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.