Hello, Frisco, Hello was exactly the movie I needed on a rainy, dreary day. Splendid color, catchy tunes, one heartbreaking torch song, a little romance, a little comedy, a little plot to make things interesting, Alice Faye; I’m a big fan of Alice Faye. And as is true with any musical featuring songs by Harry Warren, I had tunes cycling through my brain for the next week, mostly Warren’s Academy Award winning song “You’ll Never Know.”
The Barbary Coast in San Francisco in 1915 was the red-light district with all the night clubs, saloons and brothels (though there are no brothels featured in Hello, Frisco, Hello). A vaudevillian quartet – comprising Alice Faye, John Payne, Jack Oakie and June Havoc, work in a saloon. Their job is to provide light entertainment while the customers drink at the bar. But quartet leader Johnny Cornell (John Payne) has grander ambitions and gets the quartet fired by Ward Bond when they perform a song that takes his customers away from the bar to watch the performers.
But Johnny is nothing if not a hustler and soon he gets the quartet off the streets and starts his own club, The Grizzly Bear. Not long after, he branches out and has various clubs, dance halls, and a rollerskating rink proliferating up and down the Barbary Coast. He practically has the district in his pocket.
But that’s not quite enough for him. He still has grand ambitions. He wants to be accepted on Nob Hill, the neighborhood were the posh people live. Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari) represents that life. She is a spendthrift heiress who likes to go slumming at the Grizzly Bear and captivates Johnny, causing much suffering for Trudy Evans (Alice Faye), now Johnny’s star performer.
I just realized that I’ve been talking only about John Payne’s character, even though Alice Faye gets top billing. The reason is that although she is definitely the star of the film, the one who brings the star wattage and gorgeous singing, her character does very little to advance the plot. She mostly pines…and then sings a knockout song. Pining never looked or sounded so good. Judy Garland has this trouble in her films, too. The two actresses always seem to be yearning for a man who takes them for granted, while at the same time having a sensational career that eventually and inevitably eclipses that of the man they love.
Hello, Frisco, Hello is a remake of The King of Burlesque, which was made in 1936, when Alice Faye was not yet a star. But Warren Baxter, in the John Payne role, was a star, which perhaps explains why Alice Faye has such an underdeveloped part. Though there is quite a bit of pathos she squeezes out of it.
The film has some fun with class distinctions. Barbary Coast performers are fun-loving people who like to wear, shall we say flamboyant clothing? But for all that they are essentially hard working people without pretensions. The crowd on Nob Hill, however…they don’t seem to work, they sponsor opera, even though it brings in no money (which is, I think, supposed to be a sign of their wastefulness) and dance to the waltz. After thirty minutes of nearly nonstop contemporary nineteen-teens music, suddenly hearing a waltz did have, for once in my life, the affect of making me think of stuffy people. At a party Johnny is invited to, he brings Trudy, who arrives in a bright yellow dress while Bernice Croft made me think of the Baroness from The Sound of Music. It was that kind of a contrast between the ladies and Lynn Bari didn’t even have to look askance at Alice Faye’s dress for us to get the picture.
Poor Alice Faye has to put up with a lot. From the beginning, when Johnny lands the quartet on the street, Trudy believes in him and convinces the others to stick with him. Later on, Johnny seems to think he made Trudy a star, which is not really the case, though the film never directly contradicts him, nor does Trudy. But from the beginning, we know she has an extraordinary voice. Dan Dailey (Jack Okaie) comments that she could easily get another job singing; she didn’t need to hang around with Johnny. In fact, a large part of his success does seem to be her star power. When one of his clubs isn’t doing so well, he brings Trudy over to have her sing and attract patrons. In truth, she probably never really needed him at all, though he never figures it out. She just hung out with him because she loved him.
The rest of the cast is fun: Jack Oakie and June Havoc (sister of Gypsy Rose Lee) provide the comic relief, as well as doing double duty dancing and singing. John Payne is not the most dynamic actor I’ve ever seen, but he makes the character still seem like a pretty nice guy, which is quite an accomplishment. He is also able to sing quite adequately, so none of the four actors needed to have their voice dubbed, which I think is fairly impressive. Laird Cregar also has a small role as a burly and bearded would-be prospector always tapping Johnny for a grubstake.
All the music in the film, except “You’ll Never Know,” were contemporary to the film’s setting. “Hello, Frisco, Hello” was written in 1915 for the Panama Pacific Exposition where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first transcontinental phone call. The song was performed very much as it is in the film, with people on either side of the stage, trying to talk to each by phone as if from opposite sides of the country.
Harry Warren wrote the music and Mack Gordon the lyrics for “You’ll Never Know,” a song of unrequited love that became Alice Faye’s signature song, which she sang many times during her later and successful career on the radio. That song alone, and Alice Faye’s rendition of it, accounts for more than three-quarters of the genuine feeling in the film. “If there is some other way to prove that I love you/ I swear I don’t know how. You’ll never know if you don’t know now.” Poignantly, Johnny Cornell never does seem to fully grasp that.
This clip is from the film. If John Payne sounds cranky, it’s is because he was just tricked into singing with Alice Faye. But through the singing of this song, he finally starts to get an idea of her feelings.
This clip was also evidently taken from the movie. She is auditioning and the noise gradually dies down as the people working in the club put down what they are doing to listen.