The brevity of her stardom might account for her relative lack of 21st-century fame, but believe it: Alice Faye was a huge star. She was the queen of Twentieth Century Fox for a few years and became the heroine of the wartime musical until she was displaced by her Fox stablemate Betty Grable. As a singer, she enjoyed a string of hits with her surprising voice, a low, mellow croon, which somehow sounds like the World War II homefront. Faye's fleshy, cornfed face had much to do with her girl-next-door persona, although the figure she shows off in a gold dress in That Night in Rio
leaves no doubt about another aspect of her appeal.
The four-disc Alice Faye Collection gives a cross-section of Faye's Fox career: one film as the up-and-comer (On the Avenue), two splashy mega-musicals (The Gang's All Here and That Night in Rio), and one expensive, serious musical biopic (Lillian Russell). In all, she smolders rather than burns, and rarely goes long without a song.
The 1937 On the Avenue is an Irving Berlin spectacle with a silly streak: Broadway boy Dick Powell locks horns with the richest girl in America (Madeleine Carroll), with Faye on the sidelines as Powell's regular-gal pal. You can see why audiences loved her, and the movie itself is a snappy, sarcastic little gem, featuring some antic routines by the Ritz Brothers and a kooky collection of Berlin tunes (including "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"). Lillian Russell, a 1940 bio of the famous Gay 90s singer, was intended as Faye's crack at a dramatic role. The movie's whitewash of Russell's real story (which, as a 20-minute documentary makes clear, made Russell the Madonna of her era) limits Faye's chances. Henry Fonda plays a long-faithful suitor, with Don Ameche and Edward Arnold (reprising his title role from the film Diamond Jim Brady) also in her orbit. That Night in Rio casts Faye opposite frequent co-star Ameche again; he plays a double role, as a suave Baron and a brash nightclub impersonator. The story is nonsense, but Carmen Miranda is around to do the chica-boom, and Alice looks drop-dead sexy.
And then there's The Gang's All Here, one of Hollywood's most legendary excursions into surrealism. Don't pay attention to the plot--just check out director Busby Berkeley's lunatic staging of the dance numbers. "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," a showpiece for Carmen Miranda (it's the one with the giant bananas in a chorus line) looks like something dreamed up by Salvador Dali after an acid trip. Benny Goodman's swing band is also around.
Some care has gone into the DVD extras: a two-part bio of Alice Faye, featuring her daughters (and giving the story of how Faye walked away from film in 1945); a charming film she made for the Pfizer drug company, extolling the virtues of keeping fit; and a 20-minute intro to Berkeley's style. The print transfers are more problematic. Avenue looks fine, and Rio looks like other Fox color films of the era. Lillian Russell is preceded by a disclaimer warning of the limitations of original source materials, and indeed the print here is marred by serious tears in the middle of the screen during a few sequences. Gang's All Here will disappoint Technicolor fans; the colors don't "pop" as they should, and the film looks dimmer and vaguer than its onetime splendor. Here's hoping a cleaner, fuller version will emerge. --Robert Horton