As soon as I saw the announcement for Power-Mad, the May 5 blogathon co-hosted by The Lady Eve’s Reel Life and They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To, I scrambled to claim my topic. While this May 5 marks one hundred years since the birth of one of my all-time favorites, Tyrone Power, it also means that my favorite Power co-star, Alice Faye, is but a year off her own centennial celebration. I’ve always found it fascinating that the two biggest stars from the same studio shared a May 5 birthday and I never forget because it’s also my father’s birthday.
Power and Faye only appeared in three movies together, but the first two, each of which also co-starred Don Ameche and were both directed by Henry King, were huge blockbusters that pushed Ty and Alice near the top of not only Hollywood popularity polls but counts of box office receipts too. The third one, both bolstered and hindered by Al Jolson's inclusion in the cast, didn't do so badly either. By 1940 Power would place second, behind only Mickey Rooney, in The Motion Picture Herald’s annual poll of star power as measured by actual box office returns counted by movie exhibitors. Alice Faye was the third ranking actress in the same poll, trailing only Shirley Temple and Bette Davis.
The history of the Power-Faye team actually begins with a bit of prehistory in the 1936 Alice Faye-starring vehicle Sing, Baby, Sing. Tyrone Power was originally cast in a supporting role in this film, but director Sidney Lanfield didn't think he was right for the part and had him replaced by Michael Whalen. The change in casting upset Faye, but Power was soon starring in an even bigger film when director Henry King suggested he replace Don Ameche as lead in big budget historical epic Lloyds of London (1936). Head of production Darryl F. Zanuck initially resisted the idea of casting the unknown in such an important movie, but King soon sold his boss on the idea of the advantages of Power over Ameche: “This boy has the makings of a better actor. He’s better-looking. He’s young. He’s romantic,” and since Fox was still the new studio on the block, “We need talent because God knows we don’t have much” (Guiles 7). Lloyds of London would be the first of eleven features Power starred in under the direction of King.
In Old Chicago (1937) was the second, though once again that wasn’t Zanuck’s original intention. On the heels of MGM’s success with disaster film San Francisco (1936) starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, Zanuck decided he needed Gable to play the lead in his disaster movie too. While he was unable to secure Gable, Zanuck did arrange to borrow Jean Harlow from MGM to play the Belle Fawcett role. Director King hadn’t wanted Gable anyway, thinking the actor would be too old to convincingly play Alice Brady’s son. He preferred Tyrone Power for the part and managed to get Zanuck to agree. Finishing touches to the script and other pre-production took place while Fox awaited Harlow’s arrival upon completion of Saratoga.
Of course, that never happened. Henry King had been warned of Harlow’s ill health shortly before her tragic death (Guiles 27) and he wasted no time in going to Zanuck to request Alice Faye play the part. Yet again, King met resistance from Zanuck, but the director managed to arrange a screen test for Faye that Power, remembering Faye’s support during Sing, Baby, Sing, was more than happy to assist with. Faye then easily won the part.
The fictionalized account of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 saw Power and Ameche cast as the eldest sons of Brady’s Mrs. O’Leary, whose cow eventually kicks over the lantern that sets Chicago ablaze. Leading up to the disaster the rascally Power, as Dion O’Leary, forges himself into a power behind the scenes in old Chicago, mostly at the expense of the Brian Donlevy character, Gil Warren. Dion immediately falls for Warren’s Eastern stage import, Faye’s Belle Fawcett, and while there is a bit of a pursuit on Dion’s part, Belle eventually warms up to him. Meanwhile Ameche’s Jack O’Leary, a lawyer with all the morals Dion lacks, rises to more official power, becoming Mayor after his brother, unbeknownst to Jack, rigs the election in his favor. The loving brothers wind up at each other’s throats with Dion even using Belle in his battle to own Chicago at any cost. Once the fire blazes the brothers are briefly reunited in battle against Warren while Belle winds up trying to rescue the hostile Mrs. O’Leary from the flames.
In Old Chicago was a huge hit, critically and at the box office. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and took home two of those Oscars, including Alice Brady’s for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. While neither Power nor Faye received nominations, Zanuck knew the team was a winner and quickly reunited them with both Ameche and director King in the best of their movies together, Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938).
Thanks to its twenty-nine musical numbers, and Ty’s lack of musical talent, Alexander best shines the spotlight on Alice Faye. Zanuck had the idea to do Alexander's Ragtime Band after working with Irving Berlin in On the Avenue (1937), also featuring Alice Faye. He proposed a movie musical based on the famed composer’s life and Berlin agreed on condition his name appear above the title and that the story be a completely fictionalized version of his life story (Elder 109). In other words, pretty much the standard Fox musical template filled with Irving Berlin songs.
In Alexander’s Ragtime Band an uneasy alliance is forged after the band, led by Power and including Ameche as well as Jack Haley, forget their music for an audition at a San Francisco dive and wind up using the tune left on the bar by a distracted Stella Kirby (Faye). When Stella hears the familiar song she pops out of her seat and belts out “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with the boys in the band backing her. They are hired as a group despite the clashing between Power’s cultured Alexander and Faye’s streetwise Stella. Ameche’s Charlie tries his best to keep the peace, falling in love with Stella while doing so, but harmony only comes to the group after Alexander and Stella realize that they’ve been battling this entire time because they’re in love. Poor Charlie!
Stella is singled out after they connive to play for a big producer and the band splits up with her heading off to New York to become a star. The Great War intervenes and finds Power serving with band-mate Jack Haley while back in New York Stella has married Charlie. When the war ends Jerry Allen (Ethel Merman) is brought in to front Alexander’s new band and serve as hopeful love interest to disinterested Alexander. Charlie meanwhile realizes that Stella still carries a torch for Alexander and gracefully offers to bow out with a no hassle divorce should Stella choose.
Love progresses in the most moral and convenient way that a storyline bound by the Production Code allowed (Poor Charlie!), but the real highlight of Alexander’s Ragtime Band continues to be the songs, mostly tunes sung by Faye with a few stunners by Ethel Merman and, my own favorite, Haley’s rousing performance of “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!”
Alexander’s Ragtime Band was even more successful than In Old Chicago, the top grossing film of 1938 according to Box Office Magazine and the one to launch Power and Faye near the top of all of those various polls. It garnered six Academy Award nominations itself, once again including Best Picture, though only brought home a single Oscar this time, for its score.
Rose of Washington Square (1939) is the strangest of the three Tyrone Power-Alice Faye movies in that it feels like two distinct movies thanks to the presence of third-billed Al Jolson, who spends most of the movie singing his own most popular tunes while watching over Faye’s Rose after she falls in love with Ty's conman Bart Clinton.
Despite prominent notice at the start of the movie that any similarities to persons living or dead is pure coincidence, Rose of Washington Square is a thinly-disguised telling of Fanny Brice’s life story right down to Faye’s singing of Brice's signature tune, “My Man.” While Brice's story was later immortalized posthumously in Funny Girl (1968) starring Barbara Streisand, the then very alive Fanny Brice did not approve of Rose of Washington Square and fought it. She sued Twentieth Century-Fox, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Al Jolson for a total of $750,000 for “defamation of character, unauthorized use of her life story, and invasion of privacy” (Elder 120). An out of court settlement eventually awarded Brice a fraction of this amount, estimated to be between $30,000 and $40,000.
It’s love at first sight for the Power and Faye characters in Rose of Washington Square, but after a con goes awry Power’s Bart flees the same night that they met, too ashamed to even tell Faye's Rose that he's going. A chance encounter at a speakeasy reunites them and Bart soon puts himself in charge of Rose’s career after she makes a success. Jolson's Ted Cotter remains protective of Rose throughout, even landing a (phantom) punch on Bart's jaw when they first meet, but the attraction is just too much for Rose to overcome. I enjoy the Jolson tunes but really thought he distracted from what could have been another strong Power-Faye outing. That being so, I got a little extra kick out of the fact that Hobart Cavanagh stole every scene from Jolson that didn't call for the legend to sing. Gregory Ratoff directed this one leaving me to wonder, what if Henry King had been around?
All three of the Power and Faye movies typify the type of product being created under the Darryl F. Zanuck regime at Twentieth Century-Fox at that time: Nostalgia pieces set in a past we know never truly existed, but safely set in the world that Zanuck wished to recall from his Midwestern youth, a world that struck just the right chord with an audience of largely the same background. In his highly recommended Zanuck biography, Twentieth Century’s Fox, author George F. Custen points out that “California and the far west accounted for 90 percent of Fox’s theaters” (224), and so much of their audience shared similar roots to Zanuck himself. Custen writes, “Zanuck’s America was one poised at the moment before the arrival and dominance of Tin Pan Alley, an institution whose songs gave voice to new populations oddly absent in these films” (203). Not so odd for those of us familiar with movies of this era; the closest Zanuck's Tin Pan Alley comes to hosting anybody of color is Jolson in blackface, which might at least imply the existence of influences we aren't shown if we knew it wasn't just Jolson commemorating his own career.
Beyond the music and selective nostalgia what makes each of these three movies classics is the wonderful chemistry between Tyrone Power and Alice Faye. It falters a little at the end of the first film, In Old Chicago, when Faye seems almost invisible to Power’s Dion while he gives all of his attention to his mother after discovering the two women amongst the turmoil, but it is at its peak in Alexander’s Ragtime Band. In that movie it becomes readily apparent that either you or I have as much of a chance at sustained happiness with Alice Faye as Don Ameche's poor Charlie does.
Despite how natural they seem together, Alice Faye always insisted that there was never any off-screen romance between her and Power. At the outset Power seemed to have been interested, but Tony Martin won Faye's hand and the two were married in September 1937. By the time of their final movie together, Rose of Washington Square, Power was totally enamored of Annabella, who he'd marry in April 1939. Neither of those first marriages took for our stars and Power eventually remarried twice while Faye was happily married to Phil Harris for 54 years.
While the screen belongs to Faye whenever she begins to sing, Power’s more skilled acting talent emerges in their scenes together. His characters often seem to have an urge driving them towards success or money, never allowing him to fully invest himself towards the pursuit of love. The viewer fears a little for Faye’s characters because Power is always a little dark or even outright deceitful. Being so youthful in these roles Power can also pull off a sulkiness that is just familiar enough for us not to abandon his characters, even if Faye has a safer bet nearby, usually Don Ameche.
Power and Faye were two very different stars whose talent emerged in very different ways. Power was born for Hollywood with multiple generations of actors preceding him, while Faye was a chorus girl with George White’s Scandals who found her greatest pre-screen fame on the radio with Rudy Vallee. Power could do much more on the screen than Faye could, but Faye could make you forget about that just by singing a song, upbeat or with a tear in her eye. Don't get me wrong, Faye was very good at doing what she was called upon to do, but that is described best by Power biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles, who wrote: “She was given a variety of young women to play ... and she turned them all into demure, appealing, and, quite often, smiling Alice Fayes” (28).
Despite the differences Tyrone Power and Alice Faye were each stars of the greatest magnitude who really began to distinguish themselves when alongside each other in the earliest of these films. Faye mostly left the movies after 1945, while Power continued to work through until his death during filming of Solomon and Sheba in 1958 at age 44. Alice Faye died in 1998, a few days after her 83rd birthday.
Each of the three movies starring Tyrone Power and Alice Faye have been available on DVD for some time. Both In Old Chicago and Alexander's Ragtime Band are 20th Century Fox Studio Classics releases, while Rose of Washington Square is part of the Alice Faye Collection Volume 2.
This post was written for the May 5, 2014 Power-Mad Blogathon celebrating one hundred years since the birth of Tyrone Power. Power-Mad is co-hosted by The Lady Eve’s Reel Life and the They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To.
- Custen, George F. Twentieth Century's Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck And The Culture Of Hollywood. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
- Elder, Jane Lenz. Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
- Guiles, Fred Lawrence. Tyrone Power: The Last Idol. New York: Berkley Books, 1980.