Thursday, September 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE (1939)

Alice Faye and Tyrone Power appeared together in three films, with Rose of Washington Square (1939) following their collaborations for In Old Chicago (1937) and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). The duo’s final pairing is typical of Fox musicals; a slender plot serves primarily as a frame on which to hang the songs, with some dance numbers added in for extra measure. As in the earlier pictures, there’s a strong element of nostalgia, this time for the days of Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies; Al Jolson plays a major supporting role, and the plot, such as it is, is based on the experiences of Follies star Fanny Brice. While both Faye and Power made better movies than Rose of Washington Square, the Ziegfeld connections merit some attention, especially from those interested in the fame and legacy of Fanny Brice, who was not amused by the studio’s appropriation of her life story.

Faye plays Rose Sargent, a young singer whose rise to fame and romantic difficulties parallel those of Brice. On a short holiday outing, Rose meets and promptly falls for the handsome but unreliable Bart Clinton (Tyrone Power), who continues to lie, swindle, and con his way through life after the two are married. All the while, Rose’s old pal, Ted (Al Jolson), tries to look out for her, even as he becomes a hugely successful star with the Ziegfeld Follies. Rose eventually gets her own break with Ziegfeld and achieves stardom, but Bart’s bad habits threaten to ruin both her personal happiness and her career.

For classic Hollywood history buffs, Rose of Washington Square is a fascinating example of art imitating life and then getting sued for it. The title song immediately connects the picture to Fanny Brice, who had one of her big hits with the tune, “Second Hand Rose.” Today, Brice would be forgotten entirely if not for Barbra Streisand’s Oscar-winning portrayal of her in the 1968 musical, Funny Girl. In 1939, however, Brice was still very much in the public eye. She had risen to fame with the Ziegfeld Follies and her heart-rending performance of her signature song, “My Man,” which channeled her real-life marital unhappiness. Brice was also famous for her Baby Snooks character, who appeared on radio programs in the late 30s and early 40s and eventually got her own show in 1944. The comedienne did not take Fox’s use of her personal history lightly; she sued the studio and got a settlement as a result, but the notoriety only helped the picture at the box office.

Although entertaining as a vehicle for Faye’s musical talent, the movie doesn’t really live up to the hype generated by its borrowed origins. Faye and Power have good chemistry and always deliver as reliable performers with palpable screen charisma, but Power’s character is often absent, leaving Faye as the solitary lead. Faye sings a number of songs taken from Fanny Brice’s repertoire, including “My Man,” but Al Jolson performs almost as much as she does. Jolson’s blackface minstrel act had already been immortalized in The Jazz Singer (1927), and here he more or less plays himself doing the same thing, reviving some of his most successful songs and making modern viewers distinctly uncomfortable. When he isn’t in blackface, he gives a surprisingly compelling performance, pining after Rose with an unrequited devotion that suits his sweetly sad demeanor. His character, Ted, serves as the quintessential nice guy foil to Power’s rakish crook, but the movie doesn’t really develop the possibility that Rose might recognize Ted’s potential as a better mate. Her “stand by your man” philosophy is naively sentimental; it accurately reflects Brice’s decision to stick with her imprisoned husband up to a certain point, but even Brice eventually got fed up and left. Just like Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), Power’s character might not be all bad, but he’s certainly rotten enough to warrant a restraining order and a good divorce lawyer, which makes the romantic angle of the plot rather hard to take.

Gregory Ratoff directed about forty films, including Rose of Washington Square, Intermezzo (1939), and The Corsican Brothers (1941), but he was also an actor who had his biggest screen role as Max Fabian in All About Eve (1950). See the radiant Alice Faye in Technicolor in That Night in Rio (1941), Week-End in Havana (1941), and The Gang’s All Here (1943). Tyrone Power is best remembered today for swashbuckling pictures like The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Black Swan (1942), but be sure to catch more of his dark side in Nightmare Alley (1947) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). You’ll also find Al Jolson with Alice Faye in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939). See the one and only original Fanny Brice in Be Yourself! (1930), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Ziegfeld Follies (1945).