Saturday, 18 June 2011

Rose of Washington Square (1939)

This musical from 20th Century Fox, a studio not particularly associated with the genre, has so much going for it.  For a start it was the third (and last) teaming of two of Fox's most popular stars, Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, after the success of "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938).  Secondly it was the penultimate acting role for its third lead, Al Jolson -- a man not happy with playing third fiddle.  Thirdly it finally appeared after both the studio and its three leads were sued for invasion of privacy or somesuch.  Finally, I should mention that it manages to be very entertaining.

To deal with the scandalous part first, the story of a rising Ziegfield star (Faye) and her criminally inclined, no-goodnik boyfriend (Power) was a barely fictionalised riff on the Fanny Brice/Nick Arnstein love affair more familiar to the modern viewer from Barbra Streisand's "Funny Girl" (1968).  The fact that Faye's character Rose Sargent was translated into an Irish shiksa and that Power was also wasped up into Barton DeWitt Clinton did not prevent Brice from suing all and sundry, especially as her best-known song "My Man" was used in the film's denouement.  No contest --the case was settled out of court.

I could enthuse ad nauseum about my idol Tyrone-baby.  While I seldom get too excited about an actor's looks, normally preferring to notice their talent or general screen appeal, there is no escaping the fact that Power was nothing short of gorgeous -- despite being described as too monkey-like at his first screen test.  His looks coarsened somewhat with age, but he was still strikingly handsome before his untimely death in 1958 at the age of 44. Even in his last full feature, the marvelous "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), he was still a talent to be reckoned with (he was after all a fourth-generation actor) and better looking than most.  In "Rose" he was in his prime, all of 25 years old, and a beauty.  Faye was a year younger and they make a fine couple -- even if he was the better looking of the two.  Her swing singing style was very much her own, even when reprising the Brice classic and she could dance with the best of them.  There is one remarkable number where she and her chorus line puff on cigarettes during their energetic dance, throw them down, and grab new lit ones out of thin air -- all before CGI.

As for Jolson, then in his fifties, he was under contract to the studio and Darryl F. Zanuck was anxious to get his money's worth, thus plunking him into his role here of Faye's ex-partner, mentor, and concerned best friend/spurned love interest.  This didn't please him much (nor as reports have it Faye), but it did give him the opportunity to reprise his hit tunes: Toot-Toot Tootsie, Rock-a-Bye your Baby, Pretty Baby, Mammy, and California Here I Come for our delight and the record.  OK, I know that his slightly hammy 'blackface' performances are now considered infra dig, but it was a convention of the 1920s when this film is set and one accepts the historic correctness.

The supporting cast -- always a treat for me in films of this period -- includes such familiar faces (even if you can't recall the names) as William Frawley, Joyce Compton, Hobart Cavanaugh (memorable as a drunken balcony-heckler during a Jolson performance and dragged into becoming part of his act), Horace McMahon, E.E. Clive, and even an early appearance from bandleader Louis Prima.  Add to this a smashing speciality act (often a feature of early musicals) from dancers Igor and Tanya and one must conclude that director Gregory Ratoff -- far better known as a character actor -- was not too shoddy a choice when he convinced his pal Zanuck that he would like to direct as well act.
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