Ever since first being introduced to Alice Faye, I have liked her movies. Her voice, as Alice Faye said, was deeper than the plots of her films, but there is a warm, nostalgic charm in her films that I enjoy. And I especially enjoy her voice and her singing. Michael Feinstein comments in a feature on the DVD of The Rose of Washington Square that she was an excellent swing singer, but she is extremely moving when she sings ballads and has a rich, warm voice that is lovely to listen to.
The story of Rose of Washington Square is extremely basic: about the enduring love of a woman for her charming, but ne’er-do-well husband. During the 1920s (the era of vaudeville, speakeasies and booze just off the ships) Rose Sargent (Alice Faye) and Ted Cotter (Al Jolson) are struggling vaudevillians trying to land a contract with a big-time agent. However, before they can do so, Rose meets Bart Clinton (Tyrone Power) at a hotel and they fall in love instantly. Ted Cotter gets his contract with agent Harry Long (William Frawley – always fun to see in a film), but Rose is no longer his partner.
Instead, she gets a job at a speakeasy, where she sings a fun swing song with Louis Prima (of King Louis fame in The Jungle Book), who accompanies her on his trumpet, and she runs into Bart again. Bart, it turns out, is something of a small-time crook who occasionally plays with the bigger-time crooks. He’s more of a con artist. When she first meets him at the hotel and they fall in love, he skips out that same night without telling her because the police caught up with him when he tried to con a very expensive necklace out of Tiffany’s. But when she meets him again, she tells him she doesn’t care what he does. She loves him and nothing he does can make any difference.
Naturally, Ted Cotter does not like Bart much, but puts up with him for Rose’s sake. His career skyrockets, however, and Jolson sings many of his most famous songs: “Mammy,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” California, Here I Come.” Meanwhile, Bart and Rose marry and her career takes off as well. But Bart is still no good, immature, and incapable of staying honest and he goes from one scrape to another of increasing magnitude. Meanwhile, his wife continues to stand by his side, no matter what, even when he must stand a public trial for theft.
She never gets angry…not once (unlike in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, where Faye and Power’s interaction is decidedly more fiery). But Rose has simply decided that she doesn’t care what he does; she wants him and she’s going to stand by him and it’s definitely a decision, even if she does say that her love is more like a fever, something you can’t cure or control.
In one way, it is yet another one of those stories glorifying the suffering wife standing by her crummy husband, but it’s actually a not terribly subtle rip-off of real people and a real event. At the beginning of Rose of Washington Square, there is a disclaimer saying the events and people in the film are purely fictitious, but no one believed it. The story almost exactly mirrors the story of vaudevillian Fanny Brice and her marriage to professional gambler, Nicky Arnstein, and everyone, including Fanny Brice herself, recognized it. She sued 20th Century Fox, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Al Jolson. They evidently settled it out of court.
Fanny Brice was primarily a comedian, one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s biggest stars, but she could also reportedly break your heart with a song and her most heartbreaking song was “My Man,” which Faye sings in Rose of Washington Square. In fact, Faye sings a number of songs that Brice was famous for, but “My Man” is the emotional climax of the film, where Rose declares to the world that nothing’s going to change how much she loves Bart. According to the featurette on the DVD, whenever Brice would sing “My Man,”everyone knew that she was really singing about her love for Nicky Arnstein and it was like a very public confessional, with Brice literally singing her heart out while the audience cried.
Rose of Washington Square is the first film I have seen Al Jolson in. I must admit that he initially took me aback. His acting style is fairly understated (at least in this film), but when he’s singing he’s full of frenetic energy, almost twitchy, his entire body constantly in motion, and he nearly pops off the screen at you. Jolson is essentially playing Jolson in the movie, who always performed his songs in black face. But I can see why he was so popular; that twitchy energy is magnetic, if highly individual and takes a little getting used to.
Alice Faye and Tyrone Power made three movies together: Alexander’s Ragtime Band, In Old Chicago, and The Rose of Washington Square, though I have not yet seen In Old Chicago. But Alice Faye and Tyrone Power are a good match and I give them great credit for making it seem both plausible and natural that they would fall in love at first sight in The Rose of Washington Square. Power is best remembered as a swashbuckler, but he played cads, crooks and shady characters very well. He could have just a touch of the smarmy about him, but he was handsome and boyish enough to carry it off and keep audience sympathy.
All in all, it’s a very enjoyable film with some great songs. I have not seen Funny Girl (another not-so-disguised biopic of Fanny Brice, starring Barbra Streisand), but it is credited as the main reason people still remember Fanny Brice at all. However, Rose of Washington Square is actually supposed to be a more accurate portrayal of Fanny Brice’s marriage to Nicky Arnstein, though Alice Faye is not very like Fanny Brice. But it gets the core of Fanny’s love for her husband right.
Although recorded much later than 1939, here is Alice Faye singing one of Fanny Brice’s songs; “Rose of Washington Square.”
Al Jolson reprises “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” in Rose of Washington Square, one of his hits which he also sang in the 1927 The Jazz Singer. This clip is from The Jazz Singer.
This version of “My Man” was sung by Fanny Brice in 1938 on the radio.