Sunday, December 13, 2015

Hello, Frisco, Hello (20th Century-Fox, 1943)

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

The film was Hello, Frisco, Hello (the page omits the first comma from the title but both are visible on the actual credit and in 20th Century-Fox’s original promotion for the film), a 1943 big-budget 20th Century-Fox musical in Technicolor (apparently the government tried to discourage studios from making color films during the war because they cost twice as much to make — also possibly because the chemicals used to make color film also had uses in war production) that originally began as a project of Darryl F. Zanuck to remake his 1937 blockbuster hit, In Old Chicago (which had co-starred Tyrone Power and Alice Faye and been a major career burst for both of them), with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake replacing the 1871 Chicago fire in a tale of family pressures versus political corruption. Then Zanuck quit the studio for the duration to coordinate the production activities of the U.S. Signal Corps to make training and orientation films for the new servicemembers, and Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law Bill Goetz took over and decided that instead of being a remake of In Old Chicago, Hello, Frisco, Hello would be a remake of another Alice Faye movie, King of Burlesque (1937), which had starred Warner Baxter in a role as a neurotically driven producer similar to his part in the blockbuster musical 42nd Street which Zanuck had produced in his days at Warner Bros. A featurette included as a special item on the DVD we were watching (a professional one from 20th Century-Fox Home Video that was part of the boxed set The Alice Faye Collection, volume 2) showed clips from King of Burlesque that featured Faye in her early Jean Harlow platinum-blonde hairdo (she’d been signed to Fox before the 20th Century merger and Zanuck’s takeover of production at the studio, and Zanuck ironically had ordered her to change both the color and cut of her hair to look less like Harlow just before he put her into In Old Chicago in a part he’d originally intended for Harlow until Harlow’s death scuttled the loan-out deal he’d done with MGM: Harlow and Clark Gable for In Old Chicago in exchange for Shirley Temple for The Wizard of Oz) and also featured another player who repeated his role from King of Burlesque in Hello, Frisco, Hello: Jack Oakie, repeating his role as the driven producer’s sidekick.

What Goetz, producer Milton Sperling, director Bruce Humberstone (he was usually billed as H. Bruce Humberstone — the “H” stood for “Harry”) and writers Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and Richard Macaulay (whose last name was misspelled “Macauley” on the credits) came up with was a pretty straightforward story about a vaudeville quartet, John Cornell (John Payne), Trudy Evans (Alice Faye), Dan Daley (Jack Oakie) — and yes, it’s a surprise that his character name, except for one letter, is the same as the real name of later 20th Century-Fox musical star Dan Dailey! — and Beulah Clancy (June Havoc, real-life sister of Gypsy Rose Lee and the “Baby June” everyone who’s seen the musical Gypsy will remember), who get fired from a joint on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast called Sharkey’s when the proprietor (Ward Bond) takes exception to Cornell’s performing a new song as part of their act. (Remember that in vaudeville performers could tour with the same act for years, since they played so many different cities and towns it was highly unlikely that any audience member would see it twice, or at least would see it a second time soon enough after the first to remember it. The later media — radio, films and later TV — ate up material so quickly that the only vaudevillians who survived were ones like George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were able to come up with a constant flow of new material that would fit their established characters.) Cornell hands some of their last money to a wanna-be gold prospector named Sam Weaver (Laird Cregar, almost unrecognizable under a thick, bushy and unmistakably fake beard) as a grubstake, and then sees a street preacher who shows off his permit from the city to perform on the streets. Cornell hits on an idea: he organizes a traveling street carnival, donates whatever proceeds there are to the minister and his church, and deliberately stations himself and his troupe outside every bar on the Barbary Coast until its owners bribe him to make him go away. With the proceeds he establishes a nightspot of his own, the Grizzly Bear — named after a new dance whose praises Trudy sings as part of the nightly act — and he soon expands his mini-empire of entertainment into a dance hall, a roller-skating rink (at a time when roller skating was a new and very exotic sport; Jack Oakie of course gets a snide comment about the idiocy of people who put wheels on their shoes just so they can fall down) and various other establishments. Things are going well for him except that Trudy’s love for him is decidedly unrequited — to put over the roller rink he offers to take her there on what’s supposed to be a “date” but really turns into a supposedly “impromptu” performance after Dan “spots” her in the audience and asks her to the stage — and one night the obligatory “other woman,” Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari), arrives at the Grizzly Bear with a slumming party including Ned Clark (John Archer). Bernice is the daughter of a super-wealthy gold-mine owner who built her family a house on Nob Hill and became, among other things, the main sponsor of the San Francisco Opera.

Bernice invites John to her home and shows off all the photos of famous opera stars, including Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind, autographed to her dad as well as some original scores, including a manuscript of Aïda supposedly in Verdi’s handwriting. John thumbs through the Aïda and is suitably impressed (though I joked what he was really thinking was, “We’ll keep the story, throw out the music, hire a Gay blond-haired Englishman to write a new score and make it a musical!”), and eventually he and Bernice get together when her dad’s gold mine plays out, she goes through his remaining money and needs a new sugar daddy. John shows up at the auction of her belongings at the Nob Hill house and she makes him a present of the opera scores; later he offers to buy her house but she refuses to sell it to him, but of course her refusal is just the hook she needs to reel him in, get him to marry her, and spend the money he’s made from proletarian entertainment on a European grand-tour honeymoon and an expensive attempt to revive the Croft Opera House with superstar singers and society moochers. “Is there a law against paying money to hear opera?” John laments as he sees the length of the list of Bernice’s 1-percent friends she’s demanded be admitted for free. Meanwhile, Trudy (ya remember Trudy?) has accepted an offer from British musical producer Douglas Dawson (Aubrey Mather) to star her in a new musical called Girl from Piccadilly (though why Dawson thinks he needs to import an American to play a girl from Piccadilly is a mystery), and of course she’s a smash success (in a nice touch from the writers, in this higher-class form of entertainment she’s billed as Gertrude Evans), while back home in San Francisco John’s society wife is running through all his money and then deserting him to look for a new sucker pigeon. He’s reduced to barking for a hula-dance act at a carnival when Trudy, Dan and Beulah hatch a plot to get him back where he belongs: during the summer hiatus from her British shows, Trudy returns to San Francisco and hire Sam Weaver (ya remember Sam Weaver?) to pose as a successful prospector who’s rewarding John’s long-ago generosity by providing him the capital to reopen the Grizzly Bear. Of course it’s Trudy who’s really supplying the money — all Weaver seems to be doing is hanging out at the not-yet-reopened Grizzly Bear’s bar drinking up all the stock — and John learns this, but fortunately not until the Grizzly Bear’s opening night is underway, it’s a success, Trudy sings her old featured song “Hello, Frisco, Hello” (a song originally written by Louis Hirsch, with lyrics by Florenz Ziegfeld’s assistant Gene Buck, on commission from the phone company in 1915 to promote the fact that it was now possible to place a call from New York to San Francisco) and she and John end up in the clinch we’ve been waiting for at the end.

This isn’t exactly the freshest piece of writing — it wasn’t even then — but Hello, Frisco, Hello emerges as a sparkling musical, benefiting from the glories of three-strip Technicolor (though the only sequence that goes out of its way to show blue is the one of Trudy’s opening night in London — by now it was 1943 and people had been seeing blue on the live-action Technicolor screen for almost a decade and it wasn’t quite as much of a novelty as it had been in 1935), the edginess of John Payne’s performance (his character has enough unsympathetic aspects he’s able to show off his readiness for the film noir roles he got in the early 1950’s much the way Dick Powell in his surprisingly unattractive performance in the 1941 Paramount musical Happy-Go-Lucky showed off his readiness for his noir triumph in Murder, My Sweet three years later) and the comfort level of Faye’s. The featurette emphasized where this film lay in her career — she’d been at the studio for nearly a decade and she’d began to draw back from career and towards marriage and family (she’d married bandleader Phil Harris in 1941, after a brief marriage to singer Tony Martin — whose second wife was Cyd Charisse — and had dropped off the screen for two years to have his baby, while Betty Grable, who had replaced Faye in the 1940 film Down Argentine Way, had become Fox’s leading blonde musical star), and this was something of a comeback film for her. Faye appears in some of the most preposterous outfits ever filmed and a bizarre auburn hairstyle that Charles suggested was an inspiration for Donald Trump’s (in fact, just about everyone in this movie looks like their hair has been lacquered onto their scalp), and she sings the songs — all but one of which were actually written in the late 19th or early 20th century — in that comfortable foghorn monotone of hers. The featurette, which featured interviews with Faye’s granddaughter and with people who knew her, basically argued that her sheer ordinariness was what made her a great star, and there’s something to be said for that; had Hello, Frisco, Hello been made at MGM with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly as stars, it would have been considerably edgier but possibly not as entertaining. As much as Judy topped her as a singer and a galvanic screen personality (as can be shown by comparing Judy’s recordings of Faye’s big songs from The Gang’s All Here, “No Love, No Nothin’” and “A Journey to a Star,” with Faye’s versions from that film), Faye is much better than the great Garland would have been as a character who is, after all, supposed to be the island of sanity in this film. I remember when Charles and I watched Alexander’s Ragtime Band (another movie that co-starred Faye with Tyrone Power and gave them both great catalog songs by Irving Berlin) that I found myself wishing during the film that someone better would have been singing Faye’s songs, but after it was over I asked myself, “Who? Billie Holiday? Too Black. Mildred Bailey? Too fat. Connee Boswell? Too disabled. Judy Garland? Too young.”

Faye wasn’t a great singer but she was a comfortable one; when she sings you get the feeling that she’s down-to-earth and dealing with the same emotions you are, not turning the songs into intense, riveting psychodramas wrenched from their deepest souls the way Billie and Judy did at their best. The one new song that was included in the film, “You’ll Never Know” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (when their names appear on a screen credit Charles responds with almost Pavlovian immediacy with the line from Gold Diggers of 1933: “Warren and Dubin are OUT!”), got a nice, heartfelt performance by Faye and won the Academy Award for Best Song. It also became a major record hit, though with Faye prevented from recording it by Zanuck’s policy against allowing his film stars to make records (he rather idiotically thought that if the songs were available on records, the audience would pay to buy the records rather than see the movies — the idea that Louis B. Mayer understood, that hit records featuring your stars in songs from their films would promote the movies, never seems to have occurred to Zanuck), the record hit went to the young Frank Sinatra even though, handicapped by the musicians’ union strike against the record industry, his record was accompanied by a chorus instead of an orchestra. (Sinatra had an early hit with “You’ll Never Know” that boosted him at the beginning of his solo career, but the song didn’t remain in his repertoire while its flip side, “Close to You,” did.) Though it piques my curiosity to see the earlier version, King of Burlesque (a movie I’ve read about in Ed Kirkeby’s biography of Fats Waller — he was in it and when he first got the script, he saw he would be playing the usual stupid, shuffling, servile Black; he rebelled and said, “I’m willing to play a comedy part, but it’s got to be my kind of humor,” and he was a big enough “draw” the producers were willing to have the script rewritten along the lines Waller wanted and insert some of his trademark catchphrases), Hello, Frisco, Hello is quite a nice movie. Yes, you know how it’s going to turn out in the end, but you’re going to have a lot of fun getting there.