Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Biopics Two Ways

A little time ago my husband and I watched a film that I had brought home from the library. It was a biopic, a dramatized biography. If you are familiar with biopics as a genre, you probably already know that they may or may not have a strong relationship to the facts of the people they are about - so watcher beware: "biopic" does not mean bona fide biography!

This particular biopic, Lillian Russell, starred Alice Faye in the title role with Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Edward Arnold, and Warren William helping out in supporting roles. And did she ever need help. Here I was, having read all these rave reviews about Lillian Russell being one of the greatest musicals ever made, blah blah blah, and my frown just kept getting fiercer as the minutes on the DVD counter piled up. Now, I haven't had much experience in Alice Faye movies, but I can tell you that after watching this one, I'm not sure I'll accumulate it.  

Apparently, A&E said this of Alice Faye in a documentary: "She rose from the mean streets of New York's Hell's Kitchen to become the most famous singing actress in the world. When the pressures of fame became too much, she had the courage to leave Hollywood on her own terms." That's quite a claim to make, quite a glowing recommendation of talent and magnetism. The most famous singing actress in the world? I dispute this claim. I'll bet you $23.80 (as Nancy Drew would say) that more Joes on the street will recognize the name Judy Garland than Alice Faye. Just sayin'.

Judy Garland
Then there's this (gathered from her IMDB webpage): "She introduced almost twice as many 'Hit Parade' songs in her movies (23) as each of her closest competitors: Judy Garland (13), Betty Grable (12) and Doris Day (12)." Strange.  I admit that I don't know how to go about verifying this claim, so I'll just grant it. I say, "If Alice Faye generated more hits on the Hit Parade, it was because the Parade itself was more of a hit in her time than it was in Grable's and Day's, and because the songs themselves were already good." From the performance I witnessed in Lillian Russell, I can't see that Faye is equipped to make a hit out of any song.

So this is amounting to a very harsh review of Miss Faye's performance. It wasn't going to be until I read all of these claims about her being the best and most famous. I don't want to seem vindictive here, but because of my previous ignorance about Alice Faye I was planning on graciously dismissing her disappointing performance as the result of a bad day or out-of-control B career. If she just didn't have it, I wasn't going to ridicule her for it.  But after seeing the wide acclaim and these praises, I must make some objections.  

Alice Faye as Lillian Russell
The film is based on the story of Lillian Russell, the (truly) famous musical star who tenaciously pursued fame and sensation at the turn of the century. Lillian is an innocent young woman who longs for a career on the stage and disobeys her suffragette mother to pursue it by singing in Tony Pastor's theater. Immediately upon performing in public for the first time, legions of rich men line up at her door and send her flowers, jewels, and gifts of all kinds. She forgets all about a shy newspaperman (Fonda), who was to be her true love, and marries her pianist/composer, the tight-strung Edward Soloman (Ameche), much to the chagrin of two other rich men who think they are poised to marry her. Soloman botches her London debut by having a fight with the producers, then works himself to death writing an opera for her, literally. So she goes home to the states and is eventually reconciled to her long lost newspaperman, whom she marries.  

Alice Faye turns in a singularly dull and emotionally cardboard performance. She plays the initial innocence well, but misses the ambition, misses the passion, misses the determination, misses the greed, misses the pain of losing a husband, and misses the pluckiness one would imagine she should be expressing. She is a flat actress in a three-dimensional role. Don Ameche is decent, Henry Fonda provides some relief by acting well, and Edward Arnold is fun as Diamond Jim. The real star of the show, however, is Helen Westley, who plays Lillian's spunky grandma.  Her performance is not only enjoyable, but also rich and dynamic.  If you ever watch this film, look for her.

The Truth
The real Lillian Russell
Of course, Lillian Russell bears little resemblance to Lillian Russell.  We can always expect the classic biopics to clean up reality, even if in modern film they fabricate sordid details.  A modern production would gobble this story up, because the real Lillian Russell was as famous for her extravagance and loose living as for her beauty and stage talent. She married four times, but had an appetite for sensation that led her to make use of many more men than that. Her large appetite also extended to food, and she was known to be able to eat as much or more than any man. Her only child, conceived out of wedlock, died after being stuck with a diaper pin by his nanny. The pin apparently punctured the poor little baby's stomach. It is not my impression that Miss Russell suffered much grief.  

Her career, though, was magnificently successful, spanning four decades and unprecedented popularity. So immense was her popularity that her's was the first voice to be carried cross county via a telephone line when Graham Bell introduced long distance service. She also had an interesting second career as a columnist and activist after retiring from the stage. She even went on diplomatic missions. Marie Dressler was quoted as saying of Russell, "I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof."

What is truly frustrating about this film, however, is not the story, but Miss Faye's inadequacy of voice.  To put it very simply: it is boring. Not bad, not off-key, not terrible, just boring and flat. This sabotages the effect of the entire film.  It is difficult to suspend disbelief and get carried away in her stardom and magnificence when you're not sure how she could have a singing career in the first place.  Add to this my befuddlement about Miss Faye's own personal acclaim as a great singer and I am speechless. 

Did you notice the dull look in her eyes? It's there for the whole film.  

My husband hasn't seen many classic biopics, maybe one other, so by the end of this I was desperate to show him a really good one to make up for it.  My solution to the problem? I'll See You in My Dreams, starring Doris Day, who was apparently so outgunned by Faye on the Hit Parade. When it comes to proven talent and real performance though, there is no comparing Faye to Day.  Rhyme.  Anyway, judge for yourself.

These might help you make a decision too.

My point?  Doris Day knew how to do it, and do it she does in I'll See You in My Dreams.  I think it's a delightful film, and that's more than my bias talking.  Everything about the film, from the direction to the cinematography, has a gentle way of rolling the story along while allowing the audience to enjoy all of its treats for the senses, from the deep shadows in the ragtime room, to the fabulous quality of Day's voice, to the endearing acting of Danny Thomas.  

Doris Day as Grace LeBoy Kahn and Danny Thomas
as Gus Kahn
The film tells the story of Gus Kahn, great lyricist of the stage and screen, who put words to a whole age of American music.  From "Pretty Baby" to "It Had to Be You," Kahn penned the lyrics to many of the songs we still recognize as greats today.  His wife, Grace, wrote the music for many of them, too.  This biopic chronicles, with surprising accuracy, the time from Grace and Gus's meeting through their partnership, marriage, separation, reconciliation, and to the end of Gus's career.  It is about a timid guy who can't quite seem to say "I love you" unless it's through a song, and the strong woman who made and then almost destroyed his career unwittingly.  It introduces themes of leadership in the home, raises questions about the line to be drawn between pushing someone toward greatness and controlling his life, and delicately expresses the importance of those three little words.  It is more than entertainment, it is interesting. 

I encourage everyone to give it a spin sometime. 

Directed by Michael Curtiz (also director of Doris's first film, Romance on the High Seas) and supported by greats like Frank Lovejoy, Patrice Wymore, James Gleason, and Mary Wickes, it is well worth the 110 minutes it takes.  

And then tell me, am I right or am I wrong?

(you are also more than welcome to defend Alice Faye if you so choose)
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Anonymous said...

Great article! I think I'll skip the Alice Faye one and look for the Doris Day film. (Do I remember Lillian Russell selling large size ladies undergarments on TV?)

Priscilla said...

Thanks! I don't think you would have seen Lillian Russell on TV (she died in 1922), but she did appear in three very early films made in the teens. I understand that her likeness was used widely throughout the years to sell a number of products, and, seeing as how she was quite a large woman at the end, I wouldn't rule out large undergarments :)

Anonymous said...

To the person above, you are thinking of Jane Russell!
Personally I prefer Doris Day over Alice Fay any day!

Priscilla said...

Thanks for clearing that up.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I love Alice Faye; I have seen a lot of her movies - Chicago and On The Avenue, for instance, are great ones. I can understand your point, since you´ve only seen Lillian Russell (I have the Alice Faye Collection, in which a dvd for it is included, and have to admit it was painfull to get through). Granted, she´s overrated, but don´t dismiss her before seeing some of her other work, which is quite amazing (her chemestry with both Tyrone Power and Dick Powell is very good)

Priscilla said...

Thanks for your input! I have certainly stirred up some controversy with this post :) As an Alice Faye fan, I wonder if you could name for me just one film that it is essential for me to watch to broaden my viewpoint of Miss Faye. Tell me her best, and I will make a concerted effort to watch it and do a follow-up review!

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