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Monday, January 25, 2021

Of Old Times and Past Personalities


Lillian Russell From Footlight To Spotlight

20th Fox getting musical start on Gay 90's nostalgia that would last over a decade. 90’s was when a lot of music still popular in 1940 had its start, not unlike us enjoying rock and roll/pop minted through the 50/60's. Difference was modes of dress and transport old-timey to ‘40 viewership, autos/air travel having come since a turn of the century and fashions taking radical new direction, thus memory stroll past endearing strangeness of still recalled times (equivalent to our sentiment for the 70’s?). Hollywood found comfort in presenting a nineteenth cent celeb however way they pleased, there being little film and fewer artifacts to show what these folks truly looked/acted like. So it was free interp on Lillian Russell, and if she wasn't a lot like Alice Faye, then go fish, for Fox was serving need of Faye's fanbase, not what remained of Russell's, them too old in any case to be of consequence.

The real Lillian Russell looks portly from stills, but how so? Weight was said to reach 160 later in the forty-year career, Lillian liking to eat --- in fact, she had chow contests with “Diamond Jim” Brady, the two stuffing selves amidst elegant diners of the day, to feast hearty no source of shame. Ace showman Charles Frohman would order stacks of fresh pie to see him through busy Broadway afternoons, then head to Delmonico’s for whatever more dessert waited on him. Bigger-than-life Frohman, rounder than he was tall, did everything in a large way. If men fed like starved horses, why not women, specifically Lillian, who to the movie’s credit, longs for corn on the cob and how much she puts away in a sitting. The 90’s were gay for plentiful reason. Another way they got the movie right, Alice Faye and her inspiration Lillian being somewhat zaftig, early-on plus for Faye as it had been for Russell. There was not impression that Alice went hungry for cameras. She was, in fact, a best casting for Lillian Russell Fox could have found.

They Could Be Twins! The Real Diamond Jim Brady, and Edward Arnold, Who Played Him

Recordings suggest Russell did not sing so hot, but did have what they called "something," unfair for us to judge by then-voice capture itself primitive and bare hint of what audiences heard. There was gulf of difference between seeing Lillian Russell and just hearing her, visual stimulus an essential where she was concerned. Others were as fragile, Al Jolson notable instance of needing to be there and watch him live and strutting. Moderns deal a same cold hand to both, as in what’s so great about either? Russell tended her own field, attracted powerful men, and harvested diamonds they would garland flower arrangements with. She was into physical culture, so Diamond Jim gifted a jewel encrusted bicycle for Sunday outings. Such was extravagance that, late as the mid-50’s, Marilyn Monroe, at left, recreated the sport stance to evoke Russell in flower. Lillian and Jim’s was a tie-up of convenience, publicity helpful to both for their association, though it’s said Jim offered Lil two million to marry him (more I think about it, had Faye not been available and preferred, Mae West would have been aces as Russell). The movie casts Edward Arnold for a Brady encore, his having done the role first in 1935, Arnold and the real Jim alarmingly similar when you look at old photos. Fictive Brady weeps with his back to the camera after Alice/Lillian passes on his proposal, nice sentiment even if actual Brady never took the turndown as hard (in fact, he had a dozen of the bikes custom-built for a number of pals). So where are the wheels today that he gave Russell? Inquiry says UC Davis, their having bought a warehouse of vintage bicycles from a lifelong collector. What would it be like to spend your span gathering these, says I, as bicycle folk wonder why I do what I do. Each to his own.

We can't know what frisson existed between stage luminaries and their public. Writings handed down might evoke the spell, but not recreate it beyond descriptive word. Still and all, Lillian Russell was filled with living links to past stage and vaudeville tradition, both in front of, and behind, cameras. Director Irving Cummings had played opposite real-life Lillian in her final play, In Search Of A Sinner, and had been introduced to his wife by Diamond Jim Brady. There was supporting player Joseph Cawthorn, a performing colleague to Russell, with Leo Carrillo, another vaude vet, as Tony Pastor. Eddie Foy, Jr. is also in Lillian Russell to recreate one of his father's stage turns. The real Russell was there from variety’s start with Pastor, committed to mature vaudeville by 1905, entered folklore by 1915, did but one movie the same annum (a clip on You Tube, maybe all that exists, her seated in a chair as Lionel Barrymore gesticulates). Lillian appeared too for Kinemacolor cameras, also on YT, an adjunct for her speaking tour called “How To Live 100 Years.” She’d try making good on the notion, was around till 1922 and age 61 exit. What an era to come up in, born 1860 (did her kindergarten celebrate Appomattox?), then being vital to all of modern show biz that followed. Russell would embroider her life for articles in Cosmopolitan near the end. As with many entertainers who wrote, why worry what’s true, so long as it engages? Hers does. Oddly enough, the columns were never gathered for a book, though one installment at least (her beginnings) turns up in acting and vaudeville histories.

Most remarkable of guests appearing in Lillian Russell was Weber and Fields, the joy-boys celebrating sixty-five years at show performing, having been teamed at comedy since they were kids. Fascinating here was the duo staging time-honored routine in a same year latter-day Weber and Fields in the person of Abbott and Costello were making their first splash in movies. Lillian Russell simply stops for W&F's extended turn, the two playing "themselves" in a backstage card game. Six decades had not dulled their timing (but how can we tell?, not having access to Weber-Field perfs from a half-century before), and it's nice to see clowns of such vintage come off effectively. Fox knew there was something special in the reunion, and would not hurry it along. In fact, a delighted Darryl Zanuck had the routine expanded after eyeball at rushes, letting Weber/Fields foolery run to triple the intended length. Critics would say theirs was highlight contribution to Lillian Russell.

Let's Have a Beauty Contest --- Lillian Russell at Left, or Evelyn Nesbit at Right? 

Fox publicized its year-long nationwide search for photos of Lillian Russell. 800 images were turned up. For all I know, that remains what survives today, or could it be even less these eighty-one years after Lillian Russell was made? Such info raises this question too: What becomes of content from a studio's research department? Were those files eventually junked, sold, or what? I'd like to think Fox's research is still extant on the lot, but am not optimistic. Certainly the prep they did for Lillian Russell represented a most extensive inquiry on the woman's life and career up to that time, Fox having far more resource and initiative than any historian before or since. Might those 800 photos of Lillian Russell still be in file cabinets? Further burning inquiry: Was she a most beautiful woman that lived? Yet again … matter of taste, and it depends on what stage of her life portraits were taken (pre or post-corns on the cob). I’m fascinated by really old images thought gorgeous then that still are, or not, today, Russell OK so long as you don’t put her beside Evelyn Nesbit, a for-instance contemporary. So whose vintage beauty, these or others of the period, translate best to today?

Fox went junket route for a dual Lillian Russell premiere, one at their subject's hometown, Clinton, Iowa, the other in Pittsburgh, PA, Russell's last residence. Trains were loaded with stars who'd attend as part of contract duty, such cross-country trips being footloose op to live high off the studio's expense account, empty every bottle in dining compartments, and play musical berths for 3000 miles. The device was good for free publicity at every stop, had raised awareness for Dodge City, Union Pacific, others that opened similarly. Lillian Russell was expensive to make, $1.4 million negative cost, at a time when spending seven figures was far from norm. A lot of critics recalled the real Lillian Russell, some in rose-hue terms, thus pans here/there for Alice Faye's impersonation. The picture ran to what some called an unconscionable 127 minutes, and lost money ($213K). It is fanciful telling of turn-of-century theatre and vaudeville, but for just attempting the vast job, Lillian Russell deserves credit and is a fascinating watch. Alice Faye enjoyed much residual benefit, reprising Russell often for live and TV appearances. It was as if the identities merged in 1940 and stayed that way. An outstanding sample is at You Tube, Faye doing lavish medley of Lillian for a 1968 vid appearance. Lillian Russell is on DVD from Fox, with a nice bio extra on real-life LR. There is also rental or purchase streaming from You Tube in HD.

Where would we be without LANTERN? --- the finest research/history resource movies ever had. Thanks again and again for all this remarkable team has done. 


Blogger James Abbott said...

One of the great losses to American movies is when Alice Faye just (more-or-less) walked away from them. She was incandescent, and made everything she was in better.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Ms. Faye left movies (slowly...and in multiple steps) to join her husband Phil Harris on radio, where they thrived. I don't know if it's original to him, but I've always loved Harris's line, "If I'd known I was going to live so long, I'd have taken better care of myself."

3:23 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Interesting marital note: Alice Faye and Tony Martin were married, briefly. It was evidently a two-sided learning experience as each of them went onto famously long-lasting relationships (Tony with Cyd Charisse).

5:57 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

A story I've read is that Phil Harris was dating Alice Faye without knowing her romantic past. So when Harris innocently asked his pal Tony Martin, "Have you met Alice?", he replied, "Met her? I MARRIED her!" If it's true, I'd like to have seen Phil's reaction.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

One of the most interesting aspects of THE PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE SILENT SCREEN was the physical appearance of the early stars. None of the idealized "beauty" of the later silent period and sound films up till now. People were probably a lot more comfortable in themselves than most now are caught up in the vain attempt to be what they can not and should not be. Truly charismatic people don't look like film stars or the models in advertising. . That said, Alice Faye is fine by me. "If I'd known I was going to live so long, I'd have taken better care of myself," is probably true of all of us. But then we would not have had as much fun.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I had the privilege to talk with Alice Faye on the phone a few times in the 1980s. One takeaway I'll never forget is when I asked what she thought of Al Jolson, her co-star in ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE (1939). Her succinct reply? "I didn't like him!"

5:06 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Fox wanted Laurel and Hardy to do supporting roles, one assumes as "old-time" vaudevillians in nostalgic musicals, after their B film series ended, but of course Stan had had enough of Fox.

5:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers changing standards of beauty as applied to past actresses of the stage:

I've seen photographs of Lily Langtry suggesting that Judge Roy Bean’s obsession with her was not entirely misplaced. At that, however, her beauty was of a sort that was very much in fashion then and probably not so much now, with a full, rounded figure, round cheeks, and a luxuriant mass of hair. In “trouser” roles, portraying a young boy in some farce or operetta set in the 18th century, that womanly figure would have been charmingly displayed in tight breeches and stockings. I understand that Judge Bean never cast his eyes upon her, but had to be content with carte de visits, posters, and post cards.

The beauty of Evelyn Nesbit, on the other hand, is of a sort that will never go out of fashion. The doe-like eyes, piquant mouth, and delicately emphatic figure would be as celebrated today as then. That she was the nexus of a romantic triangle in which the celebrated architect, Sanford White, was shot dead by her husband, Harry Thaw, is entirely understandable. Men do not possess beauty so much as they are possessed by it, even more so when the object of their admiration is one such as her.

I confess that I am rather intrigued by another contemporary of theirs, Maude Adams, who found lasting fame as the first actress to portray James Barrie’s boy who would never grow up, Peter Pan. She was an elfin creature, slight of figure, with limpid eyes and a delicate profile. There is often an air of melancholy in photographs of her, which one should have wanted to have dispelled. Whether such attention would have been welcome, however, is a question, given her romantic predilection towards her own sex.

Recently I acquired two postcards featuring the Metropolitan Opera soprano, Geraldine Farrar, who I find most attractive, with her large eyes and strong, aristocratic features. Evidently, the men of her time did as well, since it was said that she could have any one of them whom she chose. The one she wanted, however, was the great maestro, Arturo Toscanini. At the height of their affair, she demanded that he leave his wife and children and marry her. In response, he abruptly resigned as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, though fortunately for music, his career flourished in other venues. She did marry the actor, Lou Tellegen, who proved to be a serial philanderer. Years later, long after the embers of passion had cooled to an ash, she was informed of his death by suicide. “What is that to me?” she responded. No doubt that diva's temperament provided its own consolation.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I read somewhere that Lou Tellegen wrote a candid memoir titled Women Have Been Kind. Otherwise known around Hollywood as Kiss and Tellegen.

6:49 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Fascinating portrait of Evelyn Nesbit. She looks so contemporary, as if she could be in a film with any of today's young actresses!

9:38 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

When reflecting upon the beauties who graced yesteryear's stages, and their relation to those gracing the screens of today, it might be worthwhile to recall that the camera has always had a mind of its own; and that some of them - though always cutting fair figures whilst bounding the boards - might not have passed a screen test.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

"Come Down Ma Evenin' Star", sung by Lillian Russell, as recorded in 1912 - listen to it here:

"This was the signature song of the famed "Queen of Comic Opera" star Lillian Russell, and it is her only known recording, done privately in 1912 and re-recorded onto a private label 78 RPM in 1943" (quote taken from comment by Mississippi King on webpage linked above).

Speaking for myself, I could take it or leave it. The tuba was nice, I guess.

8:45 PM  

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