Tuesday 5 April 2011

Lillian Russell (1940)

Director: Irving Cummings
Stars: Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Edward Arnold, Warren William, Leo Carrillo, Helen Westley, Dorothy Peterson and Ernest Truex

Sometimes I have a love/hate relationship with classic cinema and here's a great example. It's a Hollywood biopic, which rarely fails to translate to anything but fictional fancy, and it's about a great star of musical theatre, hardly my favourite biographical subject. Yet it's a Darryl F Zanuck production with a notable cast, including another major singer in the lead role, Alice Faye, who later quit her film career on a high note, handing her dressing room keys to the studio guard and driving off the Fox lot after Zanuck undercut her in Fallen Angel to highlight his new protégé. She certainly has a pleasant voice, but I was far more interested to see folks like Warren William, a young Don Ameche and Henry Fonda playing a rare second fiddle, just one reason he apparently hated the film. Even down in the supporting credits are folks like Nigel Bruce, Lynn Bari and Una O'Connor, plus a few vaudeville legends playing themselves or family members.

In some ways I found what I expected, but mostly only in the details, which were often untrue. As a studio picture from 1940, the filmmakers were subject to the Production Code, which didn't see truth as more important than the morals it defined, so William Anthony McGuire wrote around as much as he wrote about. As a whole film though, it surprised me. It's far from a musical, though it does contain many musical numbers. It's long and fleshed out, with each scene endowed with a surprising amount of depth, even to characters that have no importance in the grand scheme of things. Most surprisingly though, it's tame. All the characters are consistently nice under every circumstance, whether they're emptying their heart or having a proposal of marriage rejected. Even the rock throwing crowd of thugs are nice, when they congregate outside young Lillian's house after her suffragette mother only earned 84 votes when standing for mayor of New York.

At this point she's Helen Leonard, a nice young girl who sings to her father in their back yard and dreams of making it on the New York stage. She's promptly discovered by Tony Pastor, a very nice impresario who's dining next door at her neighbour's backyard café. He turns her into Lillian Russell, 'the great English singer', partly because Pastor despises the name Helen Leonard and partly because she believes her mother thinks she's at a lesson every night, though she finally comes clean and points out that she's been watching all along. These early scenes are drawn out ones, well expounded but there mostly to underline Helen Leonard as a modest young thing. The other common thread is one of inevitability, as everyone suggests just how important she's going to become, even when not talking about her voice. It's as if there's some sort of destiny in play to guarantee her success, perhaps with her talent as an afterthought.

This is underlined by the romantic angle. Henry Fonda makes a dynamic entrance, saving her and her grandma when the horses leading their carriage are shocked by a suffragette march, but he quickly disappears again. He's Alexander Moore and he returns periodically to punctuate the story, almost always at just the wrong moment to fulfil their obvious romantic destiny. Of course he's a nice young man, as we're constantly reminded. It's a waste of a part for Fonda, especially given what he'd been getting up to at the time, his previous film being The Grapes of Wrath, as important a picture as this isn't. He's soft spoken here, of course, and awkward, but it's mostly through him building his character like he'd build a lead only to find that he doesn't have a part substantial enough for it to mean anything. Alice Faye can't build either. She's obviously a better singer than an actress, reminding me of a young Angela Lansbury but with less magnetism.
Fortunately as she finds fame, more interesting characters join the story. Up till now only Helen Westley as her grandma is worthy of being singled out, even Leo Carrillo seeming too tame as Tony Pastor. We learn that Diamond Jim Brady is the man who has been sending her jewellery for years. We discover that she's been spending a lot of time with The Famous Jesse Lewisohn. During a show intermission she sings over the phone to President Grover Cleveland, with Edward Solomon accompanying on piano. Suddenly the film is interesting. Brady was the first man in New York to own an automobile and he had a legendary appetite for food. Russell apparently matched it. Brady is a jovial Edward Arnold, who had played the part before, in 1935's Diamond Jim, in which Lillian Russell was played by Binnie Barnes. Lewisohn was a racehorse owner, here played by Warren William. Both get trumped for her hand by the pianist, played by Don Ameche.

This is a good scene, with the pair of them making bad assumptions in the rain, but that's it for them for a while, as the young couple head off to London and we're deluged in untruth. The film doesn't mention that Solomon was her second husband rather than her first or that she'd already given birth to and lost a child, to a nappy pin of all things, which was accidentally stuck into his stomach by their nanny. She surprises her husband in London with a daughter, though really she had been born back in the States a year before their marriage. Solomon dies of a heart attack in his study, rather than their marriage ending in divorce after he's arrested for bigamy. It's always frustrating to see untruths in biopics but how much here was prompted by the Production Code and how much was spent merely ensuring everyone was kept nice I really can't say. Even minor things like her fall out with Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, is simply ignored.

Fortunately back in the States we get more of Edward Arnold and Warren William. Both actors were far more talented than the parts called for, but they're fun to watch nonetheless, a young pair of old men here, albeit the opposite of grumpy ones. They're both nice too, of course, the only hint at the dark side having left the picture with Edward Solomon's death. I've skipped over a few other great actors because they're given even less to do. Nigel Bruce plays Gilbert, but he blusters the way he always blustered. Zanuck could have just used stock footage from one of the pair of Sherlock Holmes films he'd just finished and got the same result. Una O'Connor is fine as Russell's maid but she could play maids in her sleep. She didn't have to wake up for this one. At least the vaudeville folks aren't people we're used to seeing and they're welcome intermissions. Weber and Fields play themselves and have fun. The same goes for Eddie Foy playing his father.

Lillian Russell was nominated for an Oscar, a worthy nomination for best black and white art direction because the film does look good. McGuire's screenplay is well crafted but the heart of the story is just not there. It's missing all the spice from Russell's life and with the exception of Helen Westley, the cast are unable to bring interest to their characters and still remain nice. It can't be good for a biopic to fail primarily because real people were Disneyfied, contorted into saccharine substitutes, but that's what we get here. People who don't know who Lillian Russell was are going to be bored to tears, those who do are likely to be annoyed at the fictionality of it all. At the end of the day the audience could only be those who are happy enough to hear Alice Faye sing, but even those might be disappointed at how few songs are crammed into the over two hour running time. Fortunately there are six other films with Lillian Russell as a character.

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