The vagaries of Hollywood stardom are inscrutable, to say the least, and there's probably no better example of that than Alice Faye. Despite being one of Fox's biggest stars for a little over a decade in the 1930s and 1940s, when she left Fox by her own volition, deciding to raise her family and work in radio with her husband Phil Harris, she largely disappeared from view (with the exception of a few appearances like the 1962 remake of State Fair and some television guest shots). While she still has a devoted fan following to this day, she's probably not of the same name recognition value that her Fox male counterpart of that era Tyrone Power remains. Nonetheless Alice is now receiving her second boxed set treatment from Fox, though this second entry in the series is a bit of a drop off in quality with one extremely tangential relationship to Faye herself in the included releases. You will get a couple of faux-history lessons in various showbiz media, including radio, silent-era flickers and vaudeville.
You might be forgiven if you half-expect Alice to break into a lilting version of "People" as you watch the 1939 feature Rose of Washington Square. The film is, in fact, a barely fictionalized account of Fanny Brice's tempestuous love life with Nicky Arnstein (Brice in fact won an out of court settlement when she sued after the film's release). As such, it makes for a fascinating double feature with Funny Girl, something I recommend for those of you interested in seeing two disparate versions of the same basic story. Faye gets to show some range here, something for which she was not especially well-known, and she acquits herself quite handily in a role that needs to veer from heartache to showbiz triumph at the drop of a hat (or song). Faye, who lacks Brice's (or even Streisand's) mugging propensities, manages to bring a lot of spunk to her "Rose Sargent," and if her renditions of Brice standards like "My Man" will probably not supplant the originals (or Streisand's remakes), she at least infuses them with an emotional undercurrent that allows the subtext to shine through quite admirably. Tyrone Power makes for an appealingly ne'er-do-well Nicky, er, Bart, putting Rose through her emotional paces as he heads to jail just as she hits it big with the Ziegfeld Follies. This is big, splashy entertainment, with some great cameos by the likes of Al Jolson and Louis Prima, and highlights Faye's appeal perfectly in one of her best Fox films.
If Rose prefigures Funny Girl, 1939's Hollywood Cavalcade prefigures the Jerry Herman musical Mack and Mabel, while harkening back to films like A Star is Born and 42nd Street. This was Alice's first Technicolor feature, and while it is the only film included here where Alice doesn't sing a note, it is one of the more enjoyable in this set as it details the rise to stardom of Molly Adair, a struggling Broadway actress who journeys to Hollywood at the behest of silent film director Mike Conners (Don Ameche), with whom of course she begins a romance. (Note Faye's incredible resemblance to June Lockhart in the early scenes when she's wearing a brunette wig). Cavalcade is a loving tribute to the early days of the film industry and is notable for a host of cameo appearances, including, incredibly, Al Jolson recreating scenes from his Warner Brothers triumph The Jazz Singer, as well as some great turns by silent stars like Buster Keaton and Ben Turpin. If the romantic goings-on are occasionally melodramatic, and the "history" more than a little fanciful, Cavalcade is a fun and engaging romp through a bygone era, with Alice perfectly adept in a slapstick world, something you wouldn't necessarily think of her as being at home in.
1941's Great American Broadcast is a charming fictionalized history of the beginnings of the "wireless," featuring a rare top-billed Jack Oakie co-starring with Alice, though of course she ends up with third billed, but much better looking, John Payne. This is a pretty standard love triangle woven into an at times funny look into the beginnings of radio, with Payne and Oakie as struggling partners and Faye torn between the two (not to mention co-star Cesar Romero--Alice really gets around in this one). Broadcast is notable in that it capitalizes on Alice's own radio beginnings. Faye's dusky alto voice is not a belting instrument and she in fact is almost a female equivalent to the crooners of her day, somewhat appropriate in that she got one of her first big breaks on Rudy Vallee's top-rated radio program. Faye shines vocally here, and it's fun to see Oakie not totally hamming it up for a change in a role where he gets to show some considerable range. Broadcast also starts with a neat, if way too short, montage of the top radio stars of the day before seguing back a few decades to pick up the story at its ostensible beginning. The most notable thing about Broadcast, however, is the inclusion of several specialty acts, most especially The Four Ink Spots in some beautiful close harmony song segments. If the film is trite as they come, with every plot machination telegraphed (and/or radioed as the case may be) from a mile away, the performances and rare footage of rarely seen artists like The Four Ink Spots and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers make up for its shortcomings.
Hello, Frisco, Hello, from 1943, is the other color film included in the set, and is also well-remembered for the song Alice introduced in it which won the Oscar that year, "You'll Never Know." This more-or-less remake of Alice's own 1936 feature King of Burlesque finds her once again co-starring with Payne and Oakie (though Payne has moved up the star ladder to second billing this time) in a lavish production that was meant to re-introduce her to audiences after her long maternity leave. There's not much to the plot here other than a once again cliché-ridden romp with Faye in love with Payne, a nice if rakish social climbing club owner who makes her a star and then marries someone else who can elevate his status (can you guess how it all turns out?). Elevating this a cut above its roots are the joyous performances of Oakie and June Havoc in supporting comedy roles. This last big splash for Faye at Fox is long on style, extremely short on substance, and so, perhaps surprisingly, is a perfect vehicle for the star known more for her vivacity and charm than for her acting chops.
As an "Alice Faye film," 1944's Four Jills in a Jeep is a joke and I had to wonder why anyone at Fox thought to include it in this set. Alice is in it for all of three minutes, doing a reprise of the Oscar winning song she introduced in Hello, Frisco, Hello, "You'll Never Know." Putting that aside, however, Jills is actually a frothy little comedy sprinkled with some nice adventure, based on an actual World War II USO tour overseas by the four featured players, Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis and dancer Mitzi Mayfair. The film is simply a lot of fun every step of the way, with some great comedic turns by Raye and some lovely moments with the tragic Landis, displaying none of the turmoil which evidently undercut her emotional equilibrium and led to her suicide a few years later. Mayfair has one of the most patently bizarre dance styles you've ever witnessed, but she's sweet and likable and provides some good counterweight to the other three, better known performers. Phil Silvers is also on board doing a sort of warm-up for his Sgt. Bilko character. It mostly has nothing to do with Faye, but it sure is a lot of fun and is actually one of the better films in this set.
Most of these films come with the "taken from the best source elements available" disclaimer. The biggest disappointment for cinephiles will be the two Technicolor features (though only Frisco has the disclaimer). Frisco especially suffers from some pretty dramatic fading, as well as a tendency toward brown and green throughout a lot of the feature. Cavalcade is nominally better in this regard, but has nowhere near the pop of what a resplendently restored Technicolor film from this era should, and is on the soft side to boot. All of the black and white features are fine, if not excellent, with above average contrast and sharpness and no horrible damage to report. If you set your expectation meter to "middling," you won't have too much to complain about.
All of the remastered mono soundtracks are acceptable, with no noticeable dropouts, but with occasional hiss and fairly noticeable compression, especially on the high end. I was actually a little surprised at the boxiness of some of these tracks. Thankfully, Alice's voice is a very low alto and isn't drastically affected by some of the narrowness of the aural representation. Only Frisco has an extra Spanish mono track, but all of the films contain subtitles in French, Spanish and English.
Each of these films contains a 15 minute or so featurette obviously culled from the same interview segments, featuring such people as Faye and Harris' daughter, singer/pianist Michael Feinstein and, incredibly, Hugh Hefner (who, it turns out, was a major Faye fan and speaks quite eloquently and knowledgeably about her films). Though each of the featurettes is ostensibly tied (sometimes rather tangentially) to the film in question, together they give a nicely detailed background into Faye and her cinematic career, with the Jills feature detailing the original USO tour as well as giving a little salacious information on Kay Francis' sexual proclivities. There are also advertising and publicity galleries as well as restoration demonstrations on all, and trailers for all but Jills and Cavalcade. Rose, Frisco and Jills have isolated score options. Rose and Jills have some short deleted scenes. The best set of extras is contained on Hollywood Cavalcade, which, in addition to the above, also features brief, if informative, pieces on Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle, as well as some (suitably) silent outtakes of the pie-fight sequence and a Fox Movietone News feature on the film's premiere. Finally there's a nice little illustrated booklet that comes with the set which talks about Alice, her co-stars, and the films.
Though this is a drop off in quality from the first Faye set, not to mention some of her bigger standalone titles which have been released through the years, there's still an awful lot to enjoy here, especially in Rose, Cavalcade and Jills (though that's hardly a Faye film). This will obviously be a must-have for Faye's fans. For everyone else, this set is still Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet