In order to secure the part of Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath," Henry Fonda had to sign a long-term contract with Fox. Except for "The Ox-Bow Incident," Fonda disliked these other films he was forced to do, none more than "Lillian Russell." See more »
Darryl Zanuck had high hopes for Lillian Russell, biographical picture of the turn of the last century stage star who was an American icon in the gaslight era. Even to hiring Irving Cummings as director. Cummings was a former stage actor who knew the great Ms. Russell back in her day. Alice Faye says he was of enormous help in capturing her character.
Unfortunately the film is not helped by a ponderous script that loses the character of Lillian Russell by trying to cram too much in. Though the main men in her life are dealt with, a lot of facts were taken liberty with including a couple of husbands that were dropped.
In her time Lillian was the most admired woman in America. She was a hefty woman in an era when that was the taste. Talk about full figured gal, take a look at a picture of Lillian if you can find one on the web. Jane Russell had absolutely nothing on her, in fact that is the only department where Alice Faye is deficient in her role.
Of course when Alice Faye sings that's when the film is really something to watch. Starting with In Old Chicago, Darryl Zanuck had the inspiration of casting her in these period costume dramas whereas previously Alice had been Fox's answer to MGM's Jean Harlow. These became her best work and most loved by her legion of fans.
Some new songs were brought in with some old standards. Alice's best moment is singing After The Ball twice during the film, a song very much identified with Lillian Russell. She also sings Come Down Ma' Evening Star which was the only song that Lillian Russell made an early gramophone recording of.
Henry Fonda hated the film. Hated it because he was lost in a whole crowd of male admirers of Faye that also included Don Ameche, Warren William, Leo Carrillo, Nigel Bruce. Fonda and Ameche played two of her husbands that didn't get left out of the script. Warren William was millionaire/gambler Jesse Lewisohn, Leo Carrillo was the fabled 19th century theatrical impresario Tony Pastor where Russell got her start, Nigel Bruce was W.S. Gilbert with whom Russell had a most unsatisfactory relationship when she went to star in one of the Gilbert&Sullivan operettas. And Edward Arnold who was born to play the role of Diamond Jim Brady and who had made it his own in a biographical film a few years ago, does the role again. I do believe Zanuck would not have done the film if he couldn't have gotten him.
Fonda in his memoirs felt he would get really top drawer parts after The Grapes of Wrath which he signed a studio contract with 20th Century Fox to get. Lillian Russell was not his idea of an upwardly mobile direction for his career. Though he did say he had nothing but good memories of working with Alice Faye.
Besides Russell and her men the film has Eddie Foy, Jr. once again playing his famous father and you have a once in a lifetime chance to see Weber&Fields probably the greatest vaudeville comics of their time doing one of their routines. If Lillian Russell has no other value, it's great that their art was captured on film for future generations.
So while the story leaves a lot to be desired, Lillian Russell is a great tribute to a star and her era as portrayed by another great star of another era, Alice Faye.
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