Thursday, August 6, 2015

Rose of Washington Square (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

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

The film was Rose of Washington Square, a 1939 musical that, though it carried the usual disclaimer that the events in the story were just fiction and any resemblance to the lives of real people, living or dead, was purely coincidental, was quite obviously based on the real story of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice and her first husband, gambler (and, in this telling at least, outright criminal) Nick Arnstein. Though they’re given different names — and Anglo names, at that; the Brice character is called “Rose Sargent” and played by Alice Faye, and Arnstein is called “Barton DeWitt Clinton” (suggesting he’s the scapegrace descendant of one of New York’s founding families) and played by Scots-Irish Tyrone Power — the story it tells is so recognizable that Brice sued the studio for $750,000 and won an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed (but no doubt considerably lesser) amount. Indeed, the plot of this one is so close to that of the Barbra Streisand musical Funny Girl — her film debut, adapted from a stage musical of the same title — that Funny Girl basically counts as a remake of Rose of Washington Square even though in the later film Brice and Arnstein have their real names. The ripoff of the real story seems to have begun with two writers, John Larkin and Jerry Hurwin, who are credited with the “original” story Nunnally Johnson adapted into his screenplay, and the direction is credited to Gregory Ratoff — though given Ratoff’s penchant for sitting in his director’s chair and reading newspapers while someone else actually directed (notably Orson Welles on the marvelous 1949 film Black Magic), I have a sneaking suspicion Nunnally Johnson actually did most of the direction. What makes Rose of Washington Square an unusual musical for 1939, to say the least, is the darkness of the material. Rose starts out as an aspiring vaudevillian who does a duet act with Ted Cotter (Al Jolson, in his first film appearance since The Singing Kid bombed in 1936, and showcased surprisingly well even though the songs he got — “My Mammy,” “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” “California, Here I Come,” et al. — were mostly things he’d performed earlier and better in other films, and musical director Louis Silvers made a bad mistake by lopping off the beautiful verse to Walter Donaldson’s “My Mammy” which Jolson had got to perform in The Jazz Singer). Cotter is discovered first by agent Harry Long (William Frawley, which will have I Love Lucy fans marveling at seeing him this young even though it’s hard to take Fred Mertz as a super-agent — though maybe if he had been he could have got Ricky Ricardo out of that cheap nightclub in Miami and into the big-time!), who makes it as a solo because the weekend he’s auditioned is the one Rose and her comic-relief sidekick Peggy (Joyce Compton, who’s O.K. in the role but her broadness makes one wish for the relative restraint of Joan Blondell in similar parts at Warner Bros.) decide to take off and spend the weekend at an upstate New York resort.

While there Rose meets and instantly falls for no-goodnik Barton DeWitt Clinton, who when the film begins is desperately in debt for $2,500 (presumably gambling losses, though that’s only hinted at in the film itself) to “Lefty,” a mysterious gangster we never actually see. In order to pay off the $2,500 Lefty’s enforcers are trying to get after him, he “sells” Rose Sargent’s management contract to Harry Long — only when Ted confronts him and demands he give back the money so Rose can get it, as she deserves, he responds by paying her off with part of a $3,500 bankroll he gets from selling the furniture in the apartment he’s house-sitting for a rich friend at the Marlborough Hotel. When the friend comes back and wants to know where his furniture is (though judging from what we see, the buyer took the piano and the tables but left behind most of the chairs), he demands that Clinton repay him the $15,000 replacement cost. With no other way to get that kind of money in a hurry, Clinton joins Lefty’s gang — only he and Lefty’s men get busted for selling fake bonds and Clinton faces five years in prison. Desperate to avoid incarceration, Clinton gets out on $50,000 bail put up by Ted Cotter — whose understanding, to use Nora Ephron’s famous phrase, passes understanding — only he jumps bail and lovable ol’ Cotter is out that money. Eventually he turns himself in and the main dramatic issue is what his scandal is going to do to Rose’s career — though, if anything, it seems to help it; Rose’s Ziegfeld Follies performance of the song “My Man” (a French song, “Mon Homme,” by Maurice Yvain which Ziegfeld bought for Fanny Brice, hitherto a comedienne, to showcase her power as a dramatic singer) becomes even more powerful and moving to her audiences because the real-life parallel to her story has been publicized in all New York’s newspapers. Rose of Washington Square is a powerful movie, and though Tyrone Power probably thought of his role as yet another nothing part to exploit his commercially successful collaboration with Alice Faye (they’d already made In Old Chicago and Alexander’s Ragtime Band together, and both had been blockbuster hits), he’s utterly convincing as a character whose only redeeming feature is he becomes crooked out of weakness rather than evil. (Imagine this movie with James Cagney in Power’s role and the story would have a very different “spin.”)

Faye is in excellent form, and songs like “Rose of Washington Square” and especially “My Man” bring out the best in her — though the definitive version of “My Man” remains Billie Holiday’s (she, too, had lived this song’s story again and again, and I particularly like her first version from 1937 because she sang a more astringent and less self-pitying lyric to the verse), Faye’s is quite good — marginally better than Brice’s recording (alas, the film in which Brice sang “My Man” is lost); as with “This Year’s Kisses” from On the Avenue, another song on which Faye was competing with Billie Holiday, her foghorn contralto achieves just the right sort of world-weariness. I don’t have Barbra Streisand’s version available for comparison at the moment — my CD of Funny Girl is the stage album, not the film soundtrack; the stage show used a new song by Jules Styne, “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” but the film put in “My Man” in its place, making the movie track even closer to Rose of Washington Square, and the staging of the song in Rose of Washington Square — Faye sings it on a stage set of a Parisian street scene after hours, with a lamppost and a kiosk as the only decorations — was such a close copy of the one Ziegfeld worked out for Brice it’s no wonder Brice sued. Rose of Washington Square is quite a good movie, with a darkness that makes it far more powerful than the run of 1930’s musicals (and in some ways it’s a reversal of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, whose plot sent Power to the heights of musical stardom while it was Faye who plumbed the down-and-out depths), excellent performances from Power and Faye (fortunately they avoided the temptation of having Power’s character sing, a mistake the makers of Funny Girl made) and some nice shots of Al Jolson in full cry, even though his blackface act coupled with Alice Faye’s self-abnegation in the face of her love make this film problematical both racially and sexually to a modern audience.