HELLO, FRISCO, HELLO: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1943) Twilight Time
San Francisco's Barbary Coast plays host to an all-star assemblage of Fox's most amiable contract players in H. Bruce Humberstone's Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943). The movie that featured an incandescent Alice Faye in her triumphant return to the Fox musical - warbling 'You'll Never Know' - the iconic WWII ballad, also cast handsome, John Payne as Johnny Cornell - an ambitious saloon keeper who nearly bankrupts his own future happiness for a quick buck, much to the chagrin of his delightfully clumsy cohorts, Dan Daley (Jack Oakie) and Beulah Clancy (June Havoc). Oakie's penchant for hamming it up is working overtime here - a scene stealer, so beloved by audiences and the rest of the cast, no one seemed to mind that he virtually dominates every moment in which he 'shares' the screen. Oakie - an old trooper from Vaudeville, is absolutely delightful; his reactions to others and his way with a zinger, simply priceless. Like virtually all of Fox’s vintage musicals from the 1940’s Hello, Frisco, Hello won’t strain the conventions or plot devices beyond the convivial ‘boy meets girl’, its entire existence built around a popular turn-of-the-century song celebrating the trend-setting moment when a transcontinental telephone call suddenly became possible; the event, shameless promoted by the telephone company back in 1915.
The score to Hello, Frisco, Hello features only three original tunes; the aforementioned and Oscar-winning 'You'll Never Know', co-authored by Tin Pan Alley specialists extraordinaire, Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. For its sheer output alone, much more its’ staying power, no era in songwriting has even come close to rivaling the great American songbook, circa 1900: tunes, easily identifiable by only a few bars, and as invigoratingly fresh as the day when they were written. Incidentally, when the movie had its premiere, the title, ‘Hello, Frisco, Hello’ was cause for some umbrage taken by San Francisco’s mayor, Angelo J. Rossi who bristled that ‘Frisco’ was an unseemly ellipsis of the city’s name. In reply, 2oth-Century Fox agreed to renamed all prints shown in that fair city, "Hello, San Francisco, Hello". Hello, Frisco, Hello takes full advantage of the joyous ballads and pop songs of their day, many, like Irving Berlin and George Botsford’s The Grizzly Bear, given lavish production values, underscored by David Buttolph. From 1929 to 1958, Buttolph was one of the most prolific composers working in pictures, scoring some 237 movies - many of them A-list studio product, worthy of his baton and creative genius.
The idea behind Hello, Frisco, Hello was not new - Fox, having mined the plot for 1936's King of Burlesque, also starring Alice Faye, with support from Jack Oakie; only then, with Warren Baxter as her leading man – far less lovable than John Payne - edgier too - and very much out for his own good. The softening of this character in Hello, Frisco, Hello bodes well for Payne's own on-screen persona. Indeed, his Johnny Cornell quite simply cannot help himself. He is a cad…sort of… but charmingly so. At this point in his career, John Payne was firmly established at Fox as a resident heartthrob. Despite Johnny’s cruel streak – he treats Faye’s Trudy Jones deplorably for much of the picture’s run time, something about Payne’s own good-natured Virginian gentleman emerges from beneath his characterization. This makes us care about his character’s destiny too. Payne’s career took off after being spotted by a talent scout in 1934. After nearly 2-years of stagecraft, he made his big screen debut in Samuel Goldwyn's Dodsworth (1936). Thereafter, Goldwyn repeatedly tried to make Payne a star. Alas, most of his planned projects fell apart in the eleventh hour, even as Goldwyn refused to sell Payne’s contract to Columbia Pictures, who were eager to have him. At the end of this internment, Payne was loaned to Fox for a pair of B-pictures, Fair Warning, and Love on Toast (1937), also appearing way down the list of stars featured in Paramount's College Swing (1938). He signed a contract with Warner Bros. that same year, but found little comfort in their exploitation of his talents, merely to keep their leading man, Dick Powell in line. In the interim, Payne appeared on stage in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938–39).
As far as the movies were concerned, it might have all been over for Payne, except 2oth Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck offered him a bit part in Star Dust (1940), and immediately thereafter signed Payne to a long-term contract. And although Zanuck would diversify Payne’s prospects considerably, very early on, he found a prominent place for the actor’s talents as the handsome hunk in Fox’s lucrative spate of glossy Technicolor musicals; Tin Pan Alley (1940) with Alice Faye and Betty Grable, The Great American Broadcast (1940, opposite Faye again), Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Faye again, this time with Carmen Miranda in Week-End in Havana (1941), Footlight Serenade (1942) opposite Grable and Victor Mature, Springtime in the Rockies (1942, Grable again), Iceland (1943, Henie, again) and finally, Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943). Payne’s career would continue on its upward trajectory thereafter with plum supporting parts in The Dolly Sisters (1945), Sentimental Journey (1946) and third-billed in Fox’s prestige pic of 1946 - The Razor's Edge. But, in hindsight, his greatest role was yet to come - as attorney, Fred Gailey in the perennially revived, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) opposite Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara and Edmund Gwenn. Despite his steady workload and another 4 years still left on his contract, Payne was released from Fox later this same year, again claiming dissatisfaction with the roles he was being offered. Perhaps he had sincerely tired of the proverbial ‘nice guy’ – as his later choices marked a distinct departure into darker ‘tough guy’ roles for which he proved equally adept.
Payne’s Johnny Cornell in Hello, Frisco, Hello hints at this latter-day ambition to expand upon his ‘mostly’ good guy persona. Indeed, Johnny is not above seducing – and being seduced by, the viperous Nob Hill socialite, Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari); more than anything, a romance of convenience, orchestrated to get him the required funds to open his posh nightclub and ‘be’ his own man…well, sort of. Moreover, Payne’s Johnny wants success so, and is willing, at least, to entertain the notion of trading in his soul for the chance to get it. And Payne, whose chiseled looks always seemed to suggest a far more rugged individual than the one we eventually get to know, was, in fact, professionally enamored of Alice Faye - then, wed to radio star, Phil Harris. Faye and Harris' marriage was predicted by the pundits to fall apart within a few months. Indeed, Zanuck was hardly keen on it; even less so, when Faye began to get pregnant - again and again - necessitating time off from the busy schedule Zanuck had in mind for one of his leading blondes. And, in her prime, Faye's career rivaled Betty Grable’s, the two ladies often up for the same roles with Zanuck indiscriminately trading one gal for the other, keeping each in check with the threat of replacement with the other, should they grow temperamental with the work. Both Grable and Faye were workhorses, committed to their careers, but also gracious ladies accepting of each other’s successes along the way. And Zanuck, aware of Faye’s stature with the public, really gave her the plushest return to pictures after almost a year’s absence with Hello, Frisco, Hello - a project on which no penny in the production budget was spared. So, perhaps it was more than a little disconcerting to Zanuck that Faye, having discovered most of her best scenes in the upcoming Fallen Angel (1945) had been ordered cut by Zanuck to build up newcomer, Linda Darnell in a supporting part, simply drove through the studio gates one afternoon, pausing briefly to hand her dressing room keys to the security guard at the gate, adding, "Tell Mr. Zanuck he knows what he can do with these." She never returned – at least, not while Zanuck reigned supreme at Fox; her one concession – 1962’s big and brassy Fox remake of State Fair, unequivocally convincing Faye it was time to retire from the screen for good. While the honeymoon at Fox abruptly ended in 1945, Faye would remain ever-devoted in her marriage to Phil Harris – and vice versa – until his death in 1995.
Hello, Frisco, Hello opens with the aforementioned title tune, heard as orchestral underscore for the main titles. We depart down a gas-lit street on the Barbary Coast where sailors and swells, harlots and heiresses come to slum it. This is hardly the Barbary Coast as it likely existed in 1915, dark and seedy and brimming with ruthless cutthroats and debaucheries of every variety. No, the bars and clubs that line these studio-sanitized streets teem with good-humored, burly men who enjoy their strong drink in moderation, and hussies – more playful than painted - adorning every corner as the rich young socialites, in their horse-drawn carriages, marvel at the low-brow-ness of it all, soaking up a little more of the ‘wrong kind’ of culture. It's all very colorful, in that garish Fox Technicolor kind of way. And this is where we find the troop of Trudy Evans, Johnny Cornell, Dan Daley and Beulah Clancy, hoofin' it for cash inside Sharkey's Colosseum - a real waterfront dive. Rather ambitiously, Johnny has changed the musical program to test new material. The men - most already two sheets to the wind - are enthralled with Trudy's rendition of the romantic ballad, 'You'll Never Know'. It seems to strike just the right chord. Sharkey, however, is hardly impressed. His modus operandi is to sell more liquor. Entertainment is just a sideline to keep the customers at the bar. But Johnny has managed to turn the focus on Trudy and his show. As no one is drinking, Sharkey vows that Johnny and his troop are out. Sour grapes, perhaps. Although Johnny is not about to let a little thing like instant unemployment stand in his way, especially when Trudy's talents are beyond compare and can carry the whole show wherever they decide to set up and perform. So, not to be outdone or humiliated by Sharkey, Johnny and his travelling menagerie take up residence right in the middle of the street, extorting money from the various bar keepers in the vicinity who have seen their take dramatically fall off since their clientele can now get their entertainment for free.
And while Trudy and her pals are fairly contented with this current lot in life, taking up nightly collections from the patrons who come to see them perform, Johnny has even bigger dreams of establishing the grandest saloon yet seen on the strip. One problem: it takes money – none of which he has at the moment. Dan and Beulah are skeptical of Johnny's motives, but really cannot argue with his success. Soon, Johnny scrapes enough together to open The Grizzly Bear – a seedy watering hole in direct competition with Sharkey’s place, and, with Trudy as its star attraction. The Grizzly Bear quickly develops into a main staple. With its flourish of success, Johnny opens more clubs. Pretty soon, he is the proprietor of a half dozen lucrative saloons. And while he is generous with his money, it’s still not enough for Johnny, who now has his eye on becoming respectable. To this end, he pursues – or is perhaps pursued – by snobbish socialite, Bernice Croft. She could definitely open doors for Johnny to be accepted into ‘polite’ society. Only the price of admission is a loveless romance. Even as Johnny seems willing to pay this tab, the cost proves too high for Trudy, who desperately loves Johnny and wants him to love her in return. The tide shifts in Johnny’s favor after Bernice loses her fortune due to bad investments. He buys up most of her possessions at auction, including her house. All of this he willingly offers back to Bernice. Dan cautions Johnny against becoming involved with Bernice. Instead, Johnny brushes all caution aside believing he can buy Bernice’s love as easily as the rest. Seeing a way out of her predicament, Bernice connives and wheedles Johnny into proposing to her, just so she can maintain this high standard of living.
Devastated, and bitter, Trudy accepts impresario, Douglas Dawson’s (Aubrey Mathers) offer to star in his new London show. Her success abroad makes Trudy the toast of two continents. Meanwhile, Johnny re-opens the opera house founded by Bernice's late father, spending profligately to make it a success for Bernice's flighty friends. Neglecting his own fortunes, gradually Johnny’s Barbary Coast clubs go out of business one at a time, until only The Grizzly Bear remains. Dan implores Johnny to negotiate Trudy’s return. After all, she was the good luck charm to have kick-started his initial flourish of success. Stubbornly resisting the urge to engage Trudy, Johnny loses The Grizzly Bear, forcing Dan and Beulah to go back to work for Sharkey. As virtually all of his money has run out, Johnny informs Bernice he must close the opera house too. In fact, this last enterprise has never made back its investment and has been a veritable money pit from the outset. Disgusted by his failure, Bernice cruelly informs Johnny she only married him for his money. That gone, she has little use for him now. Sadder, though wiser, Johnny gives Bernice the deed to the house, obtains a divorce, and begins anew to rebuild him fortunes from nothing, working as a barker at a sideshow. Newly returned to San Francisco, Trudy is informed by Dan and Beulah of Johnny’s fate. Knowing he is too proud to accept ‘charity’ from her, Trudy engineers a ruse whereby Sam Weaver (Laird Cregar), a rummy of a prospector whom Johnny staked for years, feigns having struck it rich. So, Weaver repays Johnny with Trudy’s outlay. With it, Johnny is able to re-open The Grizzly Bear. Tragically, on opening night a drunken Sam reveals the truth to Johnny, wounding his pride. About to close the show, Johnny is lulled by Dan to sing a duet onstage with Trudy. Finally realizing the depth of her love for him, and even more so, acknowledging his love for her now, Johnny embraces Trudy on stage as the two warble a reprise of "You'll Never Know."
Hello, Frisco, Hello was such a huge hit for Alice Faye, in retrospect it seems inconceivable that this A-list star had barely two years left before she walked away from the movies altogether. Zanuck’s ironclad hold on Faye’s livelihood, which he tried - in vain - to reinforce with a feeble ‘breach of contract’ lawsuit, was met with indifference from Faye. Clearly, she did not need the money. Nor did she seek the glare of the spotlight to feel important; her role as wife and mother, wholeheartedly embraced. And Zanuck’s stranglehold did not extend into other forms of popular entertainment. Hence, in 1948, Faye and her husband premiered The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show - a nationally syndicated radio situation comedy that would continue to rank in the top ten for most of its run, with Faye’s periodic warbling of popular ballads, and Harris’ quick wit with a zinger proving genuine crowd-pleasers. It must have irked Zanuck that one of the show’s running gags made chronic reference to the money Faye had made off her ‘movie career’ – Harris, frequently turning the screw with such cleverly barbed lines like “I'm only trying to protect the wife of the money I love.” And despite dogged rumors that the marriage was perpetually in crisis, Faye and Harris would remain forever devoted to each other until his death in 1995. Three years later, Faye followed her husband to the great beyond, taken much too soon from stomach cancer, age 83. Viewed today, Hello, Frisco, Hello is an exuberant reminder of two bygone eras; the first, Fox’s Tiffany-set reinterpretation of the gilded age for the glorious Technicolor forties, with the studio’s uniquely garish and gushing use of its rainbow hues on fully-saturated overdrive. The second epoch to admire is undoubtedly the war years on celluloid – a diverse age in the picture-making biz when creativity and optimism reigned supreme, despite the looming darkness from abroad.
Hello, Frisco, Hello arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time, and, much like their release of Pin Up Girl (1943), is an epic misfire in hi-def. I have now had the opportunity to compare this Blu-ray with Fox's now defunct DVD release from 2004. And while the DVD used a transfer for which the proper Fox logos had been incorrectly replaced, if anything the image that follows on the DVD is superior in virtually all regards to this Blu-ray reissue, sporting properly framed main titles, and color fidelity that offers better overall saturation and fine detail reproduction. For starters, the main titles on the Blu-ray are so grotesquely window-boxed on all four sides that even on my 85-inch monitor, the image appears as a postage stamp, smack in the middle of a sea of black. From here, the results only become dimmer and more disappointing. Again, it isn’t TT’s fault, although I would severely question their integrity in choosing to distribute a digital transfer that has not even been afforded basic clean-up and color correction from its rights holder. There is NO POINT in releasing garbage in hi-def – period! No attention has been paid by Fox on Hello, Frisco, Hello and their short-sightedness shows: severe black crush, no fine detail whatsoever, a clumpy, often blurry focused image, and colors that are severely faded or worse, looking as though on the verge of imploding from vinegar syndrome. This topic has been covered in other reviews of Fox product, but for those who have yet to read it, we repeat: in the mid-70’s, the new studio management sought to economize and streamline their asset management. With no perceived re-sale value in original nitrate and Technicolor elements, the decision was made to create a single master dupe negative printed on then current Eastman/Kodak color stock.
No one thought to first inspect the original Technicolor elements for differential shrinkage, fading, or other age-related anomalies, or to cull from the best possible surviving sources to ensure at least moderate integrity to the original presentation value of these films. Instead, elements were simply ‘recorded’ onto the new film stock with all their baked in imperfections: zero inspection afforded at the start and virtually no follow-up to confirm the integrity of the new print master, standing in as the only surviving copy of each movie for generations to come. Once this process was completed, all original elements were junked. Unfortunately, after the purge, a most un-welcome surprise surfaced. The new dupes were not only misaligned and fuzzy, but severely compromised in their reproduction of color fidelity. Worse, the new stock proved to have an even shorter shelf life than the original elements – already in a state of decay. So, that unique use of Technicolor in Fox’s heyday, to have typified their movies with a particularly bawdy and bold vibrancy, was gone and for all time. Hello, Frisco, Hello looks nothing like it should - or did - in 1945. With a little due diligence and money applied, Fox could have performed a new scan to alleviate the peripheral light bleeding that intermittently plagues this image, using their digital tools to ever so slightly tweak color, minimize the awful ‘gritty’ look and, improve fine details and contrast levels. And ‘no’ - all of this costly ‘restoration’ would not have yielded a perfect resurrection of the movie’s original Technicolor glory. But at least, it would have given us a passable facsimile with sharper and more refined images, to provide hours of enjoyment, as well as preserve as best as possible under the worst possible scenario, one – if not ‘the’ – shining example of Alice Faye’s Fox movie career. In its current condition, Hello, Frisco, Hello is painfully unwatchable. The audio is acceptable, though just. We get the short featurette that accompanied Fox’s DVD release from 2005, and also, an isolated score track. This too was a part of the DVD release, although TT is noted for providing isolated scores on their Blu-rays. Finally, there are two ‘radio’ broadcasts of the movie, both starring Faye, and, an even more badly worn original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: like Pin Up Girl, the release of another big and splashy Fox musical like Hello, Frisco, Hello on Blu-ray ought to have been cause for collectors to rejoice. It’s not! Viewing this movie in its present condition makes one either want to weep genuine tears of regret or merely vomit from the studio’s grotesque lack of foresight in preserving its own cultural heritage. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)