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'.
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|
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 real Lillian Russell|
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
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)