THE ALICE FAYE COLLECTION (2oth Century-Fox 1937-43) Fox Home Video
Sandwiched somewhere between pint-sized Shirley Temple and leggy Betty Grable is the brief but no less meteoric career of Alice Faye; a platinum blonde, whisky-voiced chanteuse who made her stage and film debuts before she had even turned eighteen. A street-savvy, sassy performer with inimitable gifts as both a singer and dancer, Faye was Fox’s glamour gal for a brief wrinkle in time. Indeed, long before Marilyn Monroe blazed a trail of sex appeal across the Technicolor and Cinemascope screens, production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck possessed and eye, and a yen for sexpots (stories about his ‘five o’clock girls’ – starlets, Zanuck would invite to his office after hours, dangling the carrot of fame before them…for a price – are legendary). 2oth Century-Fox certainly had no shortage of attractive blondes to grace the gloss of their garish Technicolor fantasies back then. And Faye, above most others, proved equally a wry comedian and raconteur. Lying about her age, Alice Jeane Leppert landed her first role on Broadway, in 1931’s George White’s Scandals. By the time she appeared on the radio opposite pop singer, Rudy Vallee, Faye was already a pro; her first movie, a reprise of ‘Scandals’. It became her calling card to securing a long-term contract at Fox.
Alas, Zanuck struggled to find a home for her. His first inclination was to remake Faye as a platinum knock-off of MGM’s reigning sex symbol, Jean Harlow. And while Faye’s innate talent shone through this war paint, her infectious personality was considerably buried underneath its artificial façade. Zanuck would have cast Harlow in 1938’s In Old Chicago. In fact, the ink had already dried on a deal brokered between Zanuck and Metro’s raja, L.B. Mayer when Harlow fell ill on the set of Saratoga. Her tragic passing at the tender age of 26 ironically proved Faye’s good fortune. Zanuck cast Faye in this personally supervised picture. Again, she sported a plaster-pound of makeup to conceal her wholesomeness from the public, playing the hard-edged tart with the proverbial heart of gold. And, again, she bypassed Zanuck’s zeal to mold her into something she was decidedly not. In Old Chicago was an enormous hit, and Faye’s transparent winsomeness, not to mention her screen chemistry with co-stars, Don Ameche and Tyrone Power ensured the trio would continue to re-appear together in subsequent movies.
With 1939’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band – the studio’s costliest film to date – Faye, again, illustrated a penchant to headline a prestige picture. Her salary increased and so did her stardom. That same year she ranked among the top ten box office draws in the nation. Faye rounded 1939 with another winner, Rose of Washington Square; a very loose adaptation of comedian, Fanny Brice’s life story. Evidently, there was enough truth in its lithe mixture of drama and song to cause Brice to sue Fox. It is one of the studio system’s niggling ironies that as quickly as stars were created, they were indentured to appear in movies of questionable artistry, simply to capitalize on their popularity. Tail Spin and Barricade (both made and released in 1939) – two very inconsequential melodramas - were little more than ‘B’ programmers. But they did business almost exclusively on the weight of Faye’s name on the marquee.
In 1940, Faye was cast in another prestige picture, Lillian Russell – a leaden but glossy and thoroughly fictional biopic of the gilded age’s most celebrated performer. By now, Faye was Fox’s premiere glamor girl; the wind in her sails knocked free by illness that forced her to drop out of Down Argentine Way. In Betty Grable, her replacement, Zanuck possibly saw a glimpse of the future, and although no clairvoyant, he would continue to mine Faye for her talents afterward, though increasingly, coming to favor Grable for the spotlight. The Grable and Faye were successfully paired in Tin Pan Alley (1940). They actually became very good friends on the set – despite the publicity department’s attempts to craft an imaginary feud. In 1941, Faye made two more winners: Week-End in Havana, and, That Night in Rio – slickly packaged entertainments to showcase Zanuck’s newly acquired zeitgeist – Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda.
The birth of a daughter to Faye with second husband, radio sensation, Phil Harris delayed her return to the screen by a whole year. This rather infuriated Zanuck. He did not care for Harris’ influence on ‘his’ star. Perhaps the feeling was mutual. Zanuck would have preferred Faye’s first marriage to singer, Tony Martin had been a success; two stars of similar temperament and working in the same profession, both kept busy until their respective studios were ready to let them go. Nevertheless, Zanuck gave Faye a big build up upon her return to Fox. 1943’s Hello, Frisco, Hello was typical Fox turn-of-the-century musical Americana. But Faye’s rendition of ‘You’ll Never Know’ became an instant valentine to American servicemen overseas – winning the year’s Oscar for Best Original Song and selling well over a million copies in sheet music. With this one movie, Faye again was ranked in the top ten.
But 1941 also marked a shift in the actress’ personal interests. After the birth of another daughter, she renegotiated her contract at Fox to make only one movie per annum; two, if the spirit moved her. Of particular interest to Faye was Fallen Angel; ironically, the picture that effectively put a period to her career. Begun as another star vehicle built around her talents, in mid-shoot Zanuck ordered considerable re-writes and re-shoots when rising starlet, Linda Darnell showed considerable promise in a supporting part. Always gracious to newcomers, Faye was nevertheless miffed at Zanuck for throwing her participation on this passion project under the proverbial bus. Screening the rough cut of Fallen Angel it was plain to see Zanuck had sacrificed Faye to build up Darnell. Without further pause, Faye left the studio of her own accord, simply tossing the keys to her dressing room to the gateman, adding “Tell Mr. Zanuck he knows what he can do with these!”
Her impromptu farewell made Alice Faye ‘the one that got away.’ Despite initially incurring Zanuck’s wrath, for nearly a decade thereafter the mogul tried without success to woo Faye back into the fold. Refusing any and all offers, Zanuck instead blackballed Faye from appearing in movies for any other studio, claiming she still owed Fox two pictures. While Faye did continue to work on the radio opposite Phil Harris, and, made an auspicious ‘comeback’ to films with 1962’s abysmal remake of State Fair, for all intent and purposes Alice Faye left the spotlight for good in 1943; yet, rather sincerely without any personal regrets. Secure in her role as wife and mother, Faye never looked back on her former life – a rather gutsy move she shared with the likes of Greta Garbo and Luise Rainer until her death from stomach cancer in 1998.
Some years ago, Fox Home Video honored their reluctant star with The Alice Faye Collection – a scant 4-disc affair 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, must be stopped at all costs. Of course, this does not prevent Mimi from falling hopelessly in love with Blake once the two adversaries meet cute 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. Next up, Irving Cummings’ Lillian Russell (1940); a thoroughly lavish affair and personal project of producer, Darryl F. Zanuck who sought to immortalize on celluloid the legacy of one of the theater’s great ladies. However, under the aegis of a convoluted screenplay by William Anthony McGuire, the final film takes so many artistic liberties with Russell’s colorful life, 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 jumps into a travelogue of Russell’s great stage successes as a glamorous musical star in a series of lavishly executed numbers; the best of these - the stage tableau, ‘Ma Blushing Rosie’, followed by her backstage rendition of ‘After The Ball’ for the President.
The film distills Russell’s four marriages down to two; the first, to jealous composer, Edward Solomon (Don Ameche) – who dies from a heart attack at his piano; the latter, to Moore after an insufferably long courtship from afar. The movie also ignores Russell’s first child – a girl who tragically died of shock while still an infant – and gilds the unflattering truth that Russell was something of a career-driven monster for whom all personal relationships were a distant second in her life, and, eventually discarded. Irving Cummings’ That Night In Rio (1941) is the quintessential ‘40s Fox musical; over-blown, over-produced and spectacular in lurid Technicolor. Eclipsed by the enormity of its costumes and sets is a wafer-thin script cobbled together by George Seaton, Bess Meredyth and Hal Long; all 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. Suffering from too much star power and not enough plot, That Night in Rio is a riotous cornucopia of vignettes; most having to do with Martin’s hostile love affair with Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda (playing a variation on 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’. Alas, she is very much a tertiary character; two steps behind Miranda and Ameche.
The last movie in this collection is also the first choreographer extraordinaire, Busby Berkeley directed in Technicolor: The Gang’s All Here (1943). It also proved to be Alice Faye’s farewell to the big and glossy entertainments that had helped launch her career. A gargantuan – but otherwise sloppy – blend of clichés that had made Berkeley’s contributions to the Warner Bros.' musicals of the thirties such lavishly appointed escapist entertainment, The Gang’s All Here is mindbogglingly eclectic, but stumbles by direct comparison. Its plot concerns 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 inadvertently discovers Andy already has a fiancée, Vivian Potter (Sheila Ryan). The two are fated to marry as soon as Andy returns on leave. 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 that showcase Berkeley at his best and featuring Carmen Miranda in a supporting role as entertainer, Dorita. ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ is a playful introduction to the spectacle that will follow, designed to get audiences thinking about Latin America (odd, because the rest of the film supposedly takes place in New York). Miranda is lowered from a cargo hold of crated fruit and proceeds to weave her way from the stage through the crowd, extolling the virtues of being in the Big Apple. Later, Miranda is surrounded by a bevy of chorines toting some decidedly phallic bananas for the absurdly ambitious spectacle, ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat’. Faye performs a sultry ballad, ‘A Journey To A Star’ (rather transparently conceived to rival the runaway success of ‘You’ll Never Know’) and, caps off the show with the light-hearted ‘Polka Dot Polka’. With its stylized 1880 milieu, Faye flanked by children dressed as little lords and ladies and miming words to adult voices, the number dissolves into Berkeley’s most surreal creation – a futuristic multi-tiered platform with spandex-clad ‘space girls’ wielding neon-lit hoola-hoops.
It is important to remember Alice Faye today, particularly as Fox Home Video appears to have zero interest in resurrecting her reputation by bringing any of these movies to Blu-ray. In retrospect, all of the studios have been remiss in extolling the virtues of even their greatest stars from the golden age. No, today’s asset management holding companies (for this is precisely what modern-era studios have become; that, and rather begrudging repositories and archives for content they otherwise appear to be quite unwilling to make available to fans or new audiences beyond limited standard def releases without restoration work done to preserve the legacy for future generations) are content to let the past molder with those of us who are old enough to recall what Hollywood used to represent, but no longer does.
Fox Home Video’s DVD transfers are as mixed a blessing as the films selected for inclusion herein. The two in B&W (On The Avenue and Lillian Russell) have fairly smooth presentations. ‘Avenue’ is a little worse for the wear, with a soft characteristic and frequently low contrast. Age-related artifacts are present and occasionally distracting. Lillian Russell begins with a disclaimer (this film has been mastered from the best possible surviving source elements). The first half of this DVD is very nice; crisp, refined with great detail revealed throughout and minimal amounts of age-related artifacts. Unfortunately, from the mid-way point onward the print master used for this release must have been stored in another vault or under a rock. It is riddled with intense streaks, amplified grain, a barrage of scratches, chips, tears and - during one scene in a 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 rich and vibrant. But occasionally there is a ‘thick’ characteristic that creeps into the image. Color dims or, on rare occasions, looks muddy; the entire image appearing grainier than normal. Flesh tones are also very pasty. Neither of these transfers will win any awards for quality. On the flip side, both are highly watchable.
For those unaware – neither of these Technicolor classics looks anywhere near what it did back in the 1940s as Fox’s previous administration, in their infinite wisdom – not! – elected to junk all archival 3-strip Technicolor negatives in favor of poorly processed Eastman print masters instead, just to save on storage space. Yes, they were that short-sighted. The audio across all four movies included herein has been cleaned up and presented as both mono and rechanneled stereo. 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. Bottom line: as the years pass and legacies like Faye’s continue to fade into obscurity, it behooves movie lovers everywhere to snatch up box sets like this one to remember the good ole days in style. The Alice Faye Collection features some fanciful and fun outings and should not be overlooked.
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