By Alan Hurst
20th Century Fox was known for many things during Hollywood’s heyday – child star Shirley Temple, skater Sonja Henie, socially relevant dramas like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), some great westerns like My Darling Clementine (1946), and some terrific film noirs including Laura (1944) and Kiss of Death (1947). But whether it was by chance or design, it was also known for shining the spotlight on a series of blonde, all-American actresses in several splashy musicals, some in black and white, but most in spectacular technicolor.
This is the first of a series of articles looking at three of these iconic leading ladies: Alice Faye, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe.
First up: Alice Faye.
Faye is an interesting case. She wasn’t a great actress, but she had a warm, sincere screen presence and had a very decent 10 year run from the mid thirties to the mid forties. She had nice comic timing, wholesome good looks, and was a terrific vocalist. But after a very bad experience on the film Fallen Angel (1945) she just quit making movies. At a screening of Fallen Angel she saw that her role had been truncated to highlight newcomer Linda Darnell. She decided then and there she was done, turned in her keys and drove out the studio gates and never went back. Because she owed the studio two more films, 20th Century Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck saw to it that no other studio would hire her, but she didn’t care. She revelled in the opportunity to be wife and mother, plus she had a major hit on radio partnering with her husband Phil Harris on a weekly comedy which ran for years. She came back to films only sporadically, starting with a supporting role in State Fair (1962).
During Faye’s time at 20th Century Fox she rose quickly and within a few years of her debut was one of the top box-office stars of the day, as popular in the late thirties as Myrna Loy, Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers. The films the studio gave her were solid, well-mounted productions – particularly Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), one of the best musicals of the decade. Not all of them reached that pinnacle, but the rest were very popular if nothing else. These are her best:
In Old Chicago (1937)
20th Century Fox liked to keep casting their stable of performers together, so this is one of many times Faye appeared with Don Ameche and Tyrone Power. Director Henry King’s In Old Chicago is a very big production built around an intriguing story of two brothers (Ameche and Power) who represent both the good and bad of Chicago politics. Faye plays Belle, a singer who catches the attention of both but gravitates towards Power. It’s a highly fictionalized re-telling of the story of the O’Leary family in mid 1800’s Chicago. It bears more than a striking resemblance to MGM’s San Francisco from the previous year but where that ended with the great earthquake, In Old Chicago climaxes with the Chicago fire of 1871. The movie leverages the legend that the fire was started when the O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern. Although this is more Power’s film with his solid portrayal of the shadier brother, Faye is very good as Belle, demonstrating her down-to-earth approach along with some decent musical moments. The movie itself succeeds as both a drama and a piece of fictionalized history and clearly shows Chicago’s penchant for dirty politics at the expense of the lower class. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. Alice Brady won that year’s Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of the family matriarch.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)
Probably Faye’s best film and a wonderful musical showcase. This is another strong role for Tyrone Power, but this time Faye truly is his equal in a performance that should have seen her among the year’s five nominees for Best Actress. She plays Stella Kirby, a talented singer but more than just a little rough around the edges. Power plays a concert violinist who joins a ragtime band with Don Ameche (the band’s pianist) and Faye. There are some predictable conflicts between the characters as they weather love challenges, war and changing musical styles, but it’s all tightly and entertainingly put together by director Henry King. Today the film serves as a bit of a musical time capsule for that period, showcasing as it does the songs of Irving Berlin from the turn of the century up to the late 1930’s. The film is chock full of great Berlin songs, delivered superbly by Faye. Also strong in a supporting role is Broadway belter Ethel Merman. This is one of the few good film chances Merman had. Like In Old Chicago, the film received six Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture.
Rose of Washington Square (1939)
This one is the Fanny Brice story before they wrote Funny Girl. In a script that was too close for comfort for real-life singer-comedienne Fanny Brice (she sued), Faye plays Rose Sargent, yet another singer. She’s a struggling performer who becomes the partner of Ted Cotter (played by Al Jolson) and they become a major hit on the vaudeville circuit and on Broadway and they start socializing as part of the more elite Manhattan social scene. Cotter is in love with Rose, but she meets a very handsome and charming con man (Tyrone Power). Despite warnings, Rose turns a blind eye to Power’s criminal ways. The story is very close to Brice’s relationship with her first husband Nicky Arnstein, but that doesn’t make it any less romantic or engaging (if a little clichéd). Rose even sings Brice’s signature song “My Man” at the end of the film – much in the same way Barbra Streisand does in Funny Girl (1968). Although Power received top billing, Faye is the whole film, even though she seems a little too smart to be taken in by Power. It’s a a strong dramatic performance and her vocals are perfect emblems of the period.
Lillian Russell (1940)
Said to be Faye’s favourite of all her films, this musical biography about one of the first superstars of American entertainment gets the superior production treatment from 20th Century Fox. It’s a beautiful looking film and Faye is lovely as the small-town girl who becomes a musical theatre star (yep, a singer again). Her co-stars this time are Henry Fonda and Don Ameche as a reporter and musician respectively who fall for Faye’s Lillian Russell. Edward Arnold also appears as Diamond Jim Brady, an influential figure in Russell’s life. The film only skims the surface of Russell as woman and performer, and it tends to whitewash the role that some of the men played in her life, but it’s still entertaining and Faye shows again how she’s right at home in these lush, glossy surroundings – although you do start to see her limitations as an actress. But that doesn’t really matter as long as she gets to sing.
Week-End in Havana (1941)
Rio, Havana, Argentina – for a few years 20th Century Fox seemed to have cornered the market on exotic Latin locations for plots that were starting to feel an awful lot alike. They either starred Faye or Betty Grable (or both) and the leading men were either Don Ameche or John Payne (or both), with Charlotte Greenwood showing up to do her high kicks and Carmen Miranda providing energy and color as someone’s sidekick. Week-End in Havana is one of the funnier of these outings, with Faye looking gorgeous and glamorous as a sales clerk on her first cruise. When the ship runs aground on the way to Havana, the cruise line’s vice president (John Payne) tries to get everyone on board to sign a waiver against legal action. Everyone does with the exception of Alice Faye. A lot of romantic silliness ensues involving Faye, Payne, Cesar Romero, and Carmen Miranda. Faye seems to be having a very good time here and she proves herself to be a sharp comedic actress. Like most 20th Century Fox films of the period, the color here is eye popping and perfect. You don’t for a minute believe a bit of what’s going on, but you don’t care because you’re having a great time and everything looks so good.
The 20th Century Fox Blondes: Betty Grable
The 20th Century Fox Blondes: Marilyn Monroe
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.