Saturday, May 5, 2012
Birthday Girl Next Door
May 5 must have been an auspicious date for Twentieth Century Fox - it's the birthday of two of the studio's biggest stars: Tyrone Power and the lovely lady seen here, Miss Alice Faye.
It sounds like an odd sort of compliment, but Faye might have been the most normal person ever to have achieved Hollywood's heights. And make no mistake: Alice Faye was a very big star, in films of course, but also on radio, before and after movies, and just a touch of theatre at either end of her career. Throughout, though, she gives every impression that her work was just another way to make a living - honest work, and work she gave her best to, but no reason for a little girl from Hell's Kitchen to get a swelled head.
Certainly, it would be hard to make a case for considering much of her oeuvre as art. Fox was a factory as much as a studio, and one of the reasons Alice was such an ideal Fox star is her utter predictability. Within her fach, as it were, there's no one better, but there's no denying it's very narrow terrain.
She began in Hollywood with something of a false start, as a kind of singing, sometimes dancing Harlow, all platinum hair and surprised-looking pencilled eyebrows. A few quick adjustments, though, and after half a dozen pictures, the real Alice emerged: plucky, yearning, good-hearted and commonsensical. She stayed that way for the next twenty-odd movies, moving from turns supporting Shirley Temple to leading spectacles like In Old Chicago to helming her own Technicolor epics (as above - here she's waxing sentimental in Weekend in Havana). In each of them she sang - romantic songs, mostly, and often old-fashioned even when the movies were new, but with the occasional up-tempo novelty thrown in; she submitted to being romanced by Tyrone (and Don Ameche, and John Payne, and others in the Fox leading-man ranks); and she adroitly wore the almost uniformly horrifying costumes that the studio's not-exactly-Adrian designers came up with for her(When she turns up in Travis Banton's stunning gowns, simultaneously period-authentic and subtly Moderne, for Lillian Russell, it's something of a shock).
And then, once she had a family and it all started to seem a little silly (and is there anything sillier than her last big picture, The Gang's All Here?) - she decided she had better things to do. Miscast - and fatally undercut by Fox's Daryl Zanuck, who was smitten by newcomer/supporting actress Linda Darnell - in her attempt at a noir, the Preminger-directed Fallen Angel, Alice took one look at the final cut and drove away. She sang on her huband Phil Harris's* radio program (together they were more or less radio's last big stars; their eponymous show held out against TV until '54). Much later she made a couple of perfunctory movies, seemingly more out a sense of obligation to her persistent fans than for any other reason (and heaven knows she didn't need the money), and she had a late-in-life stint as a motivational speaker for Pfizer pharmaceuticals (she came and talked at Mother Muscato's ladies' club, once upon a time - needless to say, a massive hit - "Such a lady! And still so lovely!"). But mostly she lived the life of a prosperous California matron, and good on her for it.
Over at the Redundant Variety Hour, Thom & Co. are considering the not-dissimilar career of Miss Bobbie Gentry, another star who burned bright but briefly, and who has become even more resolutely private than did Alice. When you think about it, the ones who leave on their own steam seem to have a pretty good time of it.
Some are too big really ever to disappear (think of Garbo's 40-year undercover act) and some too small to have their disappearance make much of a ripple (would anyone really miss Amanda Bynes, Penny Pingleton notwithstanding, were she actually to make good on her retirement promises?). In between, though, bracketed somewhere between Doris Day and Kristy McNichol, there is a fascinating stratum of performers who for various reasons reinvent themselves as private citizens. Some, to quote that song, "met a big financier" (think Theda Bara, lucky lady). Some, like McNichol, realize that the limelight is no place to deal with tricky personal issues.
Nothing so complicated for Alice; she'd simply worked hard enough, long enough, to make her own choices. Let her stand as the patron saint of graceful exits. She would have been 97 today.
* Originally I had Phil Baker here - I always mistake the two. Baker is a now-forgotten gadabout who pops up as "himself" in Fox pictures for reasons no one today can fathom. Harris, of course, in addition to being Mr. Faye, is the voice of Ballou in The Jungle Book and so still beloved by legions of Disneyphiles.