With a Song in My Heart, a 1952 motion picture starring the late Susan Hayward , had its world premiere at the Miracle Mile Theater in Coral Gables , Fla. No one in the black-tie audience that night knew movie history was in the making. Cinema buffs may remember With a Song in My Heart as the film debut of a handsome young actor named Robert Wagner. But the movie also created a small following for Miss Hayward’s pioneer performance in frontal nudity.
Don’t look for the film in the dark recesses where video stores hide the adult tapes and DVDs. With a Song in My Heart wouldn’t shock anyone today. In fact, Miss Hayward’s revealing role would still be overlooked by most mature audiences, just as it was years ago by Hollywood censors. At the Florida premiere, and in the years since then, millions of moviegoers have missed the saucy scene because it’s on the screen for barely a heart-stopping instant. For more than a half-century, children have watched this family-friendly film without parental guidance, despite the fact that Miss Hayward’s accidental wardrobe malfunction revealed much more than Janet Jackson’s in the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. When Justin Timberlake pulled off part of Miss Jackson’s corset, it momentarily exposed her right breast – partially adorned with a silvery starburst. No such jewelry obscured Miss Hayward’s naked nipple.
With a Song in My Heart was based on the true story of singer Jane Froman, who was injured in a plane crash while flying to entertain U.S. troops in Europe . Wagner, then 22, played a cameo role as a farm boy headed for combat in World War II who was later badly wounded. His appearance in two brief scenes near the beginning and end of the film earned no special mention in the screen credits. In the first scene, Wagner’s boyish good looks catch the singer’s eye and she invites him onstage. Wagner, natty in his crisp Army uniform, grins shyly as Jane Froman (played by Susan Hayward) sings him a medley of love songs. Toward the end of the movie, Jane Froman returns to Europe on crutches to do the show tour that had been tragically canceled by her plane crash. She meets Wagner again, but this time he’s wounded and in a military hospital unable to speak. Jane Froman sings to him again. Tears well in the soldier’s eyes, rousing him from his shellshock stupor and he speaks. In the darkened theater, the teary scene had hankies sprouting like waterlilies.
Hollywood was stunned when the unknown Wagner drew more fan mail than anyone in the cast. Thousands of star-struck teenagers wondered who he was and asked for autographed pictures. Adults wrote to praise his poignant performance.
When the film premiered in Coral Gables, I was a student at the nearby University of Miami working nights as an usher at the Miracle Mile Theater. The big night had all the trappings of a Hollywood premiere – palm trees, searchlights, movie stars and limousines. Jane Froman was there. So was Thelma Ritter, who played the irreverent nurse, and Rory Calhoun, the dashing pilot who saves Miss Froman’s life after the plane crash and later marries her. It was a gala night, even though Robert Wagner was an uninvited nobody and Susan Hayward was a no-show. But we saw a lot more of the star than we expected.
Her accidental overexposure occurred during a major dance number. With six couples swirling about, the camera dollied in for a close-up as Miss Hayward’s partner bent to pick her up. When she raised her left arm to reach around his shoulders, her strapless gown did not reach up with her. Her left breast did. Our head usher noticed it first. We didn’t believe him, thinking it had to be an optical illusion. But when the second show that night proved him right, the shaken theater manager quickly called New York where the film would go next, hoping to show his alertness would save the studio from certain embarrassment. He was told not to worry – the frame would be deleted on the film’s arrival.
With a Song in My Heart played 21 times at the Miracle. We watched the audience closely, but saw no evidence that any theater patron ever caught the accidental flash of flesh, although it was a welcome diversion for the ushers. At every show, I’d walk slowly down the aisle, timing my progress to the front row by the changing tempo of the music so I could look up at the exact moment of Miss Hayward’s unveiling. Though her womanly attributes loomed large on the big silver screen, it flicked by otherwise unnoticed. There were no gasps or titters from the audience. A week after the film went to New York our head usher, a savvy business major at the university, was selling color slides of the bawdy frame, freezing in time Miss Hayward’s bared bosom. A professor told me he saw the slide at a UM faculty meeting.
Two years later, With a Song in My Heart was playing at an Air Force base where I was stationed in Texas and curiosity more than lust pulled me in for yet another look, smugly satisfied that I knew something about the movie no one else did. At the familiar scene, the film jumped where it had been spliced. I left, my higher nature pleased Miss Hayward had been spared further embarrassment, but as a lonely airman far from home a bit disappointed too.
I recalled that my walks down the aisle back in 1952 were not so much for titillation as they were in personal astonishment that no one was seeing what I was seeing. Despite the camera’s close-up view, there was no sign that anyone in the audiences I ushered ever noticed the remarkable scene, although my study of it showed Miss Hayward and her dance partner clearly did. At the brief scene’s cut, both looked at each other in stunned embarrassment. In fact, the color slide sold by the head usher had Miss Hayward’s dance partner, his mouth agape, looking directly at her errant mammary. But then there’s something that happens several times at every movie which few people notice – the black blob that blinks in the upper right hand corner of the screen as the projectionist’s cue to change reels. I never did until it was pointed out to me.
In 1958, I was newly married and With a Song in My Heart was on the TV late show. I shared the film’s naughty secret with my wife and we knelt before the set to watch. “Now look right here and you’ll see the film jump,” I said. But the film did not jump. Not every copy had been edited. There on the small screen just inches away was the unexpurgated version of Susan Hayward’s only topless performance. Over the years, we’ve gathered with friends to watch With a Song in My Heart anytime it’s on TV and we’ve always been treated to the uncut version. It’s a family classic in our house. And watching it on the boob tube is more fun than looking for the portly Alfred Hitchcock in the early scenes of his films. The movie earned Hayward an Oscar nomination, but thanks to that kinder, gentler era, the actress died in 1975 at the age of 57 of brain cancer, free of any public notoriety over what was truly an accidental wardrobe malfunction.