After Alice Faye's formal obituary appeared in newspapers last week, I rang the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newsroom asking colleagues if they had heard of her. Few had.
Those who remember the supple blonde with moviedom's warmest contralto are themselves old-timers, if somewhat younger than her 83 reported years . . . reported erroneously, for she had turned 86 on April 12.Yet Alice Faye cannot be lost to history, for she was a premier exhibit in movie history's finest passage - those years immediately preceding World War II. Her starring career was relatively brief; but at her peak, accurately marked by her 1940 portrayal of "Lillian Russell," she was the screen personality most popular - indeed, most beloved - by the American public.
She was born a poor New Yorker, the daughter of a Manhattan cop. She was a high school dropout singing professionally at age 14, and at 18 was vocalist with Rudy Vallee's band. Her movie start with Fox Films in 1934 was inauspicious; she was then just another Jean Harlow look-alike. But in 1935 Darryl Zanuck effected the merger that created 20th Century-Fox, and Zanuck sensed Faye's star potential for musical subjects.
He softened her image and brought her along smartly. She handled romantic leads in a couple of Shirley Temple vehicles, then moved into primary focus with other Zanuck-built stars. Here she was with Don Ameche ("You're a Sweetheart"); there she was with Tyrone Power ("Rose of Washington Square"); and she teamed with both of them in her two biggest hits - "In Old Chicago" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band," both in 1938 when she became one of Hollywood's well-publicized Top 10 Moneymakers.
An actress Alice Faye really wasn't, but there was scant dramatic demand in properties shrewdly programmed for her beguiling personality. She was winning, usually in gaudily costumed historical pieces - "Hollywood Cavalcade," again with Ameche; "Little Old New York" with Fred MacMurray; and "Hello, Frisco, Hello," the 1943 entry that featured "You'll Never Know," the Oscar-winning song most easily identified with her.
John Payne was Faye's co-star in "Hello, Frisco, Hello" and in three other films toward the end of her Fox tenure. Faye's first teaming with Payne - "Tin Pan Alley" (1940) - also was her only co-starring occasion with Betty Grable, destined to succeed Alice as the studio's musical queen.
But the obituary writers also didn't get that quite right. Faye wasn't really dethroned by Grable. Alice abdicated. Soon after marrying bandleader Phil Harris, she quit the movies in 1943, still on top after the major hit of "Hello, Frisco, Hello." Two years later, she made an ill-advised comeback try in a straight melodrama, "Fallen Angel," with disastrous results.
The obits recycled old Alice Faye interviews in which she defended her dramatic turn, saying that director Otto Preminger favored Linda Darnell with the best camera angles in "Fallen Angel." Not so. Darnell's role was small, and Faye was less than adequate in what was more nearly a Dana Andrews vehicle.
In any event, her movie career was over, notwithstanding a capricious return much later - in Fox's second remake of "State Fair" (1962). It was a failure on all counts, including Faye's role as Iowa farm boy Pat Boone's mother.
Forget "Fallen Angel," forget one "State Fair" too many. Movie buffs young and old who behold Alice Faye's signature musical films on AMC and in retrospective showings can't and won't forget her. Always likable, often endearing and a gloriously sultry thrush, Alice Faye was a real star.