While the musicals of MGM are best remembered and most admired today due to Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and the production unit of Arthur Freed, it is worth remembering that Twentieth Century Fox were scoring consistent bulls' eyes at the boxoffice at the same time with their much less pretentious and more accessible blondes Alice Faye, Betty Grable and June Haver. The first, and for some, the best of these blondes was Alice Faye and this DVD collection is a welcome addition to the Fox Marquee Musical Series.
Faye was an excellent singer with a natural but untrained contralto voice and an instinct for interpretation which made her the most popular female "pop" singer in films of her era. She was the female equal of Bing Crosby. Composers clambered to have her introduce their songs and she launched far more standards than any of her contemporaries. She also developed into a competent actress with a trade mark modesty, vulnerability and warmth which captured the hearts of all, particularly men.
This collection contains 4 films all of which were Box Office smashes. The first two are in black and white and the last two in the garish technicolour for which Fox musicals became famous. All of the films benefit from Fox's trademark sound and photography, possibly the best in Hollywood. More detailed descriptions of each film can be viewed under the individual titles but by way of summary:
- "On the Avenue", released in 1937, has Faye supporting Dick Powell and Madelaine Carroll in a funny film whereby Powell's play lampoons the richest girl in the world, played by Carroll. Faye plays Powell's sidekick and carries her share of the excellent Irving Berlin songs, including the rollicking "Let's go Slumming" and the superb lament "This Years Kisses". The Ritz Brothers, the unsubtle trio who existed somewhere between the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, are on hand too and they are quite funny for once. The film was made not long after Faye was regroomed by Darryl Zanuck from an imitation Jean Harlow into a smooth performer with her own warm personality. Reviewers of the time suggested she stole the film, particularly as so many preferred warm and lush Faye to charming but cool Carroll.
- By 1940, with "Lillian Russell", Faye was the box office queen in the United States and the transformation from "On the Avenue" in 3 years is amazing. Now she is a showcased film star in a superbly mounted vehicle about the icon from the turn of the century. Unfortunately, she is hampered by a lugubrious script, distorted facts and plodding direction so the film is heavy going. Faye herself, performs with great charm and sings "Blue Lovebird", a really beautiful song. She looks magnificent in the period costumes too but she isn't Lillian Russell.
- In 1941, Carmen Miranda was box office dynamite and the contrast of all American Faye with the Brazilian Bombshell in "That Night in Rio" contributes to the excellent entertainment. This film is one of a number which promoted the Good Neighbour Policy with South America although there is nothing which really distinguishes the sets from a glittering night club. The colour, costumes and musical numbers are spectacular with a particularly dazzling opening number. Faye's role as a baroness is almost a supporting one and she is miscast but it hardly matters. She only has 2 numbers but one, "They Met in Rio" suits her deep throated and underplayed emotional delivery perfectly. Don Ameche plays a dual role and he is great fun.
- By 1943, Faye was happily married to Phil Harris and thinking of retirement. "The Gangs all Here" is an absurd period piece, a camp classic about a soldier and the two girls "he left behind". Faye grounds the madness with her knowing expressions but she balked at continuing her film career with such nonsense and this in fact was her last musical. She delivers 2 great Harry Warren songs. "No Love No Nothing" resonates with its war time lyrics. Carmen Miranda sings "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat" which is completely mad and hilarious. Busby Berkeley's use of colour is notable, especially in the finale, but the number itself is endless.
The DVD set comes with some worthwhile extras including a pleasant and informative documentary split over 2 DVDs about Faye in which her daughters and biographer appear, one about the real Lillian Russell which serves to highlight just how much the film version distorts the truth and another about Busby Berkeley which is only OK.
The prints of the films have been restored but "On The Avenue" still shows signs of wear and tear and "Lillian Russell" has visible tears in it. The technicolour films, however, look very odd, especially "The Gang's all Here". It is much darker than expected, missing the dazzling colours which were its best feature, but you can use the brightness/colour/hue on your player to improve it significantly. Ironically, there is a "before and after restoration comparison" and this is one example when the bright "before" looks so much better than the dark "after", in spite of any dirt removed from the print.
"On The Avenue" has an excellent commentary by Miles Kreuger. Kreuger has a particularly pleasant and clear voice so he is a pleasure to hear. He also has the ability to balance observations about the film nicely with biographical details about the players. In contrast, Drew Casper, the commentator on "The Gang's all Here", is hard to hear at times, frequently states the obvious and has a breathless and repetitive delivery which is very tiresome. He comes over as an overeager fan, not a articulate commentator.
The package includes a couple of deleted scenes, one of which, Faye's rendition of "Chic Chic Boom Chic", has never been seen before. Some of the trailers for the films are included and finally, there is a short film of Faye from the eighties when she worked for Phizer Pharmeceuticals. It is great to see her looking so good, an ex-movie queen who managed to age gracefully,
The DVD collection is good value and its mere existence helps restore Faye to the exalted position she once held.