Monthly Archives: April 2015

In Praise of Alice Faye

Alice Faye: Round the block, but not through the mill.

Alice Faye: Round the block, but not through the mill.

I confess to having a fondness for “The Gang’s All Here” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1943), which many people whom I respect abominate. It’s a terrible picture — terrible. And it’s ugly. And there’s a lot of music in it that I don’t like. But I love the ingenious staging of the opening number (despite my dislike of the song “Brazil” and Carmen Miranda, who gives me the willies), and I like the bizarro stuff that pops up every fifteen minutes or so. In fact, it was one of my younger brothers who first called the picture to my attention — specifically, the last number, called “The Polka Dot Polka.” It is damned strange — almost nightmarish, in a way that Busby Berkeley’s black and white pictures weren’t. (By the way, “The Gang’s All Here” is the first color picture — and the last big-budget picture — that Berkeley ever was allowed to direct. One can see why.) I like the picture partly because of its awfulness. I wouldn’t dream of trying to talk anyone into sharing my enjoyment of a picture that is terrible in so many ways. But the main reason I like “The Gang’s All Here” is Alice Faye. In the middle of the picture, Alice Faye performs one of the two or three best songs she ever sang. It’s “No Love, No Nothin’ ” and she sings it beautifully. (The only other song of hers that I like more is “You’ll Never Know,” which she sang so exquisitely that it seems foolish for anyone else to bother singing it. She owns that song the way Garland owned “Over the Rainbow” and Streisand owns “People.”)

I love Alice Faye’s deep, caressing voice and her perfect intonation — she’s always in the exact middle of the note (no wobble, no scooping); she phrases beautifully and serves the lyrics as faithfully as she serves the melodic line; there’s never any straining or phony sentimentality. She was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen — she didn’t have a noticeable New York accent, but her demeanor makes it clear that she was nobody’s patsy. And I’m a sucker for the contralto voice! Faye’s complete absence of the movie star’s need to be worshiped by her adoring fans makes her unique: she always gives me the impression that the song she’s singing is more important than anything else, including her fans’ approval. She wasn’t a show-off; she never overwhelmed a tune with ostentatious virtuosity; she trusted the melody and the lyrics to do the work for her, her choices about what to emphasize and what to underplay always made perfect sense and suited the songs perfectly. (Gershwin and Berlin always said Fred Astaire was their favorite interpreter of their work, since he never “improved” their songs with his own unwelcome liberties: he sang the songs exactly as written, and you could understand every word. I see their point, but Astaire’s voice was thin and unappealing — unmusical. Alice Faye did what Astaire did, but also produced a beautiful, luscious sound while she did it.) As a screen presence, she conveyed friendliness and decency without seeming insipid or naive. She was never the girl next door; she was the girl from the tenement down the street and she knew the score. Yet, remarkably, for all her streetwise savvy, she wasn’t hard or jaded — just smart and in the know. She’d been round the block, but not through the mill. In my book, that’s a killer combination, and it’s at the heart of what makes her such a great singer: no tricks, no fussiness, no self-aggrandizement, only beautiful diction, warmth, intelligence and emotional candor. Whenever I hear Alice Faye sing, I think of how homesick her honey voice must have made the GIs overseas. I haven’t seen many of her pictures, and the ones I’ve seen have been terrible. But no matter how bad the pictures are, I always like her. She was a good actress, and by all accounts, she was a very shrewd broad — she was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood (on many of those Jack Benny programs, you hear jokes at Phil Harris’s expense about how much more money his wife earns), and when Betty Grable came along (whom Faye liked), she knew her days were numbered and got out before her star faded. She once said, “Six pictures I made with Don Ameche and, in every one of them, my voice was deeper than the plot.” (SIX with Ameche! No wonder I haven’t seen more of her pictures!)

I often wonder what her career would have been like had she been signed at Metro instead of Fox. She radiated too much intelligence and self-respect to be a sex bomb, but at Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck made sure that she was a sexually desirable presence. At Metro, her sex appeal would have been ignored — certainly not enhanced — but she probably would have been in better pictures. Metro’s studio head, Louis B. Mayer, was the only mogul (perhaps the only man in America) who never understood that sex sells. All the studios were expected to obey the crazy rules of the Production Code set down by the Hays Office, and all of them complied — more or less. But that didn’t stop Harry Cohn over at Columbia from making Rita Hayworth as sexually alluring as the law would allow. Warner Bros. tended to focus on gangster pictures and “important” Bette Davis woman’s pictures, but Ann Sheridan (the Oomph Girl) was under contract at Warner’s, and she, too, was an out-and-out sex bomb. Paramount had Marlene Dietrich, who was all about sex — and not even “normal” sex; she was the personification of Old World sexual decadence. And Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox saw to it that his female stars were sexy — Fox produced more sex kittens than any other studio (Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, et al.). So Alice Faye, who was beautiful but not kittenish, was costumed and photographed to look as alluring as possible (though not, alas, in “The Gang’s All Here,” in which she’s costumed in one hideous ensemble after another: in “No Love, No Nothin’,” she’s dressed like a milkmaid from a Ruritanian operetta).

Mayer was the only studio head who slavishly complied with the Production Code; he made it his business to see that no hint of sexual innuendo or naughtiness polluted the pictures from his studio. (And that’s why so many Metro pictures look so dopey nowadays: they’re exasperatingly asexual.) Many authors who write about Hollywood in those years say that Mayer knew if he didn’t willingly comply with the Code, the government would interfere in his affairs. This theory has never made sense to me — all the other studios complied, but, knowing that sex sells, found ways to subvert the rules even as they obeyed them. Why should Mayer be more terrified than the other moguls? Too many Washington big shots owed Mayer too many favors for him to fear their interference. He had closer connections with Washington power brokers than anyone else in Hollywood. No, I think he was simply afraid of sex. That’s why he didn’t trade in sexbombs.

Mayer’s female stars tended to be matrons and grande dames. The only real bombshell at Metro in the thirties was Harlow — but most of her career as a bombshell was in the pre-Code years. Garbo was certainly alluring and mysterious, but sexy? Maybe in the silents, but after the talkies came in, even when she played Camille, she was more glamorous than sexual — and the whole business of how Camille earned enough dough to keep herself in stockings and fans was completely left out of the script. For most of the forties, Metro had but one resident sexbomb: Lana Turner, who wasn’t nearly as sexy as the studio press agents wanted audiences to believe. Her reputation for sex appeal and her nickname “the Sweater Girl” (which she hated) came from a small part she played in a Warner Bros. picture, “They Won’t Forget” — before she signed with Metro. At Metro, she was often cast against Clark Gable, and since he was the reigning male sex symbol, she became a sex goddess by default, even though by the early forties, she was already beginning to put on weight and age badly. (She was a party girl: she went out every night, drank and smoked too much and never got enough sleep.) Her career has always bewildered me: she was the most incompetent major star in Hollywood. She couldn’t act, she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t sing. A triple threat. Hell, she couldn’t even cross a room gracefully. If Turner had been at Fox, Zanuck would have put her on a diet, made her exercise more and wear a tighter girdle. So what sort of actresses did Mayer employ? Katharine Hepburn (sexless and in her mid-thirties), Greer Garson (sexless and effete), Myrna Loy (who began as a siren in the silents, but quickly became William Powell’s favorite wife, whereupon sex went out of her career), Norma Shearer (Irving Thalberg’s lumpen, cross-eyed wife), Joan Crawford (who started as a flapper, but soon was typecast as truculent working girls), and a host of elderly British character actresses. In the late forties/early fifties, Mayer promoted Ann Miller as a sex symbol (mainly because he was infatuated with her and tried unsuccessfully to have an affair with her), but I don’t think anyone ever bought Miller as anything but a hoofer with alarmingly fast feet. The only genuine sex bomb to work at Metro in the forties was Ava Gardner, and she was wasted there. She was undeniably sexy, but every time I see her in a Metro picture, I think of how Zanuck at Fox would have presented her. He surely would have given her bigger parts and made her show more skin. Elizabeth Taylor eventually became a sexbomb, but not until Mayer had been fired.