Fanny Brice Profile
Brice left school in the eighth grade, determined to be a performer. She had already sung songs for coins at Coney Island and had picked up ethnic dialects from the immigrants who populated the streets of New York. Entering an amateur night contest at Keeney's Theater, Brice won the competition when she sang When You Know You're Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can't Forget. It earned her the $10 prize and an additional $23 from the coins the audience tossed onstage. The next few years saw her go from chorus girl to Ziegfeld Follies' star.
She was briefly hired by George M. Cohan for the show The Talk of New York but quickly fired when it became painfully obvious that she couldn't dance. Despite her experience with Cohan, Brice managed to get a job as a chorus girl in Transatlantic Burlesquers for the 1907-1908 season and The Girls from Happyland the following year. Ironically, while Brice took on an Irish name, and in the 1920s underwent a nose job performed at her home, it was a specialty number which she performed in a Yiddish accent (despite being unable to actually speak Yiddish) that was her ticket to fame. A young songwriter named Irving Berlin had written a song for her called Sadie Salome, Go Home, a parody of the Salome dancers. Famed impresario Florenz Ziegfeld saw her perform the number at the Columbia Burlesque House one night and signed Brice for his 1910 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. Brice, who was tall, thin and Jewish-looking, was not built like the glamorous Ziegfeld Girls, whose numbers once included beauties like Marion Davies, Paulette Goddard and Joan Blondell. Instead, Brice was hired to be a comedienne and to sing. Between 1910 and 1936, Brice appeared in nine Follies shows and became Ziegfeld's biggest female star. Although she was primarily known as a comedienne, it was the torch song to end all torch songs, My Man, which she sang in the 1921 Follies, that became her signature tune.
Brice did not restrict her career to the Follies, she also appeared in vaudeville and musicals like The Honeymoon Express (1913) and Fioretta (1929) to decent notices, but Fanny (1926) was a failure because it was a drama. Like many comedians, Brice harbored an ambition to be a serious performer, but the public then, as now, called the shots. Audiences wanted Fanny Brice to be a funny girl.
During her early years with the Follies, Brice divorced her first husband, a barber named Frank White, after becoming involved with Nick Arnstein, the Norwegian-born con man who was played by Omar Sharif in the Brice bio-pic Funny Girl (1968). Just as he was portrayed in the film, Arnstein was handsome and outwardly sophisticated. But he'd been to Sing Sing prison in 1915 for wiretapping and was later sent to Leavenworth in 1924 for a $5 million bond theft. There were also dark murmurings of the brutal murders of young couriers. Brice thought he was innocent and paid for his trial and appeal, but they divorced in 1927 when he was released from Leavenworth. The cause was adultery, although Arnstein, like Fanny's father before him, had squandered his wife's money.
In 1928 she married Billy Rose for whom she starred in the reviews Sweet and Low (1929) and Crazy Quilt (1930). The relationship, which was chronicled in the 1975 film Funny Lady, was a tempestuous one. No one who knew them thought it would work out and they were right. She moved to California in 1937 and separated from Rose, with Life magazine rather cruelly writing that "her third husband wants her to divorce him so he may marry a younger, prettier woman. [...] Because she knew her success came from the moon-mad expressions of her homely face, she never tried to act a pretty woman. Her warm heart made more true friends than many a stage beauty has ever had." Brice vowed, "So now my third marriage ends and believe me, dearie, it's my last."
At the dawn of the sound era, Brice went into films at Warner Bros. The studio had just released The Jazz Singer (1927) with Al Jolson, and wanted Brice to be his female equivalent. With My Man, a Warner-Vitaphone film from 1928, Brice became the first woman to star in a partial-talkie. Darryl F. Zanuck, who would soon leave Warner Bros. to head up 20th Century-Fox, produced and helped write the screenplay. Brice played a singer who falls in love with a well-built man (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) who models exercise equipment in a store window, but her sister steals him away from her. It was not a hit, but it gave Brice the chance to film for posterity her standards I'd Rather Be Blue, Second Hand Rose, If You Want the Rainbow, (You Must Have the Rain), I'm an Indian, Too and the title song, My Man. She made eight films in all, including Be Yourself! (1930) from United Artists through a two-picture deal with Joseph M. Schenck's Art Cinema company. Be Yourself! did so poorly at the box office that the second picture on her option was cancelled. Brice later made several appearances in MGM films like The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Everybody Sing (1938) and Ziegfeld Follies (1945), but she later confessed that she did not feel comfortable in front of a camera; she would be much more successful on radio.
Although Florenz Ziegfeld was now dead, the Ziegfeld Follies lived on, and the 1934 and 1935 editions were Brice's most successful. Produced by the Shuberts, they gave birth to the character that would bring her radio stardom - a bratty toddler named "Baby Snooks." Playing her mother for the 1936 edition of the Follies was a young actress named Eve Arden. When Brice recreated the part on radio in 1936, Alan Reed (the future voice of "Fred Flintstone") played her father, while Brice, now middle-aged, dressed for the part in ankle socks and Mary Jane shoes. The character was a hit and Brice soon had her own show which began in November, 1938. The character of Baby Snooks, who Brice called "the child I used to be," seemed to be taking over the real Fanny Brice. She took to using the baby voice in public and had a hard time shaking the character once the show was off the air, sometimes taking as long as an hour to drop the voice.
In the midst of her great success, Fanny Brice had her first heart attack in July 1945, but was able to continue the radio show until 1948. Television was on the horizon and radio salaries were being cut. Brice refused to take the cut and quit the show. For the next three years, before her death from a stroke on May 24, 1951, she worked on an autobiography that was not published during her lifetime.
Brice's son-in-law, producer Ray Stark, had long wanted to make a movie of her life, but it wasn't until the 1960s that anyone bit. The musical Funny Girl opened on Broadway in 1964 with Barbra Streisand as the star. Streisand would later win a Best Actress Oscar for the film version in 1968. The sequel Funny Lady was also a hit. However, Funny Girl and Funny Lady were not the first film biographies of Fanny Brice. Rose of Washington Square (1939), starring Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, resembled Brice's life with Nick Arnstein a little too much for her liking; she sued 20th Century-Fox and won an out-of-court settlement.
Looking back on her life, Fanny Brice once remarked, "If you have a career, then the career is your life. The hell with anything else. It is the biggest part of you and you can be married, have children, have a husband, but it isn't enough for you because the career is always there in your mind, taking the best out of you which you should give to your husband and kids. [...] I lived the way I wanted to live and never did what people said I should do or advised me to do."
By Lorraine LoBianco
SOURCES: Bordman, Gerald American Musical Theater: A Chronicle Bradley, Edwin M. The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 11927 through 1932 Dunning, John On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio Goldman, Herbert G. Fanny Brice Green, Stanley Hollywood Musicals: Year by Year Hischak, Thomas The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television Hyman, Paula E., More, Deborah Dash Jewish Women in America "The Married Life of Comedienne Fanny Brice is Anything But Funny," LIFE 29 Nov 37 Sicherman, Barbara and Green, Carol Hurd Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 4