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Alice Faye was one of the most popular screen stars of the late 1930s and early 40s and the key musical attraction at Darryl Zanuck's 20th Fox studios. She began seemingly tricked out as a clone of Jean Harlow (Savant reviewed her third picture, 365 Nights in Hollywood) but eventually worked her way to top status, starring in successful musicals and the occasional drama. Fox Home Video has allowed a number of Faye pictures to trickle out: a big spectacular (In Old Chicago, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (State Fair), a Tyrone Power vehicle (Alexander's Ragtime Band) and a film noir classic (Fallen Angel) that she apparently hated. Until now, the only 'frivolous' Alice Faye musical vehicle to hit DVD was Week-End in Havana. Now Fox presents The Alice Faye Collection, a good mix of Ms. Faye doing what she does best: singing, smiling and looking good in Technicolor hues.
"Irving Berlin's" On the Avenue (1937) is a vehicle for Warner Bros.' Dick Powell, who plays Gary Blake, a successful Broadway impresario premiering a big revue called "On the Avenue," from Berlin's popular song Easter Parade. The show has songs, dancing girls and comedy from The Ritz Brothers, a trio that could do no wrong in the late '30s but are now almost unwatchable. The opening night finds millionaire Commodore Caraway (George Barbier), his beautiful daughter Mimi (Madeleine Carroll) and Mimi's fiancée Frederick Sims (Alan Mobray) in the audience. They're mortified to discover that one of the skits lampoons the Commodore's conspicuous wealth, Mimi's pack of dogs and Frederick's general pomposity. Mimi pays Gary a visit to slap his face, and ends up falling in love with him. His heart melted, Gary agrees to tone down the sketch, an effort that's sabotaged by his leading lady Mona Merrick (Alice Faye). With the Caraways once again in the audience, the dogs are replaced by pigs and the satire is extended to portray Mimi's eccentric Aunt Fritz (Cora Witherspoon) as a madwoman that performs Russian dances at breakfast.
That framework suffices to hang a pleasant 89 minutes of comedy and songs. The characters are all funny and Dick Powell is less goofy than in his earlier Warners' shows; Ms. Carroll's ritzy princess is charming. If Alice Faye's star had ascended a bit higher by this year, the plot could be easily changed so that Mimi would become the bad penny and Alice's Mona would win her man. Since Carroll doesn't really sing or dance, the good songs fall to Faye: "This Year's Kisses"; "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm". Faye is also a good sport in a gag where the Ritz Brothers shove her across the stage and punch her unconscious! Probably in recognition of Faye's value to the studio, her catty and jealous character is allowed a couple of good-girl touches, bowing out of the romantic triangle with dignity. It's good that Ms. Carroll is equally exciting, because the film comes dangerously close to letting the wrong girl win.
Roy Del Ruth's direction gets all the mileage possible from the idea of a big-stage comedy being sabotaged from within. Mona's entrance with the pigs prepares us to sneer at the idle rich, but On the Avenue doesn't go in that direction.
Adding to the amusement are Stepin Fetchit as a backstage flunky, Douglas Fowley as a lock-jawed press agent and Billy Gilbert as the amusing owner of a greasy spoon diner. Having the 'swells' take their tuxes and fancy furs into dirty working-class diners was a frequent occurrence in Depression-era comedies, to let us know that there was no class system in America.
The B&W film transfer looks terrific and the audio track has punch. Miles Kreuger's commentary dispenses every detail on the songwriters and arrangers, and identifies every bit player, including Lynn Bari and a roller-skating expert who almost had a larger role, until it was determined that the Mona Merrick character didn't need a backstage admirer. A new featurette is called Alice Faye: A Life on Screen; I'll discuss it further at the end of the review. Another Ritz Brothers comedy number that was deleted from the show before release appears as an extra as well.
1940's Lillian Russell is definitely one of the better musical biographies, far better than the fabricated, miscast revue movies that MGM would turn out a decade later. Alice Faye is a perfect fit for the Gay Nineties superstar, the original Broadway diva famous for being showered by lavish gifts and taking four husbands. The script does polish the marriages down to just two but in other respects keeps a level aim at its main theme -- a famous, beautiful woman will necessarily encounter romantic difficulties while trying to find a man that truly loves her.
The movie has a good opportunity to raise the issue of women's rights. Russell's mother was a genuine suffragette in the Susan B. Anthony days, and was trounced in a courageous run to be mayor of New York. Her daughter Lillian may have made her fortune as a singer but she maintained her financial independence throughout, using no agent and writing her own checks. This quality is what keeps Russell from being steamrolled by the attentions of fabulously rich men like Diamond Jim Brady (Edward Arnold, repeating the role) and Jesse Lewisohn (Warren William). They shower her with gifts but in the long run likely envision her as a crowning trophy to decorate their egos. The movie paints both of them as 'nice guys', even when Brady sees fit to build up to a marriage proposal by giving Lilian a bicycle studded with jewels.
The earlier part of the show is the most charming. Lillian visits New York with her Grandma Leonard (Helen Westley) and briefly meets young newsman Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda). Moore shyly visits Lillian once or twice. He's intimidated by the massive bouquets he sees delivered to her first theater engagement, unaware that Lillian is inside hoping he'll show. This keeps the audience in romantic suspense for the rest of the movie: even when Lillian marries her accompanist Edward Solomon (Don Ameche), we hope she'll eventually get back to the sad-eyed Fonda.
The film chooses to present Ms. Russell in a proper period representation of her stage show. She enters in a tall hat with a corseted hourglass dress, holding a tall walking stick obviously just added for effect. She sings her standards ("After the Ball is Over") in Alice Faye's sweet voice, whereupon the audience melts. Russell/Faye is every man's dream, an idea the film has no difficulty selling. When people tell the youngster that she's beautiful, Russell simply says 'thank you' without false modesty. She's clearly comfortable with who she is, probably due to the strong examples set by her mother and grandmother. Alice Faye seems almost too gracious and virtuous for any man, making Don Ameche's overworked husband and the two millionaire admirers seem like boys in her wake. It's a good thing that we don't see Russell and Alexander Moore plan their future together, as even Moore seems like a downcast mopey type.
Dorothy Peterson is excellent as Lillian's feminist mom. Leo Carrillo is charming as her first employer and Ernest Truex's father is sweet, if irrelevant. Lynn Bari earns a few lines as the girl that Lewisohn finally marries and Nigel Bruce tut-tuts as Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan. Lillian Russell was the top attraction of the Broadway legends Weber and Fields when they were young men; now old men (in 1940), they play themselves in a couple of noteworthy comedy skits. Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own father Eddie Foy Sr., something he would do repeatedly later in his career. Una O'Connor is Russell's English maid.
The B&W transfer is again without flaws. The new featurette for this title is A Woman Like No Other: The Real Lilllan Russell.
The 1941 Technicolor fling That Night in Rio is what people think of when 'Fox musicals' come to mind. It's a light-hearted Latin American romp of the kind that surfaced when the studios realized that WW2 had wiped out their lucrative markets in Europe and in East Asia. Theatrical distribution in places like Argentina and Brazil suddenly became more interesting. The U.S. Government approved as well, as their 'good neighbor policy' was nothing less than a concerted effort to make sure that neutral South America stayed firmly within the sphere of Democratic U.S. influence. This is why Disney suddenly started making big musical cartoons flattering the region, and why Orson Welles ran off to Rio to party instead of hanging around to properly see that nothing happened to The Magnificent Ambersons.
Fox brought Latin America to Hollywood by importing Carmen Miranda, a specialty singer-comedienne with star experience in London and on Broadway. A dynamic fireball in her own right, Miranda's colorful costumes and flashy style held these pictures together. Her personality had to be big, just to overcome the jewelry and tall headdresses.
That Night in Rio is a mistaken identity fantasy. Nightclub performer Larry Martin (Don Ameche) is a perfect double for Brazilian entrepreneur Baron Manuel Duarte (also Ameche) and amuses him in a sketch that presents the Baron as a notorious womanizer. The Baron runs into Larry's wife Carmen (Carmen Miranda) backstage, while Larry sings a song with the Baroness Cecilia Duarte (Alice Faye). The Baroness leads her own love life separate from her husband. She even has a gigolo along, the oily Monsieur Pierre Dufond (Leonid Kinskey).
In a 'Prisoner of Rio' twist, the Baron must flee to another country to try and raise a loan to save his airline company. To keep up appearances, the Baron's banking associate Arthur (S.Z. Sakall) hires Larry to impersonate the Baron for an important party. Larry agrees, and soon finds himself meddling blindly in the Baron's financial affairs with a competitor named Machado (J. Carrol Naish). Larry can't resist romancing the Baroness, who seems unusually receptive. But the intensely jealous Carmen arrives to break it all up.
Although it's all formula, That Night in Rio stays interesting via a clever script that emphasizes the glamorous Faye's attraction to a man who resembles her husband but seems capable of actually loving her. The farce manages a nice twist in which one of the two men barges into her swank bedchamber, and the Baroness can't tell which one it is. Larry is confused about what he wants, while the Baron wants to put his wife to a loyalty test.
The double standard gets a major workout: the Baroness graciously accepts her husband's philandering but is expected to maintain the dignity of Caesar's wife. Leonid Kinskey's gigolo is obviously just a companion.
Carmen throws her fair share of purple fits but is also a smart cookie, being the only character capable of figuring out which Ameche is Ameche at any given time. Her music numbers are more trivial than usual -- based on sounds like "Ai Yi Yi" and "Chica Chica Boom Chic". Every shot of the Brazilian rhythm section seems to reveal a yet more sexually suggestive percussion instrument.
The movie is strongly Faye's and Ameche's. As the Baron in top hat Ameche has an alarming similarity to -- I kid you not -- Marlon Brando as a diplomat in The Ugly American or A Countess from Hong Kong. Even playing a dazzling Countess, Faye is still the same honest girl from back home.
That Night in Rio looks great; the transfer replicates Fox's blue-centric Technicolor look, with fully saturated hues. The audio is also strong. The featurette on this title is Alice Faye: A Life Off Screen. A deleted number has Faye and Ameche dancing to a reprise of The Chica Chica Boom Chic.
This brings us to The Gang's All Here, a film shown much more than any of the three above. This is a Busby Berkeley extravaganza that with the addition of color betters most of his later Warners pictures. Berkeley uses the color to often astonishing effect -- much of the picture is an exploration of musical possibilities in 1943, pushing the edge of the envelope in terms of Technicolor, camera movement and sheer experimental visuals. It was reportedly very expensive. Berkeley never did anything like it again, and it was Alice Faye's last musical film role, not counting an unhappy return to Fox for 1962's State Fair.
The story is a piffle. Society neighbors Andrew Mason Sr. (Eugene Pallette) and Peyton Potter (Edward Everett Horton) hire a Broadway club to put on a garden show to sell war bonds. That brings performers Edie Allen (Alice Faye), Dorita (Carmen Miranda), Phil Baker (himself) and the Benny Goodman Orchestra (itself) to the country. Mason's son Andrew Jr. (James Ellison) goes to the South Pacific, but not before winning Edie's heart on a romantic Manhattan weekend. He returns in time for the garden party, and in time for Edie to find out that he's 'sort of' engaged to Potter's daughter Vivian (Sheila Ryan). How will they possibly sort this out?
As directed by Berkeley, the movie is an unbroken string of ripe performances -- Alice and Carmen sing and dance, Carmen does comedy with Horton, Phil Baker does comedy with Potter's ex-performing wife (Charlotte Greenwood of Oklahoma!) and Tony DeMarco does specialty dances. It's an entirely artificial look at the WW2 scene, where GI's waiting to go overseas meet beautiful Broadway showgirls. Everybody's rich, it seems. The opening number is almost a parody of the 'good neighbor' policy with South America, as boatloads of sugar and coffee -- rationed luxuries -- are unloaded on a nightclub stage that includes a large steamship in a harbor filled with water!
Colorless hero James Ellison (I Walked with a Zombie) comes back covered in medals, as all soldiers supposedly do. I think he says, "Gee, that's swell!" at least five times. But other aspects of the show are more serious. Alice's tune No Love, No Nothin' ("til my baby comes home") is a beautiful and accurate reflection of the misery felt by women with men overseas. She sings the song while ironing. A Journey to a Star eventually becomes Berkeley's excuse for launching the film into a dreamland finale, but it really represents the wish to escape the wartime reality where personal romance seems doomed by national priorities. When Alice Faye sings these songs, The Gang's All Here takes on a depth not felt since Irene Dunne's musicals of ten years earlier.
Fans of Terry Gilliam's Brazil need to see the lavish opening number which uses the famous tune in its original, Latin orchestrated state. Berkeley starts the number as he does The Lullaby of Broadway, with a tiny disembodied head singing in Portuguese. Other visual elements enter the frame, which eventually launches into the full-blown song. It's very impressive.
Coming near the end of the Faye cycle, The Gang's All Here covers a lot of old ground. Although Berkeley's moving camera makes everything seem fresh, Miranda's malapropisms and Edward Everett Horton's cut-ups seem quaint; the movie goes in for nostalgia when Charlotte Greenwood does her high kicking dance on the lawn by the pool. Faye's face has filled out and no longer has the 1937 cutie-pie look that made her seem like a grown-up Shirley Temple. Berkeley sweeps around Benny Goodman and his Big Band, as swing-dancing jitterbugs do their thing. He's not interested in capturing the ultra-cool mood of swing music, as Archie Mayo did so nicely in Orchestra Wives.
All of these performers are left behind as Berkeley's amazing camera tricks take over. Carmen Miranda's famed The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat number only begins and ends with her; the majority of its running time involves a stylized romp with an army of tropical girls as they rhapsodize with a selection of oversized, extremely suggestive Brazilian fruits ( -- ah, Strawberries & Bananas, mostly). The camera tilts and zooms among them like a Star Wars spaceship, equating female thighs with ripe produce. The sight of thirty lovelies waving giant yellow bananas at the camera brings to mind any number of vivid mental associations, all of them dirty.
The best is saved for last when the silly-but-cute Polka Dot Polka number suddenly lurches into Surreal mode, as if the movie were hit by an LSD flashback. The 1890s polka-dotted glove becomes a monstrous construction of wires and neon hoops. Berkeley's camera swims through geometric patterns of mysterious female figures holding the high-voltage hoops. The visuals predict the experimental films of the 60s and the coming worlds of CGI manipulation. For a climax -- and I mean a sexual climax -- the screen is given over to a giant kaleidoscope, at first arranged around Alice Faye's head mounted in what looks like a diamond setting. As the orchestral music goes over the top, the visuals build to a truly abstracted vision of kaleidoscopically refracted legs and arms. The isolated kaleidoscope jewel is then pierced when a new kaleidoscope takes over, filling the entire screen in Technicolored dizziness. It's nothing less than a 1943 vision of Stanley Kubrick's Star Gate from 2001: A Space Odyssey ... and the base song is A Journey to A Star.
Frank Faylen is easy to pick out as a Marine on the dance floor, but June Haver and Jeanne Crain also show up for a couple seconds each, as does the lovely Adele Jergens. Jergens is one of several women used in a guessing game that introduces Alice Faye -- a row of similar blondes in identical attire that smile and sing to the camera. One sounds just terrible, but even people unfamiliar with Ms. Faye will immediately recognize her when they hear the deep voice that sets her apart from the others.
This disc has plenty of special goodies. The featurette this time is on the career of Busby Berkeley. "We Still Are!" is a film made by Alice Faye in the 1980s (?) to augment her personal appearances for the Pfizer Company, promoting senior citizen health. It basically shows Faye (who like many aged movie stars, is still very attractive) reviewing some high points of her career. A deleted scene shows Sgt. Casey (Dave Willock) winning a prize at the garden party show, and Dorita and Phil Baker finally winning at the horse racing track. Two audio excerpts are included from the Phil Harris - Alice Faye radio show.
The commentary is by USC professor Drew Casper. He gives plenty of good information about the film but his insights run to the obvious and he has a terrible habit of telling us what we're watching on screen. Casper interprets Berkeley's visual symbolism from numerous angles but never touches upon the film's acknowledged significance as a touchstone for gays and ground zero for the concept of 'camp'. I remember being surprised when it was reissued in the early 70s as a camp classic, before (I think) the play The Rocky Horror Picture Show appeared. Are gays attracted to Carmen Miranda because she fits into the category of "outrageous" or because she's an easy target for caricature (by Mickey Rooney making himself look like an idiot, among others). Or does Miranda's stage presence suggest a cross dressing male performer? I would have liked to understand more about that.
Each film in The Alice Faye Collection has a handsome featurette by John Cork, which may be his best work. The graphics are well chosen. Ms. Faye's life and times are covered with affection and discretion, without much repetition between shows. The piece on the real Lillian Russell is very interesting, and the career overview of Busby Berkeley is also pretty good.
That brings us to the final issue, the disappointing transfer of the title in the collection that people were most looking forward to, The Gang's All Here. It should have the same super-saturated gaudy Technicolor look as That Night in Rio but it is instead dark and subdued. At least the Restoration Comparison is honest, as the 1996 transfer on the left simply looks better than the 2006 transfer on the right. The new colors are dull and yellows in particular have wilted. When Miranda wears the Tutti-Frutti hat, the red strawberries stick out while the rest of the colors just look blah.
Fox has had trouble of this kind before, whether with elements that go missing or simply fade away -- the Todd A-O Oklahoma! was the headache-inducer a couple of years ago. The 1996 transfer has better color but is softer in general. We see clips in the featurettes that come off much better than the main transfer. What happened is pretty obvious. A new HD transfer was mandated but the source element that was found had faded. Perhaps over-printing (that darn 1970s reissue) is to blame, or perhaps the best element was lost or damaged. What we have certainly looks okay but it's not the same "I-can't-believe-film-can-look-like-this" experience from UCLA in the early 1970s. See added note, below
The young UCLA Archive showed the Fox studio nitrate print of The Gang's All Here several times until the last reel snagged in the gate just as the end title was coming up. The Melnitz theater had all the proper safety equipment, but the last few feet of nitrate went off like a bomb (according to friends who were there) with a blazing flash of white that strained everyone's eyes. No wonder old-time projection booths were run with military precision -- no horseplay, no visitors. A bad splice might mean a big flash fire.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: March 13, 2007
A NOTE from reader Lance Carwile, 3.19.07:
My friend Eric Spilker, leased the distribution rights from Twentieth Century-Fox for The Gang's All Here during the early '70s. He had 35mm IB Technicolor prints made from existing matrices, which were in excellent shape. No additional wear was put on the original negatives for this project.
About 25-30 years ago, Fox made a CRI from the original elements. Separations were then supposedly made from the new CRI.. The original nitrate materials were then destroyed. This remaining CRI has started to fade, and led to the problems seen in the new DVD. I believe that the same CRI was the source for the '90s transfer. I don't know the status of the separations taken from the CRI -- perhaps Fox can fill you in, if you're curious. Best Wishes, Lance Carwile