Alice Faye's movie career was bright enough to make her Fox's top singing star in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but short enough that few of her pictures are as highly regarded as those made by her contemporaries. An attempt to shift from frothy musicals to serious dramas didn't quite take, and after a falling out with Fox honcho Daryl F. Zanuck, Faye wound up quitting the movie business in 1945; she soon after moved to radio alongside husband Phil Harris. Intermittent returns to the screen followed, but never to the level of stardom she had in the late 30s.
Fox has already released her best known works on DVD: "In Old Chicago" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band," both with Tyrone Power, were part of the "Studio Classics" line, while her return to the big screen in the 1962 remake of "State Fair" was included as a bonus on the two-discer for the 1945 Jeanne Crain/Dana Andrews version. A box set of four more films ("On the Avenue," "Lillian Russell," "That Night in Rio," and "The Gang's All Here") hit store shelves last year. Now comes "Alice Faye Collection: Volume 2," in which three of the star's nostalgia-themed musicals - "Rose of Washington Square," "The Great American Broadcast," and "Hello, Frisco, Hello" - are bundled with two oddball inclusions: "Hollywood Cavalcade," a non-musical that otherwise fits the historical melodrama theme of the box, and "Four Jills in a Jeep," a WWII effort in which Faye makes a cameo performance. Passing "Jills" off as an Alice Faye picture would be like marketing "Ocean's Eleven" as a Topher Grace picture.
All five titles in this new set are also available separately. As such, we'll look at them individually. For the box set, the discs are repackaged in slim cases, which fit into a glossy cardboard slipcover. A ten-page booklet is also included, featuring various liner notes on all five films.
"Rose of Washington Square" (1939)
"Rose of Washington Square" is a thinly veiled biopic of Fanny Brice and her troubled husband Nicky Arnstein - so thinly veiled, the veil could just as well have been wax paper. Faye, as Brice clone Rose Sargent, even sings two of Brice's signature tunes, "My Man" and "Rose of Washington Square." (Brice sued Fox, who ultimately settled out of court.)
It's New York City at the height of vaudeville. Ted Cotter (Al Jolson) and Rose have a double act they'd love to take to the big time - he does some blackface minstrel, she woos the crowd with her soft romantic tunes. In between them comes con man Barton Clinton (Tyrone Power). Ted, who's been something of a surrogate father to Rose, never trusts this new guy, but she can't help falling madly in love. Ted and Rose wind up going their separate ways, and both go on to find fame, although Rose's stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies is threatened when Barton's criminal life creates a scandal.
As with most films in this set, the plot of "Washington Square" is all too flimsy, the characterizations all too undercooked. The movie is merely an excuse to patch together a series of nostalgic musical numbers. Ah, but what musical numbers they are. Despite the embarrassment of blackface, Jolson's stage performances are lively and engaging, snappy reworkings of the tunes most associated with him: "Mammy," "California Here I Come," and "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby." In fact, despite giving Faye top billing, "Washington Square" is more Jolson's picture, his character filling up more screen time and carrying the bulk of the plot's emotional drive. An entire section in the movie's middle goes by with Rose nowhere to be found as we focus instead on Ted's rising theater career.
(Several long sequences are nothing but Jolson doing his stage act. He even pulls out his trademark "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" at one point, for those in the audience with fond memories of the birth of talkies a decade earlier. In this era before television and home video, when most movies would get filed away after their main run, studios could get away with "rerunning" classic bits in new films.)
Of course, Faye's top billing means she gets her own chance to show off, too, with several show-stoppers. Most notably, her take on "Washington Square" becomes a big, brassy stage number involving a crew of dancers, a lavishly detailed "city street" set, and an amusing bit of slight-of-hand involving pulling cigarettes from thin air.
Without the musical set pieces, the film is a decent but unmemorable tearjerker. With them, the film is a delightful backstage melodrama. Faye and Jolson are enjoyable throughout, and Power, while stuck with a slightly underwritten role, pulls off enough of a roguish vibe to make Barton's scoundrel ways charming.
Video & Audio
As with several other films in this set, "Rose of Washington Square" opens with a disclaimer from Fox telling us they've restored the picture using the best available source prints, but, you know, don't get your hopes up. This film is the only one in the set that really deserves such a disclaimer, however, and even it doesn't look too shabby. The main issue is a small amount of specks, dirt, and grain that remain after restoration; it's enough to be worth mentioning but minor enough that those that notice won't mind too much. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The Dolby mono soundtrack also comes through very nicely, with minimal hiss and pops. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included, as is a music-only track, which comes directly from the original score recordings (you'll even hear the conductor marking the in and out points) and as such has a rich, full sound that improves on the final film track.
"Funny Girl, Funny Man" (16:58) begins with a quickie history of Fanny Brice before moving on to the making of "Washington Square," including anecdotes on director Gregory Ratoff's antics and commentary from various Fox historians - including Hugh Hefner! (A discussion on Jolson's blackface fills a good chunk of screen time here, complete with the old "that's how it was, so let's give it a pass" apologies.)
A set of deleted scenes (4:54 total) include some cute wordplay-based vaudeville shtick and three complete cut songs: Faye's "Chasing Rainbows" and Jolson's "April Showers" and "Avalon."
A restoration comparison (2:04) offers side-by-side looks at the original film transfer and its final upgraded image. A brief text introduction explains what went into such restoration work.
The film's trailer (1:52) and two photo galleries (highlighting posters, lobby cards, and promotional stills) round out the disc.
"Hollywood Cavalcade" (1939)
Shortly after "Washington Square," Faye found herself in another thinly veiled biopic. Inspired in part by the lives of silent-era mogul Max Sennett and star Mabel Normand, "Hollywood Cavalcade" tells of Mike Connors (Don Ameche), a fast-talking movie man who convinces Broadway star Molly Adair (Faye) to head out to California and try out this new business called cinema. Over the years, Molly becomes a hit while Mike builds up his own empire, although he's so involved with his work that he barely notices that the woman he loves has fallen for her co-star (Alan Curtis).
Again, this is a picture where Faye is more of a supporting role. "Cavalcade" is mainly about Mike's rise and fall, first as a bold visionary who always seems to know what audiences will want next, then as a jealous brooder whose outbursts eventually lead to his blacklisting. Ameche is terrific here, effectively capturing the aura of a mad genius, so much so that Faye and Curtis seem to pale in comparison. They're hauled out for the sappier romantic moments (including a tearjerk ending that never quite fits with the rest of the picture), but it's Ameche who gets the whole range of performance, and he does it splendidly.
Most amusing about "Cavalcade" is its handling of the silent movie material. A longtime pet project for Zanuck (who thought the birth of cinema would make a cracking good story), the film takes several lengthy pauses to present faithful recreations of silent-era slapstick movies. Various old time stars, including Buster Keaton, are brought in to play themselves, and former Keystone Kop Mal St. Clair served as the director of these film-within-the-film sequences, all carefully produced to perfectly match the look and feel of silent one-reel comedies. (Sennett himself is credited as supervising these sequences.) The centerpiece of the entire movie, in fact, is St. Clair's short subject in which the Keystone Kops bumble their way to the scene of a non-existent murder at Molly's house.
These silent movie asides alone make "Cavalcade" the best movie in this collection, although the off-stage melodrama is mighty entertaining, too, thanks mainly to Ameche's colorful performance and a genuine sense of love for the era that shines through every scene. This is a generous tip of the hat to the dawn of cinema, which should appeal to any movie lover.
Video & Audio
There's some softness and grain to be found in this restored transfer, while the colors come through splendidly, delicately matching that bold Technicolor look. The black-and-white films-within-the-film have a nice crispness to them. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The Dolby mono soundtrack is simple and clear, with dialogue coming through nicely. Hiss appears to be absent. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
"Hollywood Cavalcade: The Silent Dream" (16:42) finds historians and biographers discussing the film's making and the glory days of silent movies.
"Buster Keaton: Head Over Heels in Hollywood" (9:00) offers a short rundown of the star's career and importance.
"Hello Roscoe: The Fate of Fatty Arbuckle" (4:38) uses a teeny scene from "Hollywood Cavalcade," in which Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's name is quickly mentioned, as an excuse to provide a history of the actor's downfall due to a sex-and-murder scandal and his attempts to recover from his eventual blacklisting.
A collection of outtakes (1:27 total), presented without audio, offer extra footage of Faye and Keaton's pie fight scene.
"Fox Movietone News: The Hollywood Cavalcade Premiere" (1:23) is a vintage newsreel clip of a star-studded for-charity screening of the film.
A restoration comparison (2:01) and advertising and still galleries complete the disc.
"The Great American Broadcast" (1941)
For "The Great American Broadcast," Faye gets mixed up in a love triangle while she skyrockets to fame in the post-WWI pioneer days of radio - this time as fictional songstress Vicki Adams. Her costars, Jack Oakie and John Payne, also starred with Faye in "Tin Pan Alley," a hit musical about the early days of popular music; Zanuck felt the formula of "Hollywood Cavalcade" gelled well with the cast of "Tin Pan Alley," so he brought the trio back for yet another go at essentially the same story.
Chuck Hadley (Oakie) meets Rix Martin (Payne), and the big galoot introduces the dashing young pilot to his homemade radio kit. Chuck and gal pal Vicki spend their time entertaining anybody willing to listen, which gives Rix (what a name!) a string of ideas: a station devoted to full-time entertainment programs, a big event to raise awareness of the potential of radio, and eventually a coast-to-coast network of stations broadcasting the same programs nationwide.
The threesome quickly rise to the top, thanks mainly to their idea to broadcast the 1919 Dempsey-Willard championship bout (a key moment in the real-life evolution of radio and a clever inclusion here; archival footage of the fight is mixed in with the action). But Rix being dreamier than Chuck, it's no surprise that Vicki winds up falling for the handsome fella; Chuck takes it all in stride, especially considering his new wealth. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Cesar Romero keeps popping up as a scoundrel financier.
It's all big fun, especially those musical numbers, which grow bigger and bigger as the characters find more success. Most memorable here are two songs by the Ink Spots (one is capped off by a tap dance wowzer by the Nicholas Brothers), some vaudeville-inspired comic routines featuring the Wiere Brothers, and, early in the picture, a set piece involving Oakie, an opera sextet, and a rainstorm.
The plot falls completely apart in the second half as the screenplay struggles to find a way to separate its star couple. The eventual solution is to have Rix become upset that Vicki borrowed money to keep their now-struggling station going; humiliated, he bolts off to South America. The final act involves Chuck's coast-to-coast entertainment spectacular rigged as a way of tricking Rix back into Vicki's arms. It barely works, plot-wise, although the chemistry of the three leads is so sharp that we grant the story much forgiveness.
Video & Audio
"The Great American Broadcast" looks spiffy, with crisp lines, clear detail, and nice black levels - there's no need for the restoration disclaimer here. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The Dolby mono soundtrack is equally crisp, with clear dialogue and sharp music. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
"Radio Waves: The Real History of The Great American Broadcast" (14:31) again combines history with making-of information, this time with historians providing a primer on the origins of radio. (In keeping with the box set, time is given to Faye's own rise to fame through radio.)
Another restoration comparison (1:57) and advertising and still galleries are also included.
"Hello, Frisco, Hello" (1943)
In 1942, Faye stepped away from Hollywood to raise her newborn daughter. The following year, "Hello, Frisco, Hello" provided her with a grand return to the silver screen, once more pairing her with Payne and Oakley. The movie was a hit both critically and commercially, and its Oscar-winning song, "You'll Never Know," would quickly become her signature tune.
But by this point, the repetitive nature of Faye's stories has broken down, and "Frisco," while charming in spots, is most certainly the weakest of this bunch and more or less a misfire on all counts. Once again, a bygone era sets the stage for a rise-and-fall melodrama; it doesn't just recycle plot points from earlier Faye pictures, it's an all-out remake of her 1936 effort "King of Burlesque," although at this point, it's tough to tell which movies are remakes and which ones just refurbish tired formula. This time around, the charm is missing, the conflict is bland, and the sluggish story feels like a chore to get through.
Johnny Cornell (Payne) runs a song-and-dance troupe in post-earthquake San Francisco. They're a lowly ragtag bunch finding work in the city's seedy Barbary Coast district - Trudy Evans (Faye) provides her lovely voice, while Dan Daley (Oakie) and Beulah Clancy (June Havoc) deliver broad slapstick. The quartet soon find themselves fired (for being too entertaining!), which motivates Johnny to buy his own music hall. Then another, and another, and soon, he's in with the upper crust, marrying socialite Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari) and rubbing elbows with the upscale Nob Hill crowd. Trudy, meanwhile, becomes a star all her own, and when she hears of Johnny's eventual downfall, she rushes home to reunuite the old gang.
Once more, the musical numbers are lovely, especially Faye's take on "You'll Never Know" as well as the two versions of the title song that open and close the film. But the story itself is a flat-out dud. Payne's Johnny is a limp noodle of a lead character, and we never come to care about his rise or fall. The film's themes are questionable - while it's supposed to play out as "poor people have just as much dignity and vigor as you rich folk," Johnny's eventual return to the Barbary Coast plays more as "don't get too successful, and stay in your own social class, or else you won't be happy."
The whole thing looks dandy, with grand sets and extravagant costumes and lush Technicolor imagery. There's a great admiration for the fashions of yesteryear. But it all adds up to a shallow Hollywood pageant, the kind where the studio spends too much time making its stars look good and not enough time making the story work.
Video & Audio
The transfer for "Hello, Frisco, Hello" is a pinch on the soft side, but grain is relatively low, black levels are rich, and there's plenty of nice detail in many of the shots. (The checkerboard patterns on a few of the garish costumes may cause shimmer on some sets, although it looked surprisingly problem-free on mine.) Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 full frame format.
Once again, there are no issues with the Dolby mono soundtrack, which comes through sharply and hiss-free. A Spanish mono dub also sounds clean, if slightly rougher. (The dub is dialogue-only; songs remain in English.) As with "Rose of Washington Square," a music-only track is provided, although this time, the sound is somewhat tinnier than the full movie soundtrack. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are also provided.
"Hello Again: The Re-making of Alice Faye" (15:15) details Faye's break from and return to Hollywood, and the making of her comeback picture.
Another restoration comparison (2:01) reveals more before-and-after clean-up work.
The film's original trailer (2:15) and advertising and still galleries finish the disc.
"Four Jills in a Jeep" (1944)
As mentioned above, the wartime musical "Four Jills in a Jeep" doesn't really belong in this collection - not only because Faye only appears for a one-song cameo, but also because it's the only non-nostalgic story in the bunch (unless you consider 1944 looking back on 1942 "nostalgic"). Still, it's taken "Jills" too long to arrive on DVD, so we'll take whatever we can get.
The film is a fantasy version of the real-life adventures of Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair, who served together as the first all-female volunteer troupe for the USO. Here, the four stars play themselves, more or less, as they travel from the States to England to the frontlines of Africa, meeting up with famous guest stars, falling in love with soldiers (just as depicted here, Landis really did marry an officer she met on the tour), and even helping out as nurses when necessary.
While it's a slight, overly-cleaned-up reworking of the truth, "Jills" is also fine entertainment, with numerous musical interludes, a scene-stealing supporting role by Phil Silvers (and it's tough to steal a scene from Martha Raye!), and some honest touches that highlight the sacrifice of the USO volunteers and the soldiers they visited. Instead of overplaying the girls-as-nurses segment, the film quietly finds the softer humanity of the moment. As such, "Jills" can be seen as a lovely testament to the hard work of the USO.
Fans of WWII-era showbiz will get a kick out of seeing filmed reenactments of "Command Performance" radio programs, which were produced to entertain the troops with their string of guest stars, musical numbers, and comedy skits. In "Jills," the movie takes several breaks to return to the soundstage; this is where Faye comes in, singing "You'll Never Know" for the boys. As a storytelling device, it's kind of a cheat - Faye can be billed as a guest star without ever actually appearing in the story - but we don't mind, since these musical cutaways work so well.
Other guests include Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable, while Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra could be found alongside the USO quartet on their tour. But the real reason to catch this one is the four stars, each getting her own centerpiece, each providing big entertainment, just like they did on tour.
Video & Audio
While a little bit dark in some of the nighttime scenes, "Four Jills in a Jeep" otherwise looks spiffy, with sharp detail and not much grain. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The Dolby mono soundtrack is once more clean, crisp, and hiss-free. A music-only track provides rich, deep recordings of the film's songs and score; fans may prefer these cleaner versions of the big band tunes over the final film track. (Swing, Dorsey, swing!) Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are offered.
A set of deleted scenes (6:48) mixes blooper outtakes with a few unused musical numbers, including a dropped Carmen Miranda tune.
"The Real Four Jills" (17:19) compares the stars' true-life adventures with those that wound up on screen. Brief but satisfying biographies of all four stars are featured. To help fit this title in with the Alice Faye pictures, a little too much time is devoted to Faye's cameo, which is somewhat insulting to the other guest stars, who also deserve such attention.
One last time, the disc wraps up with a restoration comparison (2:40), plus advertising and still galleries.
Note: The making-of featurettes are all presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with movie clips windowboxed at 1.33:1 when necessary. All other extras are presented in 1.33:1 full frame.
For Faye fans, this new box set is easily Recommended, especially since all five films come complete with upgraded image and sound quality and a nice batch of supplemental materials. Newcomers to Faye's work, on the other hand, may wish to Rent It first, to make sure they like all five films (which I'd rate as: two very good, two good, and one poor) - it may be cheaper to grab the ones you like individually.