EDITOR’S NOTE: King Kong’s Fay Wray approached those heavenly big gates this week. R.I.P. Her death called to mind a wondrous Misanthrope’s Corner column Florence King wrote (June 22, 1998, to be precise) about the passing of Miss Wray’s contemporary, the similarly named actress Alice Faye, of whom La Firenze was a devoted fan. For those who are especially thrilled when Florence visits yesteryear, opening the memory floodgates, this column will delight.
As will the complete and unabridged collection of Miss King’s delightful back-page oeuvre for National Review. If you don’t already own STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, then you must get your copy of this big, beautiful book (for yourself, or as a gift for that special someone). It is available only from NR, and may be ordered securely here.
“Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low–an excellent thing in woman.” Shakespeare never saw an Alice Faye movie but Lear’s tribute to his daughter Cordelia perfectly describes the actress who died May 9 at the age of 86.
Living in the Madonna era would be unbearable if I didn’t remember Alice Faye. Her 1940s musicals set in the Gay Nineties and World War I were my favorite movies, not only for their foot-tapping tunes but for their effect on my seatmate. For once Granny did not get a chance to jab me in the ribs and whisper “She’s got consumption” or “She’s losing her mind.” The only tragic event in an Alice Faye movie was the requisite interlude of boy-loses-girl, but since the characters were always in vaudeville the show had to go on. Hearing the songs she remembered and seeing the fashions she had worn kept Granny’s mind out of the grave for the whole show.
There were two Alice Fayes but the first was before my time. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1934 they made her a Jean Harlow clone with platinum blonde hair but the effect was all wrong. Harlow was the bad girl with a heart of gold but Faye suggested an intriguing contradiction at once less and more: a good girl with a heart of gold. As balancing acts go, this one is almost impossible to manage without becoming cloying or ridiculous, as Doris Day would later prove, yet it was the elusive essence of Alice Faye: she was the girl men could imagine themselves respecting in the morning.
By the time I remember her the studio was letting her wear her natural honey-blonde hair and showcasing her rare quality of choosy sensuality in period musicals. Her pretty but not beautiful face framed in big flowered hats made her believable as the girl from a bygone age that men called a “peach” and a “corker.” She starred as Lillian Russell in the biopic of the Gay Nineties legend with Edward Arnold as Diamond Jim Brady, but her best movies were vaudeville sagas in which she played the good-sport singer to a pair of songwriting partners played by John Payne and Jack Oakie or Tyrone Power and Don Ameche.
Her singing voice, like her speaking voice, was described as “husky” and “throaty.” After seeing her in Alexander’s Ragtime Band the famously difficult Irving Berlin said he would rather have her introduce his songs than anyone he knew. She had a tangible effect on movie audiences. I remember the shuffling vibration as patrons tapped their feet in a carpeted version of the old soft-shoe when she sang “On Moonlight Bay” in Tin Pan Alley. She got another impromptu response later in the same movie. It was about World War I songwriters but it came out in 1941 when we knew we would soon be in World War II. The moment Faye started belting out “America, I Love You (and There’re a Hundred Million Others Like Me)” a palpable electricity filled the theater and exploded in applause when the last note ended.
Most women can’t put across a patriotic song. Kate Smith had a better voice but Alice Faye brought something to four-four tempo reminiscent of Nora Bayes. Her signature song, however, was “You’ll Never Know” from Hello, Frisco, Hello. It also had a tangible effect I’ve never forgotten. The usher had sat down across the aisle from us to watch the scene; as she sang the line, “You went away and my heart went with you / I speak your name in my every prayer,” I glanced at him and saw that he was crying.
Alice Faye’s last public appearance was an interview six years ago on American Movie Classics channel which was re-run last week. In contrast to other aged actresses with their orange hair and skin stretched so tightly they can barely open their mouths to speak, her hair was frankly white and her face frankly unlifted. She had kept her figure but it was an old lady’s rawboned slenderness with a stick-figure quality about it, and she had no waistline left. The famous contralto voice was still ingratiating but it had lost its seductiveness, and her hands were like brown claws.
She had come to what Marilyn Monroe and other sex symbols dread so much that they die young rather than face it, yet as the interview progressed it was clear that Alice Faye had chosen the better part. This was a woman who knew exactly who she was and where she stood, too secure for publicized nervous breakdowns, battles with booze and pills, and maudlin announcements of “At last I’ve found true love.” After a brief marriage to Tony Martin she married bandleader Phil Harris in 1941 and stayed married to him until his death in 1995.
As for “career conflicts,” Faye settled hers in one decisive swoop. By 1945 she had tired of doing musicals and asked Darryl Zanuck for meatier dramatic roles. He cast her in Fallen Angel as a betrayed wife with Linda Darnell as the other woman, but he was so intent on building up Darnell that he cut Faye’s best scenes. After previewing the completed film she complained to Zanuck, who said or did something she could neither forget nor forgive. That same day she walked off the lot and out of her contract, never to return. Blackballed by Hollywood, she stayed home and raised her two daughters, her career over except for a radio show with her husband and later a few TV appearances.
What happened with Darryl Zanuck? This is where Barbara Walters would lean forward and ask plangently, “What dwid he dwo to you?” in hopes of a lurid confession, but Alice Faye shook her white head firmly and refused to elaborate, telling her AMC interviewer, “That goes with me.”
It was a Cordelia moment. Lear’s daughter was also invited to spill her guts; her sisters did so eagerly, wallowing in verbal excess to prove how much they loved their father, but dignified Cordelia would say only, “You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I return those duties back as are right fit; obey you, love you, and most honour you”–and not one word more.
Hail and farewell, dear Miss Faye. There’ll never be another like you–”Never, never, never, never, never.”