Classic Hollywood: Alice Faye – ’40s Musical Queen of 20th Century Fox

Alice Faye
Ken Murray and Alice Faye in ‘You’re a Sweetheart’

Until Betty Grable came along, Alice Faye was the singing sensation of 20th Century Fox musicals. Grable, of course, was more known for her legs and dancing, rather than her singing. Faye was the one who could take a romantic tune and make you swoon.

Faye was a New York girl, having been born there May 5, 1915. Nobody else in the family was in show business, but little Alice (born Alice Jeane Leppert) gravitated toward the stage and performing. Lying about her age, she got a job in the chorus of a vaudeville troupe at age 13. She remained hoofing in the chorus line for several years until she was cast in George White’s Scandals on Broadway in 1931.

In the cast were Broadway legend Ethel Merman, dancer Ray Bolger (Wizard of Oz), and crooner Rudy Vallee. After hearing Faye sing, Vallee put her on his popular radio show from 1932 to 1934 where she became well-known.

When Fox bought the show for a film to be called George White’s Scandals of 1934, the entire cast was brought out to Hollywood. Faye was only to have a specialty song in the film. When film actress Lilian Harvey was to be the star of the film, she played diva and walked off the set, leaving the part open. Vallee insisted Faye play his leading lady, and Faye walked right into the star part.

Mogul Darryl Zanuck was head of his own company at the time, 20th Century Pictures. When he decided to merge with Fox Films in 1935, he immediately offered Faye a long-term contract at the studio. During the Depression, hard-boiled girls were all the rage on screen. Faye did a few potboilers in which she was more like a gun moll than a singer. Zanuck realized that Faye had other qualities and soon began giving her the best lighting, costumes, and softer make-up and hairstyles.

Her new image clicked with audiences. She was thrust into Poor Little Rich Girl in 1936 with Shirley Temple, the moppet star who was the studio’s top money-maker. The film Stowaway followed that same year and made Faye popular with family audiences. Her song “When Did You Leave Heaven?” was honored with an Oscar nomination from the film Sing, Baby, Sing in 1936.

Tyrone Power, at 25, was one of the most beautiful men in Hollywood (along with Robert Taylor, age 27). He was well-mannered, charming, and a gorgeous male specimen. Women fell over in a dead faint when they saw him. He was not well known in 1938, but Faye asked he be tested for her leading man for In Old Chicago. He got a double whammy—as did Faye’s career—when cast also in Alexander’s Ragtime Band with co-star Don Ameche. Featuring Irving Berlin songs, it was the most successful musical film of that decade. It made stars of both Faye and Power.

In 1937, Alice Faye met and married film, recording and radio singer Tony Martin. Their marriage lasted until 1940. He went on to marry MGM dancing star Cyd Charisse. Faye then met comic singer Phil Harris and married him in 1941.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

In the meantime, Fox cast her in one musical hit after another. Also in 1938 she played in the rousing Irving Berlin song-fest Alexander’s Ragtime Band with Ethel Merman, Jack Haley (Tin Man in Wizard of Oz), Don Ameche, and Tyrone Power. By 1939 she was on the top 10 lists as a big box-office star. That same year she thrilled audiences again with Rose of Washington Square, co-starring with leading man Tyrone Power and singer Al Jolson.

The musical biography of Lillian Russell was filmed in 1940 and co-starred Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, and Lynn Bari. When Faye refused to star in Down Argentine Way, the studio gave a chance to newcomer Betty Grable. This started Grable’s meteoric rise in stardom during World War II and served as the kick-off point of Faye’s decline. However, the two stars did film another musical that year called Tin Pan Alley with John Payne and the dancing Nicholas Brothers.

Week-End in Havana came out in 1941 and was shot in dazzling Technicolor. The color film showed Faye off to advantage and certainly showcased Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda’s tutti-frutti hats and costumes to startled audiences. The fun-filled musical That Night in Rio (1941) gave Fox another chance to have Faye hilariously deal with Carmen Miranda’s slaughtering of the English language. S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall added to the hilarity. Faye played a Brazilian aristocrat with an American accent!

She and Harris wanted to start a family. Faye gave birth to her daughter, which took her away from 20th Century Fox soundstages for more than a year. She returned with a bang in the smash musical Hello, Frisco, Hello in 1943. Her song “You’ll Never Know” became her trademark tune and won the Oscar for Best Song of 1943. Faye remained as one of the top 10 box office stars. Fox made a bundle on the picture as it was one of its highest grossing movies during WWII.

When Faye signed a new contract with Fox, she was expecting to diversify her roles and play in some dramatic parts in addition to musical roles. She was cast in the drama Fallen Angel directed by Otto Preminger in 1945. Her leading man was Dana Andrews and in the cast was newcomer Linda Darnell, a protege of Darryl Zanuck’s. In order to build up Darnell’s screen time, Zanuck hacked out many of Faye’s best scenes and gave Darnell more footage. (She later did become a star in Forever Amber and Letter to Three Wives). Faye had had enough and literally walked off the Fox lot and never returned. True or not? It has become Hollywood legend. She was more interested in raising her family.

She and Phil Harris continued as stars, only this time on radio and not in films. Harris had a running role on comic Jack Benny’s show from 1936 to 1952. However, by 1948 they began the ‘Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show,’ a top 10 program that ran until 1954.

Faye did not miss making films, but she kept her toes in show business. She starred in the Broadway show Good News with film star John Payne and comic foil Stubby Kaye. She remained active before the cameras doing successful commercials. The Harris’ retired to Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs and had a full life until Harris’ death in 1995. Their marriage had lasted 54 years.

Alice Faye lived on in her desert home until May 9, 1998 when she died of stomach cancer at age 83. Faye remains popular with fans all over the world because her films are shown regularly on television.