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|Also Known As:||Alice Jeanne Leppert||Died:||May 9, 1998|
|Born:||May 5, 1915||Cause of Death:||cancer|
|Birth Place:||New York City, New York, USA||Profession:||Cast ... singer actor|
Many young girls dreamt of success on Broadway, but Alice Faye not only attained it, she eclipsed that triumph by also becoming a beloved star of the silver screen. Through a combination of talent, timing and good luck, Faye was able to launch her stage career while still a teenager, demonstrating considerable ability as both a dancer and a singer. She was soon signed to a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox and became a star virtually right out of the gate with her performance in "George White's Scandals" (1934). Parts of similar stature followed in over 30 Fox films, including perennial favorites like "In Old Chicago" (1938), "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938), "Rose of Washington Square" (1939), "Lillian Russell" (1940), "Hello, Frisco, Hello," and "The Gang's All Here" (both 1943). Most of these showcased her skills as a first-rate musical star, but she was also occasionally given the chance to impress viewers as a dramatic performer in headier fare. When her tenure with Fox ended, Faye enjoyed a long and successful run on radio with husband Phil Harris and settled into a retirement that would be periodically interrupted by trips back to the big screen and even Broadway almost 40 years after she last trod the boards there. In addition to becoming the most popular star of musicals in the world for a period of time, Alice Faye was also one of the only movie stars to walk away from the business while at the height of her popularity.
Faye was born Alice Jeanne Leppert in New York City on May 5, 1915. Of French-Irish descent, the blonde, blue-eyed beauty dreamt of Broadway stardom from a young age. With the encouragement of her mother, she embarked on a stage career, getting hired as a dancer in the Broadway musical "Earl Carroll's Vanities." However, the job came to a quick end when the producers discovered that Faye was only 13. Now claiming an age of 17, she landed a job in the chorus at The Capitol Theater and soon afterward, The Chester Hale Dancers. Faye returned to Broadway as a dancer in the 1931 production of "George White's Scandals," which was toplined by radio superstar Rudy Vallee and enjoyed a six-month run. Having heard a vinyl recording of Faye singing the Maurice Chevalier number "Mimi" during one of the revue's cast parties, Vallee was knocked out by her mellow, contralto voice and offered Faye a spot on his nationally syndicated radio program, "The Fleischman Hour," where she was an instant success. He was also instrumental in bringing Faye to the big screen, when he recommended that she co-star with him in the 1934 film adaptation of "George White's Scandals." The film was a hit and the two were soon rumoured to be a couple - a false claim exacerbated by a car accident Vallee experienced one evening while Faye was a passenger. When Vallee was sued for divorce, Faye was named by the actor's wife in the court action, but Faye denied ever having been more than a professional colleague.
The incredible popularity of Jean Harlow in the 1930s led studios to try and find their own answer to the "Red Dust" star. Now under long-term contract to 20th Century Fox, Faye was quickly groomed to be a singing version of the MGM bombshell. Sporting peroxide blonde hair, pencil thin eyebrows and brassy broad demeanor in fare like "She Learned About Sailors" (1934) and "Every Night at Eight" (1935), Faye soon developed a following, but new studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wisely decided to go a different route with her. Faye went back to her natural hair color and began to play more traditional "good girl" parts in musicals like "Sing, Baby, Sing" (1936). On the set of the 1936 Shirley Temple vehicle, "Poor Little Rich Girl" - where the bratty child star falsely accused Faye of pushing her down a flight of stairs during production - romance blossomed between Faye and co-star Tony Martin, a fellow Fox contract player, who seemed destined for big things. However, when his stature at Fox failed to equal that enjoyed by the then "Queen of the Lot," an intimidated Martin left for the East Coast to tour with his band in the hopes of finding his own fame. The couple would reconcile and famously marry in 1937.
Like virtually all contract stars of the time, Faye - now the second biggest female box office draw in the country behind Temple - was worked hard by Fox, starring in four movies in 1937 alone, with one of the highlights being "On the Avenue," which was stocked with Irving Berlin songs and the comic antics of The Ritz Brothers. Faye's other big film during this time was "In Old Chicago" (1938), the studio's costly depiction of the catastrophic 1871 fire that decimated the city. Fox originally wanted Harlow for the part, but when the actress died tragically in 1937, Faye was chosen and her dramatic performance opposite fellow Fox contract stars Tyrone Power and Don Ameche proved she possessed the talent to tackle more involved roles. Nevertheless, Faye was cast in dependable money-making musicals like "Sally, Irene and Mary," (1938) one of four films she did with Tony Martin, and director Henry King's ode to jazz, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938), which reunited Faye with her two "In Old Chicago" co-stars. The aviation yarn "Tail Spin" (1939) gave Faye her most offbeat part to date, playing a female flyer of modest means competing against rival pilot/socialite Constance Bennett in an airplane race. It was a far less decorous role than her fans had come to expect, but Fox did have the star sing one song, which helped to add some sparkle to the rather soapy plotline.
That same year, the actress returned to gowns and glamour, playing a facsimile of singer-comedienne Fanny Brice in "Rose of Washington Square," even though Faye and Brice shared almost no characteristics whatsoever. Brice (who would more famously be portrayed by Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl" on stage and screen during the 1960s) was quite angered by this and particularly livid that Fox had Faye sing Bryce's signature song, "My Man." "Lillian Russell" (1940) was another musical, but also provided Faye with more of a chance to exercise her dramatic chops than usual, playing the revered operetta star. However, the production was a gruelling experience for the actress who was initially ordered to gain weight and was then bound up in ultra-tight costumes. Faye's relationship with Zanuck became strained, leading to rumors that new starlet Betty Grable was being groomed to replace her. However, by most accounts the two enjoyed a very amicable relationship with no sense of rivalry - due mainly to Faye's even-keeled generosity of spirit. Faye's troubled marriage to Tony Martin finally ended in 1941, but she soon met bandleader and "The Jack Benny Program" regular Phil Harris. Despite being polar opposites in seemingly every way, the couple proved to be a perfect match.
More musicals followed, including the lavish 1943 Technicolor spectacle "Hello, Frisco, Hello," in which she sang her best remembered song, the Academy Award-winning "You'll Never Know," and "The Gang's All Here" (1943) which gave Faye a chance to work with legendary director-choreographer Busby Berkeley. Interested in getting back into dramatic parts, Faye rejected numerous projects Fox sent her way, finally signing on for "Fallen Angel" (1945), director's Otto Preminger's follow-up to his very well received thriller "Laura" from the previous year. However, the experience was an unfortunate one for her. The studio decided to put its promotional might behind co-star and devastating beauty Linda Darnell, seeking to make her their new "It" girl. Faye's role was not only reduced in the final edit, but a song she sang was removed - Zanuck's rationale being that it conflicted with a new image he wanted to create for her. Knowing that Betty Grable was the studio's new darling and deciding that she had had enough of Hollywood and "Penitentiary Fox," the actress famously wrote a note to Zanuck, left the key to her dressing room with a security guard and drove off the lot, refusing to fulfill the remainder of her contract. While her acrimonious departure got Faye unofficially blacklisted, the actress still had plenty to keep her busy, looking after her two young daughters (born in 1942 and 1944) and teaming up with Harris for a popular radio program that began life in 1946 as "The Fitch Bandwagon." Later rechristened "The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show," the musical comedy show had an eight-year run.
Mostly content to enjoy retirement at the couple's Palm Springs home, Faye made a surprise trip back to Fox for the 1962 remake of "State Fair," but the picture was a disaster and the shoot an unpleasant time for her. Aside from occasional sightings, like a 1964 guest appearance on the popular ABC variety program "Hollywood Palace," Faye remained out of the limelight. She unexpectedly came out of retirement again in 1973 to go back out on the road with former co-star John Payne in a musical-comedy production called "Good News," which enjoyed a fair amount of success and gave Faye to chance to sing old standards like "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries." However, a subsequent opening on Broadway (with Gene Nelson replacing Payne) as one of The Great White Way's Christmas 1974 attractions proved disastrous and the production shuttered after only 16 performances. Nonetheless, 1974 still proved to be a noteworthy year for Faye. Interest in her music was revived when Martin Scorsese used "You'll Never Know" to open his film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and this was followed by the nostalgia records Alice Faye in Hollywood (1934-37) and Alice Faye Sings Her Famous Movie Hits arriving in stores.
Faye was one of many Golden Age stars persuaded to cameo in the awful Rin Tin Tin parody "Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood" (1976) and the very obscure "Every Girl Should Have One" (1978), which was reportedly even worse. While an unremarkable remake of the 1943 MGM classic "Lassie Comes Home," Faye's final film "The Magic of Lassie" (1978), allowed her to work with fellow beloved veterans James Stewart and Mickey Rooney, and one more opportunity to sing onscreen. Aside from a handful of appearances on television - including a 1984 episode of "This is Your Life" and performing on the 61st Academy Awards in 1989 - Faye lived quietly in Palm Springs with her beloved Phil Harris, also largely retired by this point. After 54 years of marriage, Harris passed away in 1995, with Faye following him on May 9, 1998 after enduring two operations for stomach cancer. Having lived longer than many of her Golden Age contemporaries, the much beloved, all-American songstress passed away at age 83.
By John Charles
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