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11.12.08

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Phaedra

The Alice Faye Collection, Vol. 2

Five discs; 20th Century Fox; $49.98

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


With soft creamy features, corn-colored hair, a husky crooning voice and preternatural adorability, Alice Faye managed to tuck into Hollywood's pantheon of types somewhere between '30s screwball comedienne and '40s pinup girl. She ended her 11-year run as the good girl (up against bad girl Linda Darnell, a hopeless challenge) in the film noir Fallen Angel (1945). She saw the writing on the wall at this point and retired to a happy homemaker's life with her husband, Phil Harris. The five films in this set reveal an essential strain in her onscreen characters: the woman who loves too much. In Rose of Washington Square (1939, B&W), she stands by no-good gambler Tyrone Power (playing Nicky Arnstein to Faye's thinly disguised Fanny Brice) as she pursues a vaudeville career in the early 1900s. She sings the ultimate female ode to romantic masochism, "My Man," and asks, "What am I supposed to do? Ditch him cause he's in trouble? I'm still in love with him." Al Jolson himself re-creates his blackface "Mammy" routine—keep your finger on fast-forward. In the nonmusical Hollywood Cavalcade (1939, color), Faye plays a stage actress who is molded into an early Hollywood star by Don Ameche (playing a version of Mack Sennett). The back-lot scenes of pie-throwing comedies feature some of the big names of the silent era: Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin and Chester Conklin. The action ends with the coming of sound (with Jolson re-creating his Kaddish scene from The Jazz Singer). Again, Faye's character nurtures a torch for a man whose fortunes take a tumble. The film is an interesting early example of Hollywood fetishizing its own recent past—leading the way to Sunset Blvd. and Singin' in the Rain. The Great American Broadcast (1941, B&W) again looks backward, this time at the early days of radio, with Faye and John Payne pioneering coast-to-coast broadcasts. Faye teams again with Payne in Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943, color) as buskers who rise to the top of the Barbary Coast's music-hall business. Faye sings her biggest hit, 'You'll Never Know," and, as usual, must selflessly rescue her man after he bottoms out. Faye makes a cameo reprising "You'll Never Know" in Four Jills in a Jeep (1944, B&W), a musical comedy about real-life USO stars Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair. Each disc comes with fascinating background interviews—Fanny Brice, for instance, sued the studio and won over Rose of Washington Square, while Landis and Francis were rumored to be lovers. (However, the time has come to stop using Hugh Hefner, complete with his ridiculous red smoking jacket, in these minidocs as if he were some kind of expert on old Hollywood. Enough is enough.)


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