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The Rose of Washington Square (1939) – Not-So-Veiled Biopic of Fanny Brice

MV5BNDM4MjgzODM1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk4NzE2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_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.

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Tyrone Power, Alice Faye

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.

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Alice Faye, Al Jolson

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 BandIn 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.

Alice Faye sings 'Rose of Washington Square"

Alice Faye sings ‘Rose of Washington Square”

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.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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Video

Six Versions of “My Man” – From Fanny Brice to Glee, Ballad to Broadway

I am fascinated by the different ways people can interpret the same song. Last week, I wrote a post about Billie Holiday and how I came to appreciate her and how the song that helped me to appreciate her was”My Man.” While I was looking up Billie Holiday’s many versions of the song on youtube, I came across several other versions and it was interesting to trace the evolution of the song: ballad, jazz, Broadway; from storytelling to an emotional display. So just for fun, here are six different versions of the song “My Man.”

Fanny Brice recorded this in 1921. She performed the song in the 1921 Follies for Florenz Ziegfeld and also had a hit record. The way she sings, it sounds like a torch song, though it is often described as a ballad. She sings it at the pace of a ballad. She was especially identified with this song. Primarily a comedian, she was also known to be able to break the hearts of her audience. I can understand why. Possibly sung as an interlude and not part of an overall plot, it has a self-contained storytelling quality to it and she even talks some of it.

In 1937, Billie Holiday recorded a jazzy version with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. I don’t think it has the depth of her later versions, though, though her work with Teddy Wilson is considered some of the greatest jazz ever recorded.

The words that come to mind are emotional pyrotechnics. In 1964, Barbra Streisand starred in the musical “Funny Girl,” with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill. The story is inspired by the life of Fanny Brice and the musical was later made into a movie in 1968 and included the song “My Man”. An entirely different singer from Fanny Brice, here Barbra Streisand lets ‘er rip, with a touch of defiance for good measure. I’ve always liked Barbra Streisand, partially because she was one of my mother’s favorite singers.There’s something electrifying about her performances and I can’t help getting swept up in it, even if it’s not always subtle.

I am not familiar with Glee, apart from hearsay, but I thought this clip was interesting since it is a direct homage to Barbra Streisand’s version. We’ve come a long way from 1920s ballads/torch songs and 1930s jazz. It’s funny, but although Barbra Streisand sang in Broadway musicals, I never thought of her as a Broadway singer. I think of her as a superior pop singer (that may not be an entirely fair assessment – she is versatile and could sing jazz, pop and Broadway). But this is pure 21st Century Broadway belting. The word for this song is waterworks (cousin to Anne Hathaway’s tearful, choked-up version of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables). It is a style of singing that places more emphasis on the emotion the singer is personally feeling than on the words being communicated by the singer. But she seems too young to be singing this song.

Here is a unique example I came across from the soundtrack for Boardwalk Empire (another show I am only familiar with by hearsay). Regina Spekter is the singer and the best word I can think of to describe this song is ironic. She drips irony. She seems to be mocking the genre, the torch song, the eternally suffering woman. Or is she mocking something else? I would be curious to know the context in which this song features in the show. It made me think of a drinking song.

I can’t help including my favorite version of the song again, even though I featured it on my previous post. I mentioned that the girl from Glee was too young; here is Billie Holiday’s most mature and moving version and makes the last several versions seem shallow in comparison. This is the only version I have found where the performer displays heartache and yet dignity at the same time. Most versions I’ve heard are meant to be a raw display of emotion, but so much emotional honesty can also turn you into an object of pity. To have a breakdown in front of someone is to give a little piece of yourself away (Frank Sinatra once said of Judy Garland that “every time she sings, she dies a little”). There is no self-pity with Billie Holiday. She is telling us about her love; it is her decision and she has accepted it. She is not asking for pity. In that way, she retains her autonomy from the audience. She has reserved a part of herself for herself and apart from others and while the song is tragic, you respect her, too. And like Fanny Brice, she has slowed the song way down and is engaging in a sophisticated form of storytelling.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2015 in Great American Songbook

 

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