Monday, May 18, 2015

Lillian Russell (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched another movie from the Alice Faye boxed set from 20th Century-Fox: Lillian Russell, a 1940 mega-production (it was in black-and-white but Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck otherwise lavished the resources of his studio on it, including Don Ameche and Henry Fonda as Faye’s co-stars, ravishing cinematography by Leon Shamroy and an obviously substantial budget, though he chose hacky Irving Cummings as director, perhaps because Cummings had worked as a minor actor with the real Lillian Russell in a 1906 Broadway show) about the legendary singer and actress who had a remarkable 40-year career as an entertainer before retiring in 1919, three years before her death in 1922. She was actually born Helen Leonard in Clinton, Iowa (though the film’s script by William Anthony McGuire relocated the event to Chicago, where her family had relocated in 1870) on December 4, 1860, though McGuire moved the blessed event up a year so it could take place during the Civil War. The film begins with a great gag sequence in which the pediatrician who has officiated at her mother Cynthia’s previous four births (Lillian was actually the fourth of her parents’ five children, though in the film she’s the last) is a major in a volunteer company that’s about to ship out for the war and he’s worried about whether little baby Helen will make it out of her mom’s womb before the boat they’re supposed to be on sails and everyone in his company, including Our Heroine’s father, is at least technically guilty of desertion. Her dad, Charles K. Leonard (Ernest Truex), desperately hopes for another boy since all four of his previous kids have been girls, but Helen emerges female and, when she grows up, gets enlisted in her mom Cynthia Leonard’s (Dorothy Peterson) campaign for women’s suffrage — and yes, after having participated in re-creations of the suffrage marches it was a real thrill to see one reasonably accurately depicted on screen. With Cynthia busy as a political activist — she even mounts a campaign for mayor of New York, and though she gets only 137 votes (which the film reduces to just 84!) she still made it into history as the first woman ever to seek elective office in the U.S. — and Helen’s dad complaining that his wife is so busy either going to meetings or hosting them at her home she never has any time for him (a complaint with which Charles and I were all too familiar!), the job of raising her falls mostly to her grandmother (Helen Westley, who played the title character in the 1935 film Roberta with Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), who makes clear her disinterest in all this women’s suffrage crap — Cynthia even gets a self-righteous speech to the effect that once women can vote political graft will end, and so will war (the sort of thing that makes you groan at how wrong she was but also makes you wish she’d been right!) and who encourages young Helen’s stage ambitions even though her mom thinks that’s no life for a daughter of hers. Helen gets discovered by vaudeville impresario Tony Pastor (Leo Carrillo), who likes her singing but not her name; he asks her what her favorite flower is, and she says, “Roses,” but a Black servant in his office says “Lilies,” and this inspires him to rechristen her “Lillian Russell” — which Our Heroine doesn’t mind because using a different name makes it less likely she’ll be “outed” to her mom.

Lillian Russell becomes an enormous star and attracts the attention of young aspiring newspaperman Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda in a role several sizes too small for him — in his autobiography he complained that he had to sign a long-term contract with 20th Century-Fox to get the part of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and once Zanuck “owned” him he got saddled with parts like this), who’s in love with him but put off by the 1-percenters who hang out outside the theatres where she performs seeking her “company” for the usual Production Code-veiled reasons. Russell gets the attention of two of the 1-percenters in particular, Diamond Jim Brady (Edward Arnold, who by this time was pretty well “typed” as the living incarnation of capitalist arrogance, especially in his three films for Frank Capra: You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe) and Jesse Lewisohn (an on-the-downgrade but still effective Warren William) — not surprisingly the film depicts only a Production Code-sanitized version of the friendship between Russell and Brady, though it does show the famous diamond-studded bicycle he had made for her and which she rode around Central Park (today, no one would dare!). But she dumps both of them in favor of a penniless composer, Edward Solomon (Don Ameche, who’s billed second even though he only gets about 20 minutes of screen time in the film; he enters about 45 minutes in and dies of a heart attack at a young age two reels later), who writes her an intensely moving song called “Blue Love Bird” (actually the work of composer Bronislau Kaper and lyricist Gus Kahn — Kaper was borrowed from MGM for this production; most of the songs were genuine hits from Russell’s period but 20th Century-Fox musical director Alfred Newman contributed a choral theme song, “Back in the Days of Old Broadway,” and a song called “Adored One”) and then collapses at the piano, the irony being that at the end of the song one of the lovebirds is left all alone by the death of the other. (At that I couldn’t help but think, when Lillian is shown closing the door on the music room where Solomon was working until he collapsed at the piano, thinking he’s just taking a nap, “Go in there, girl! He’s not just sleeping, he’s dying!”) All this happens in London, where Lillian has gone to star in a new operetta, Princess Ida, by Gilbert and Sullivan — only Gilbert (Nigel Bruce) and Sullivan (Claud Allister, the jilted fiancé from the 1930 Jeanette MacDonald/Ernst Lubitsch musical Monte Carlo) have one of their famous hissy-fits (a major part of their real-life relationship as well) over whether she belongs in their show, and eventually she returns home after playing in her late husband’s musical just so she can be advertised, when she returns, as direct from her London success.

Eventually Alexander Moore, whom we first met as he was trying to get a job as a reporter for the New York Chronicle (thinking of Citizen Kane, I joked that when the Chronicle didn’t hire him he should have applied at the Inquirer), turns up in London representing a paper in his home town, Pittsburgh, offering Lillian $2,500 for an exclusive series of interviews on her life story — though he realizes she’s so broken up by the death of her husband she can’t bear to cooperate and the series is canceled. Later Moore buys the paper he worked for and becomes Lillian’s second husband. The DVD of Lillian Russell comes with an intriguing featurette on the real Lillian Russell, saying she was the forerunner of Mae West, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna in pushing an image of female independence, including sexual independence; it also mentions the two other men Lillian Russell married that aren’t depicted in the film — her first husband, orchestra leader Henry Braham (best known today as composer of the song “Limehouse Blues,” usually played as an instrumental today because its lyrics are so rancidly racist); and her third, tenor John Haley Augustin Chatterton, who performed under the pseudonym “Giovanni Perugini.” The featurette suggests that the real Lillian Russell’s life story could have made a more interesting film than the one we have, and the one recording that exists of the real Russell — “Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star,” made for Columbia in 1912 and available on — shows a quite different sort of voice from Faye’s foghorn contralto, a delicate, almost operatic instrument (even though when Russell made the record she was 51 and she’d been through at least one vocal crisis, so the voice isn’t what audiences heard in her prime). Andrea King played Russell in My Wild Irish Rose (1947), the Warner Bros. biopic of Irish tenor/composer Chauncey Olcott (Dennis Morgan), and in that film she sang “Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star” and came a lot closer to the real Russell’s sound that Alice Faye did. According to, Lillian Russell was originally developed at MGM as a follow-up to the huge success of the film The Great Ziegfeld (also scripted by William Anthony McGuire, who had written many shows for the real Ziegfeld) and was planned as a vehicle for Jeanette MacDonald (who would have been superb vocally and an interesting choice for acting the role), but they abandoned it, 20th Century-Fox developed it instead and made it a vehicle for Faye.

Oddly, though Faye had begun her Fox career as their attempt to create a rival to Jean Harlow (Faye even got the female lead in In Old Chicago, a film that had been planned for Harlow when she died — MGM was going to loan Clark Gable and Jean Harlow to Fox for In Old Chicago in exchange for Shirley Temple as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but Harlow’s death canceled that deal, Judy Garland got to play Dorothy and Zanuck made In Old Chicago with his own people, Tyrone Power and Faye), in Lillian Russell she bears a striking resemblance to Mae West — which makes one wonder what this film might have been like with the real West in the role (her voice wasn’t any closer to the real Russell’s than Faye’s was but she would have delivered a considerably gutsier performance), though given that the real Russell picked up her mother’s feminist mantle, working for women’s suffrage (and lasting until 1922, thereby living through the first U.S. election in which women had the vote nationwide), at one point (in 1913) threatening to refuse to pay income taxes until women were granted the vote, and also raising money to support the Actors’ Equity strike against the Broadway producers in 1919 and helping Ziegfeld’s chorus girls organize a union, perhaps from that point of view the most appropriate person in 1940 to play Lillian Russell would have been Katharine Hepburn with a suitable voice double (Rosa Ponselle, maybe?). But all these speculations about the film Lillian Russell could have been with more guts on the part of the producers and less interference from the Production Code just take away from how good a movie it is as it stands; vocally mismatched though she is, Faye plays the part with absolute sincerity and power, and it also benefits from a strong supporting cast (including the famous vaudeville team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields, who cast Russell in one of their shows and gave her an early break, playing themselves and doing a wild gambling routine that shows where Abbott and Costello ripped off some of their great dialogue scenes), serviceable direction by Cummings (for once I don’t mind the relatively uncreative staging of the production numbers, since he clearly wanted to keep intact the theatrical setting of Russell’s performances and not go all Busby Berkeley on us — and I suspect the theatre set in which Faye does most of her songs was recycled from On the Avenue), glorious half-lit cinematography by Shamroy (some of the scenes look oddly noir and reflect McGuire’s thesis that great fame is always accompanied by heartbreak and the warning he put into the mouth of Lillian’s grandmother that she might become famous but that wasn’t going to make her happy) and an overall production that casts the period in a nostalgic glow that still holds up today and must have been comforting to 1940 audiences just pulling out of the Great Depression and with their country about to be plunged into World War II.