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Some Christmas Songs!!

Bing Crosby singing “Christmas is A’Comin'”

Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters sing “12 Days of Christmas”

There’s no Irving Berlin Christmas song more famous than “White Christmas,” but he wrote other excellent festive songs, as well. One song is “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which was introduced by Dick Powell in the 1937 film On the Avenue, a lesser-known film with a terrific Berlin score. Well worth watching to hear Dick Powell and Alice Faye sing.

Alice Faye was, alas, prevented by 20th Century Fox from recording more while she was making films, which is definitely our loss. She had a beautiful voice!

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)

220px-Hellofriscohello1943Hello, 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.

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

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.

2Poor 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.

Songs

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.

Untitled

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.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2016 in Movies, Music

 

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Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

Alexandersragtimeband1938Alexander’s Ragtime Band is all about the music; specifically Irving Berlin’s music. 20th Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck wanted to make a biopic of Irving Berlin, but Berlin wasn’t interested, so instead they made a film about the fictional Alexander (Tyrone Power) as he goes from violin student who conducts a small band in bars to up-and-coming bandleader to respectable bandleader who gives a concert at Carnegie Hall. The music Alexander plays is all written by Berlin.

The plot is pretty thin: Tyrone Power pines for Alice Faye, Alice Faye sings and pines for Power, Don Ameche sings and pines for Faye, while Ethel Merman sings and pines for Power. Poor Merman and Ameche. No one seems to pine for them. But at least they can sing. Tyrone Power primarily spends the movie waving his arms about, pretending he’s conducting a band.

Actually, it’s not as bad as I make it sound. The actors are all engaging (with the possible exception of Tyrone Power, who I usually like, but not as much here) and excellent singers (except Power). The music is sensational and worth anything: infectious, buoyant, joyous; I could not get some of those songs out of my head. There’s the title song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which Irving Berlin wrote in 1911 and was his first hit. Another knockout song is “Heat Wave,” sung by Ethel Merman.

Tyrone Power is bit of a callow stick-in-the-mud (though a handsome one) as Alex, a man who’s first priority is the music he loves. His band consists of Charlie (Don Ameche), a good friend who plays the piano and composes songs. Davey (Jack Haley) plays the drums. The band also picks up Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), a brassy, vulgar loudmouth who quickly morphs into an elegant and classy lady. She and Alex clash frequently, initially in relation to what she’s wearing (she likes feather boas, he doesn’t). Charlie falls in love with her as she is, but after she becomes a lady, Alex suddenly discovers that he loves her, too. Stella even sings the love song Charlie wrote for her to Alex, but Charlie is very gracious about it (he’s practically a sucker for martyrdom in this film).

Irving Berlin, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche

Irving Berlin, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche

But Stella and Alex have another row, she leaves the band and Alex goes to war (WWI – an opportunity to sing “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” which Berlin wrote in 1918 after he was drafted). The story begins to drag a little as Stella, Charlie and Alex all feel sorry for themselves (though Charlie’s still very brave about it), but fortunately Ethel Merman arrives like a breath of fresh air and sings a few knockout songs, though she too joins the pining club, but she remains practical about it. She and Charlie both know that there really will be no one for Alex and Stella but Alex and Stella.

I must confess that the romances did become a bit tedious. I thought Ameche and Faye actually have better chemistry (they made five movies together) than Power and Faye. In The Rose of Washington Square, Power and Faye work as a couple because she seems more mature than him and mothers him a bit, which is not exactly what Alexander’s Ragtime Band calls for. Also, I thought Ethel Merman was a better fit for Power; she’s a nice contrast of personality and loosens him up. I guess I’m just a sucker for rooting for the wrong romantic couples. I have this problem a lot.

Other problems with the script abound. At the beginning of the film, a plot thread involving Alex’s disproving aunt (Helen Westley) and music teacher (Jean Hersholt) is introduced only to have it disappear until the end, where they suddenly reappear and are very proud of him.

Ethel Merman on stage

Ethel Merman

I’ve kind of trashed the plot, but I really do like the movie. It’s a frustrated kind of like, but I still like it. It’s the music and the performers. There is no skimping on the songs, which seems to come at a pace of every five minutes. It’s almost a music video. The music is supposed to range from 1911 to the late 1930s, but it’s all played like ’30’s swing, but that’s not a complaint. It’s wonderful. And it’s fun to hear the contrast between Faye and Merman, one with a warm, intimate voice (Faye got her start on radio) and the other knocking it out of the ballpark (Merman is Broadway all the way).

I also like the general aura of the film. It’s not historically accurate, but it’s fun and I love films about bandleaders and musicians from that era. And as I said, the music is worth anything.

This scene is from the beginning, when both Stella Kirby and Alexander’s band are seeking a job at a saloon. Alexander’s forgotten his music, so they use a score sitting on the bar, which turns out to be Stella’s. Indignant, she joins the music and the manager likes how they work together so well that he hires them both, as long as  they perform together.

Here’s Ethel Merman singing “Heat Wave,” which was written in 1933 for the revue “As Thousands Cheer.” It was introduced by Ethel Waters.

Here is both Ethel Merman and Alice Faye singing “Blue Skies” in Alexander’s Ragtime Band. “Blue Skies” was actually written in 1926 for a Rodgers and Hart musical called “Betsy.” The musical wasn’t a success, but the song certainly was.

“Now It Can Be Told” was one of the few new songs Berlin wrote for the movie and was nominated for Best Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memories.”

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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