation of Jane: the charismatic entertainer, and the sacrificial victim. It's a bit more than that, but the structure of the film hinders her impact considerably, and it appears as if she's modulating too plainly between vulnerability and heroism.
The bright spots occur in the romantic strand of the narrative, where Hayward telegraphs the fear of loss (not just of her leg, or career, but of her marriage) well, and does a fine job of conveying Jane's affection for romantic interest John, while simultaneously fostering guilt for their mere association. In truth, these scenes are too few, far-between, and estranged from what the filmmakers are concerned with, that there's little real opportunity to string an effective characterisation together. Far too much of "With a Song in My Heart" is dedicated to the musical aspect, and sadly the songs which Hayward must perform bear scant resemblance to Jane's actual concerns.
Hayward can't utilise the musical address to create any lasting poignancy in the proceedings, her deep voice perfectly competent, but lacking emotional register. The final act, in which she visits and performs for American troops, allows her to show more character and attitude, but both her and the film give no indication as to whether Jane is eager or fearful to return to her homeland. It's an altogether puzzling anti-climax to the production, unambiguous in theme (if not narrative) and typifies the failings of an actress and story which surely bore more promise.