From Hell’s Kitchen to Hollywood, it’s a tale straight out of a corny movie musical, but it’s the story of Alice Faye’s life. And it even has a happy ending.
Alice Jean Leppert was born in 1915 in one of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods. Her father was policeman. Right from childhood, Alice wanted success, wanted a better life. She had drive and guts enough to quit school at age 13 and start to seek her fortune. She auditioned for the Ziegfeld Follies and because she looked mature for her age, was hired as a showgirl then immediately fired when her real age was revealed. That didn’t stop her for long. She took singing lesson, (though she never learned to read music), changed her last name and toured as a dancer with a vaudeville troop. Three years later she tried Broadway again and won a place in “George White’s Scandals,” a popular review. When Hollywood decided to make a film version of the show, Alice went to the West Coast with it.
A situation straight out of the movies turned Alice Faye into a star overnight. Lilian Harvey, the actress who was to play the lead in the movie opposite crooner Rudy Vallee, walked out and Alice Faye, age 18 and without movie experience, was cast. 20th Century Fox put the new young star under contract and rushed her into some forgettable movies in which she virtually unrecognizable. Platinum hair, plucked and penciled eyebrows, bee-stung lips, Alice looked like Jean Harlow, the reigning beauty of the day. She was cast as a tough, showgirl type but her real, warm personality kept peeking through. She was upstaged by tiny tyke Shirley Temple in two films but in the second one, the studio changed her image and the real Alice Faye began to emerge, soft and natural looking. Jean Harlow’s untimely death resulted in Alice being cast in one of her biggest hits. She replaced the late platinum blond in a fictional account of the O’Leary family, owners of the cow who started the great fire featured in“In Old Chicago.” Tyrone Power was her leading man. Their chemistry was such that they co-starred again in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” one of the all time great musical films.
“On the Avenue” was a musical featuring songs by famed composer Irving Berlin. He said that he’d rather have Alice Faye introduce a song than any other singer. High praise indeed! Her voice, a honey-coated, throaty contralto, was distinctive and her on-screen emoting (especially in lip-trembling close-ups), assured that any song she performed would be on the hit parade. “You’ll Never Know” is her most popular tune.
Although she wasn’t conventionally beautiful, Alice Faye’s girl-next-door image, those big blue eyes and golden curls, made her seem wholesome and natural. When the studio started to photograph her in color, the effect was sensational. The fact that her career kicked-into high gear as World War II began can perhaps be attributed to the fact that audiences wanted stars who were more accessible, more like the girls left on the homefront.
“Lillian Russell,” a screen-bio of the great turn-of-the-century star, had Alice in the demanding title role. The period costumes suited her hourglass figure, but she looked equally fetching in the broad-shouldered look of her contemporary films. “Tin Pan Alley,” “That Night in Rio,” “Weekend in Havana,” “Hello, Frisco, Hello” and “The Gang’s All Here,” (with giddy kitsch production numbers by Busby Berkeley) feature Alice Faye at the very peak of popularity. However, the star felt she needed a change from frothy musicals and the studio assigned her a dramatic role in “Fallen Angel,” a film noir mystery. Alice’s role was mutilated in the cutting room and she was so discouraged that after a screening, she simply left the studio, not even returning to her dressing room. Although she was sued for breach of contract, she did not return for many years!
No longer a movie star, Alice Faye devoted herself to her two daughters by her second husband, orchestra leader Phil Harris. They had wed in 1941 and lived happily ever after until Harris’ death in 1995. (Her first marriage to singer Tony Martin was a short-lived failure.) She and Harris became a popular comedy team on a radio show that aired from 1948 to 1954.
Venturing out of retirement only briefly, she made infrequent guest appearances on tv shows and was featured in the 1962 version of “State Fair” as Pat Boone’s mother. She also returned to Broadway after 43 years to dance and sing in a revival of “Good News.”
Alice Faye died in 1998 but echoes of her warm voice caressing a sentimental song linger on and on.