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Thirty years before Funny Girl, there was Rose of Washington Square (1939). The third and final film pairing of the popular 20th Century Fox screen team of Alice Faye and Tyrone Power not only included several songs identified with singer-comedienne Fanny Brice (including the title song), it was also closely based on Brices relationship with her second husband, con man and gambler Nick Arnstein.
Faye plays Rose Sargent, a struggling vaudevillian in post-World War I New York who falls in love with handsome but shady Bart Clinton (Power). Her pal and former vaudeville partner Ted Cotter (Al Jolson), who has become a star on his own, helps her become a star as well. Even though the protective Ted distrusts Barts wheeling and dealing, Rose marries Bart. Eventually, Barts financial misdeeds catch up with him, and he goes on the lam, while Rose sings about her heartbreak in another tune identified with Brice, My Man. Brice first sang it in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1921, after Arnstein had been accused of bond theft but had not yet surrendered to authorities.
Rose of Washington Square begins with the usual disclaimer, that it is entirely fictional and any similarity with actual persons either living or dead is not intentional but coincidental. It was too coincidental for Brice. She sued Fox and the three stars for defamation of character, unauthorized use of her life story, and invasion of privacy. The studio settled out of court, for an undisclosed sum, believed to be $30,000 to $40,000. Arnstein filed his own suit, and settled for $25,000. Like the fictional Rose, Brice stood by her man, paying his legal bills as his case wound through the courts, and waiting for him as he served a 14-month sentence in Leavenworth. She finally divorced him in 1927, after he cheated on her with an older, richer woman.
When she made Rose of Washington Square, Faye was singing the blues over marital problems of her own. Married to singer Tony Martin since 1937, she was a bigger star than he was. His film career had failed to take off, so he concentrated on his singing career and was often on the road. Faye couldnt go with him, because she was too busy working in one movie after another. They divorced in 1940, and each remarried happily, Faye to bandleader Phil Harris, and Martin to dancer Cyd Charisse.
Al Jolson hoped that Rose of Washington Square would be a career comeback for him. A vaudeville and theatrical giant since 1911, Jolson made film history when he starred in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first film with synchronized dialogue. By the mid-1930s, his Broadway career, which he had abandoned for movies, was over. His films were no longer successful, and his contract with Warner Bros. had ended. Jolson hadnt made a picture in three years when he got the Fox offer for a supporting role with third billing in Rose of Washington Square. In the film, Jolson reprised all his biggest hits, including the blackface Mammy, Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Rockabye Your Baby, and California Here I Come, and got the best reviews. Frank Nugent wrote in the New York Times, Mr. Jolsons singingis something for the memory book[Screenwriter Nunnally] Johnson would have been wiser, we believe, to have built his tale about Mr. Jolsons career. The picture was at its best when the Mammy specialist held the spotlight.
Jolson acted in only one more film, but his career got a boost in the mid-1940s when Columbia made a somewhat fictionalized biopic, The Jolson Story (1946). Larry Parks played Jolson, but Jolson himself sang all the songs. It was so popular that there was a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949).
For todays audiences, however, Fayes singing in Rose of Washington Square may be less dated than Jolsons. Her version of Brices trademark, My Man, (sung leaning on a lamppost as Brice did) is very different from Brices, but just as effective. And Faye knew how to swing, as she proves in a lively version of Im Just Wild About Harry, with great riffs by trumpeter and bandleader Louis Prima. Jolson could be something of an ego monster, and Faye later recalled him as an obnoxious boor, and the most awful man I ever met. Every time I go past that cemetery out in L.A. I look at that big tombstone and wonder how it ever keeps him down.
Fanny Brice was just as blunt. She and Jolson had worked together onstage, touring in the Shubert Brothers show The Whirl of Society in 1912, when Jolson was already a star, and Brices career was still rising. She first met Arnstein in Baltimore during that tour. When Jolson died in 1950, a reporter called Brice for a reaction. The always-frank Brice responded, I never liked him.
Fanny Brice died in 1951. In 1964, producer Ray Stark, who was married to Brice and Arnsteins daughter Frances, presented the Broadway musical, Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice. Like Rose of Washington Square, it was a highly-romanticized version of the Brice-Arnstein relationship. Funny Girl was a big hit, made Streisand a star, and was made into a 1968 film which won Streisand an Oscar.
Director: Gregory Ratoff
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, story by John Larkin
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Editor: Louis R. Loeffler
Costume Design: Royer
Art Direction: Richard Day, Rudolph Sternad
Music: Mack Gordon, James F. Hanley, Ballard MacDonald, Harry Revel
Principal Cast: Tyrone Power (Bart Clinton), Alice Faye (Rose Sargent), Al Jolson (Ted Cotter), William Frawley (Harry Long), Joyce Compton (Peggy), Hobart Cavanaugh (Whitey Boone), Moroni Olsen (Buck Russell), E.E. Clive (Barouche Driver), Louis Prima (Bandleader)
by Margarita Landazuri