Saturday, February 24, 2007

THE ALICE FAYE COLLECTION (20th Century-Fox 1937-43) Fox Home Video

Sandwiched somewhere between pint-sized Shirley Temple and leggy Betty Grable is the brief filmic career of Alice Faye; a platinum blonde whisky-voiced chanteuse who made her stage and film debuts before she had even turned eighteen. A savvy, sassy performer with inimitable talents as a singer and dancer, Faye was Fox’s golden glamour girl for a very brief tenure.

That she left the studio of her own accord and under rather mysterious circumstances (one day, she simply tossed the keys to her dressing room to a coworker and declared “tell Mr. Zanuck he knows what he can do with this!”) made Alice Faye ‘the one that got away.’ For nearly a decade, Fox tried to woo her back into the fold. While Faye did continue to work on the radio opposite her second husband, Phil Harris, and, made an auspicious ‘comeback’ to films with 1962’s remake of State Fair, for all intensive purposes, Alice Faye left the spotlight of fame behind without personal regrets.

Secure in her role as wife and mother, Faye never looked back on her movie career – a gutsy move previously shared by Greta Garbo and Luise Rainer at MGM. Now, Fox Home Video honors their reluctant star with The Alice Faye Collection – a scant four disc offering that barely scratches the surface of Faye’s charming movie career.

Even in the echelons of mediocre Fox musicals, Roy Del Ruth’s On the Avenue (1937) is a quiet little nothing – a congenial passing of the time with enough Irving Berlin songs to anesthetize the mind, even as it exonerates the eardrum. The film stars Dick Powell as Broadway star turned producer, Gary Blake. All is well in stage-land until uppity, Mimi Caraway (Madeleine Carroll) and her equally tenacious father, the Commodore (George Barbier) decide that a sketch in Blake’s new show, depicts Mimi in an unflattering light and therefore must be stopped at all costs. Of course, this does not prevent Mimi from falling hopelessly in love with Blake once the two meet socially.

So, where is Alice Faye in all this? As aspiring, but spurned love interest and star of Blake’s new show, Mona Merrick. Determined that Blake’s affections should be channeled toward her, Mona embarks on a series of manipulations that end badly and with quite predictable results. 

Although Faye is third billed in this tired programmer, she virtually dominates the show; singing many of the film’s best songs including a delightfully Ziegfield-ish number, ‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’ opposite Powell. Curiously, the title song ‘On The Avenue’ was left on the cutting room floor prior to the film’s general release.

Irving Cummings’ Lillian Russell (1940) is a lavish affair – a personal project from producer Darryl F. Zanuck who sought to immortalize the legacy of one of the theater’s great ladies on celluloid. However, under the ageis of a convoluted screenplay by William Anthony McGuire, the final film takes so many artistic liberties with Russell’s colorful life that very little except melodramatic ennui remains.

After briefly glossing over Lillian’s (Faye) birth and tangled youth involving an unrequited chance meeting with struggling newspaper hound, Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda), the narrative jumped forward into Russell’s great successes as a glamorous musical star in a series of lavishly executed musical numbers; the best being the stage tableau, ‘Ma Blushing Rosie’ and very cinematic, ‘After The Ball.’

The film jettisons Russell’s real life four marriages in favor of two; the first to jealous composer, Edward Solomon (Don Ameche) – who dies of a heart attack at his piano no less; the latter to Moore after an insufferably long courtship from afar. There’s also no mention of Russell’s first child – a girl who tragically died of shock while still an infant; or the fact that Russell was something of a career driven monster for whom all personal relationships were eventually discarded.

Irving Cummings’ That Night In Rio (1941) is the quintessential ‘40s Fox musical; over-blown, over-produced and garishly spectacular in lurid Technicolor. Under the weight of its costumes and sets there is a paper thin plot about American ham actor, Larry Martin (Don Ameche) who bears a striking resemblance to Rio’s most prominent citizen, Baron Manuel Duarte (also Ameche).

The Baron and his wife, Cecilia (Alice Faye) catch Martin’s act and are impressed by his talent; particularly Cecilia who asks Martin to go on playing her husband after a scandal at his bank threatens the Baron with personal bankruptcy. Unfortunately for all concerned a mix-up between these two men leads to a romantic rift.

Apparently suffering from too much star power and not enough plot, the film is a cornucopia of escapist vignettes; most having to do with Martin’s hostile love affair with Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda (playing a variation of herself). The film gives Miranda two of her best numbers; ‘I Like You Very Much’ and Chica, Chica Boom, Chica’ the latter breathtakingly staged by choreographer Hermes Pan. Faye warbles the best song in the film – the haunting and mysterious ‘They Met in Rio’ but she’s very much a tertiary character behind both Miranda and Ameche who is quite effective in his dual role.

The first film choreographer Busby Berkeley directed, The Gang’s All Here (1943) also proved to be Alice Faye’s farewell to Fox Studios. A gargantuan – but sloppy – blend of clichés that had made Berkeley’s contributions to the Warner Bros. musicals of the ‘30s such outstanding successes, The Gang’s All Here flounders by direct comparison. 

Its plot concerned showgirl Edie Allen (Faye) who accidentally meets soldier/man-about-town Andy Mason (James Ellison) at a posh New York nightclub. Edie becomes smitten with Andy. But before their romance can follow its natural course, Andy is shipped overseas.

While Edie plans a lavish charity benefit for Andy’s homecoming, she accidentally discovers that Andy already has a fiancée Vivian Potter (Shiela Ryan). The two are planning to marry as soon as Andy returns from the war. So, what’s a homespun good-nature gal to do?

Not to worry. The plot is superficial at best, and secondary to a series of gaudy musical offerings; two of the best, once again, featuring Carmen Miranda in a supporting role as entertainer, Dorita. 

The first ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ is a playful introduction, designed to get the audience thinking about Latin America (odd, because the rest of the film supposedly takes place in New York); the latter is the absurdly bizarre ‘Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat’ in which Miranda and a bunch of scantily clad chorus girls hurl giant bananas about a panacea of plastic palm trees. 

Faye performs the sultry ballad, ‘A Journey To A Star’ and light-hearted ‘The Polka Dot Polka’ which dissolves into Berkeley’s most surreal creation – a multi-tiered platform with spandex clad girls wielding neon tube hoola-hoops.

Fox’s DVD transfers are as mixed an offering as the films. The two B&W; On The Avenue and Lillian Russell have fairly smooth visual presentations. ‘Avenue’ appears a little worse for the wear overall with a soft characteristic and frequently low contrast levels. Age related artifacts are present and occasionally distracting.

Lillian Russell begins with a disclaimer that the film has been mastered from the best possible surviving source elements. The first half of this DVD is very nice indeed; crisp, refined and with great detail and a minimal amount of age related artifacts. Unfortunately, the second half of the print must have been stored in another vault or under a rock. It is riddled with intense grain, scratches, chips, tears and - during a scene in the park - a disturbing tear that flutters back and forth across the screen.

Of the two Technicolor features; The Gang’s All Here is the more pleasing. Colors are bold and vibrant. Flesh tones are not very natural – either too orange or pink. The overall quality is smooth and refined, with a minimal amount of grain and age-related artifacts. Matte process shots exhibit a slightly less refined quality.

That Night In Rio is rather inconsistently rendered. At times, colors appear quite refined and vibrant. But occasionally there is a ‘thick’ characteristic to the image. Color become slightly muddy with more than a hint of grain. Flesh tones are pasty. Neither film’s quality will disappoint but neither will astound either.

The audio on all films has been cleaned up and rechanneled to stereo. The original mono tracks are also included. Extras boil down to two informative retrospectives on Alice Faye’s career; an overview on the real Lillian Russell, informative audio commentaries on three of the four movies; theatrical trailers, and Alice Faye’s promotional featurette as a spokeswoman for Pfizer; We Still Are.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
On The Avenue 3
Lillian Russell 3.5
That Night In Rio 3
The Gang's All Here 3.5

On The Avenue 3
Lillian Russell 3
That Night In Rio 3
The Gang's All Here 3.5


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