Judge Christopher Kulik does a little song and dance...every morning. The neighbors are starting to complain.
Tinseltown's darling is a sultry singer with a sophisticated style!
Even though I've spent many nights basking in the B&W glow of TCM, I've haven't seen an Alice Faye flick before. Little did I suspect she was really Fox's golden girl for almost a decade. She emerged as a major star in 1935, and her career ended rather abruptly after making 1945's Fallen Angel, which was supposed to give the singer-comedienne her first dramatic role. When Fox head (and personal protégé) Darryl F. Zanuck condensed her entire presence to only a handful of scenes, she jumped in her car and never returned to the studio. Still, many remember her now as the bubbly blonde whose charm and charisma knocked the public's socks off. Complementing the first box set released 18 months ago, the Alice Faye Collection Volume 2, serves as a window into one of the brightest stars of the Golden Age.
Facts of the Case
While Volume 1 contained only four Faye movies (On The Avenue, Lillian Russell, That Night In Rio, and The Gang's All Here), we are now treated to five, with two of them in early Technicolor:
Rose of Washington Square (1939): Rose Sargent (Faye) is a singer on the speakeasy circuit in 1920s New York who meets the dashing-but-crooked Barton Clinton (Tyrone Power, The Sun Also Rises). When Rose's career skyrockets, culminating in an appearance at the Ziegfeld Follies, her relationship with Clinton gets her in hot water with the public.
Hollywood Cavalcade (1939): This lavish ode to Hollywood's silent era features Faye as Molly Adair, an N.Y.C. stage actress who is persuaded by overly ambitious "producer" Mike Connors (Don Ameche, Cocoon) to come to Tinseltown and become his leading lady. As Adair becomes a major star under Mike's tutelage, his jealousy over her marriage to her onscreen mate forces him to let her go.
The Great American Broadcast (1941): Similar in many ways to Cavalcade, except now set in 1919, the days of early radio ("the wireless"). Businessman Rix Martin (John Payne, Miracle On 34th Street) joins forces with poor dreamer Chuck Hadley (Jack Oakie, The Great Dictator) and his "other half," speakeasy singer Vicki Adams (Faye, who else?), to bring the radio phenomenon to the public sphere.
Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943): Another period picture, this time set in early 1900s San Francisco on the Barbary Coast. Honky-tonk quartet (Payne, Faye, Oakie and newcomer June Havoc, A Return To Salem's Lot) are fired, driving Payne to open a dance hall featuring musical performances and vaudeville acts. Once again, Faye is in love with Payne, but this time he hooks up with a rich, supersexy socialite (Lynn Bari, Lillian Russell).
Four Jills In A Jeep (1944): Based on co-star Carole Landis' novel of four women (the first ones to be recruited by the USO) who go to Europe and Africa to entertain troops during WW2. Still, the inspiration serves as an excuse to showcase a number of Hollywood stars strut their stuff and belt their bellows, including Betty Grable singing "Cuddle Up A Little Closer," and Carmen Miranda crooning "I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much)."
Like many actresses, Alice Faye was groomed at a young age. Her bleach blonde hair, spunky attitude, and velvet throat proved to be smashing combination, and it led to big box office dollars for Twentieth Century Fox, who exploited her to the max. As a result, she was limited—or rather, restricted—to certain types of parts; she always wanted to take on more challenging roles, and the dream was never properly fulfilled. By the mid-40s, she had had enough and turned her back on Hollywood, never looking back, instead opting to become a wife and mother. She found her happiness at home, but had a hit radio show called The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, which was an ideal way for her to work with her husband.
Her cinematic legacy may be small, but many of her films remain what they were when originally released: cute, fluffy vehicles whose sole purpose is to entertain. They don't require deep thinking or thorough contemplation; in fact, they are so good-natured and fun that it's really difficult to throw negative criticism at them. All five films in this collection, while hardly classics, each have their own little pleasures. Fox does make some odd selections here (one of them is not a musical, despite having the marquee musical logo on the case and one only has Faye in a three-minute cameo), but they still provide a more than adequate introduction the actress. This is especially true of Rose of Washington Square, even if Faye is rather miscast, playing a thinly disguised Fanny Brice, who later became the subject of the much better Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand.
Square still allows Faye to shine as both an actress and a singer, with a nice rendition of Brice's most famous song, "My Man." The film's primary highlight is the subplot involving stage entertainer Ted Cotter (Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer), who sings numerous songs…though modern audiences may be turned off by Jolson performing almost entirely in blackface, a sad reflection of early-20th century theater. The film is more or less accurate in Brice's relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein (with Power doing a fine interpretation), enough for Brice to actually sue Fox and its cast for invasion of privacy, which was eventually settled out of court. Despite these distinctions, Square remains fine entertainment, with the presence of William Frawley (I Love Lucy) more than welcome.
Another hit from 1939, Hollywood Cavalcade may be the best film on the set, even though it has no songs. Filmed in Technicolor, and recruiting many silent stars (including Buster Keaton and Ben Turpin), the film works best as a behind-the-scenes look at how films of the teens and 1920s were made. The predictable love triangle—inspired by the romantic tension (or lack thereof) between Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, which emerges in the second half—almost becomes a liability, but the film is still fascinating in terms of its historical value. Also noteworthy is Don Ameche, in a marvelous turn as the producer with big ideas, and the cinematography holds up quite well.
One year later, Faye would hook up again with comedian Jack Oakie, who she co-starred with in 1936's King Of Burlesque; this time, they would get a third wheel in the handsome John Payne. The 1940 film Tin Pan Alley was the first of several the trio would make together, and it was soon followed up by The Great American Broadcast. While a fun romp with some solid musical numbers, the film shouldn't be taken as authentic history. Despite another sappy love triangle (Oakie and Payne battle over our darling Faye) the film is worth watching for its cast, which includes Cesar Romero (better known as the Joker on Batman), and performances by such legendary radio performers as The Four Ink Spots and the Wiere Brothers.
Next up is Hello Frisco, Hello which is arguably the weakest of the set. Faye, Payne, and Oakie are not to blame for this, as they all do what they do best: sing, smile and play their parts with enthusiasm. Fox clearly went out of their way, budget-wise, to create a vivid period picture and there's no denying it's a great-looking film. Ultimately, Frisco is undone by the tired shenanigans and clichéd storyline, remaking King Of Burlesque for no apparent reason; plus, even though the film is only 99 minutes, it feels like it goes on forever. Still worth a look alone for Faye's rendition of the Oscar-winning "He'll Never Know," but otherwise pretty forgettable. A shame, too, considering this was meant as a comeback project after taking a year off to have a baby, and this would be the last time she would get first billing.
The final film provided is a real curio, as Faye is onscreen for only five minutes. The bouncy musical Four Jills In A Jeep showcases the misadventures of Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair—all wonderful—as they serve the USO and perform for the troops. Faye, along with Grable and Miranda, is merely a guest star in this entire hubbub, coming on stage to do a reprise of "He'll Never Know." The film's inclusion in this collection is questionable as it is, if anything, a showcase for its lead actresses. Otherwise, Jeep remains undemanding fun, with a pre-Sgt. Bilko Phil Silvers adding comic spice, along with Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra providing the music.
The box set for Volume 2 houses all the discs in their own slim-cases. All of the features have been restored, retaining their 1.33:1 full frame presentations, and comparison segments can be found in all the special features sections. The only film which considerably suffers on a visual level is, ironically enough, Frisco, which boasts faded colors and a number of scratches and white spots. I'm sure Fox did all they could with this title, and taking into account their work on all these films, they get an A+ for effort. Cavalcade is much sharper and colorful in comparison, while Square, Broadcast, and Jeep are all quite clean and speckle-free. All of the films retain their English mono tracks, with Frisco getting an additional Spanish track. Dialogue is easily heard, and the music—while lacking that 5.1 boost—is mostly free of hisses and pops. Subtitles are provided in English, French and Spanish, with closed captioning also provided on all five discs.
While no commentaries are provided, there's a still a solid batch of extras here. The most attention is given to Cavalcade with three featurettes, outtakes, and a Fox Movietone newsreel showing the film's premiere. The retrospectives on Buster Keaton and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle are rather brief, but "The Silent Dream" gives a nice overview of the film's production. Like the other discs, there are two galleries, one with photographs and the other with advertisements. The other films each have their own featurettes, all running about 15-17 minutes long. They contain interviews with a number of critics and scholars (including major fan Hugh Hefner!), who talk about Faye and her films in some detail.
I would be hard pressed to say that a little bit of Alice Faye goes a long way. These films are infectious, good clean fun and fans will surely want to have this set in their collection; if you're a newcomer, I would recommend a rental.
Faye is free to go and Fox is found not guilty. Court is adjourned!
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