Monday, August 20, 2018

Fanny Brice: Brains and Talent

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach, pictured in 1928. (Photo: Getty Archives)

In William Wyler’s 1968 Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand gives one of the two or three greatest musical-comedy performances ever put on film as Fanny Brice, the Brooklyn burlesque comic who became a Broadway star when Florenz Ziegfeld tapped her to appear in his Follies in 1910. But Streisand’s is a reimagined Brice – more crafted, funny in a more modern mode, and more of a camera creation (even though Streisand had originated the role on stage and this was only her first picture). The real Fanny Brice, who can be glimpsed in only a handful of movies – Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with her, so when she retired from the stage in the 1930s she wound up on radio, where she played Baby Snooks for years – and heard in a couple of dozen recordings. (Jasmine Records has collected them all, including a couple of Baby Snooks routines, on Fanny Brice: The Rose of Washington Square. The song “Rose of Washington Square,” which she performed in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic in 1920, is not, alas, among them.)

It’s strange that her movie career was scuttled so early, since she seems to have been the first woman to star in a talking film – 1928’s My Man, a musical melodrama named after her most famous tune, which she’d sung in the 1921 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. And – unlike many stage performers grabbed up in the early days of talkies, when the studios were desperate for “voice actors,” then quickly discarded when they turned out to be awkward (or perhaps merely badly used) in front of a camera – Brice went on to make a second musical, a little (66-minute) charmer called Be Yourself!, in 1930. My guess is that it was a case of bad timing. So many of those early musicals were stinkers that in 1931 and 1932 Hollywood virtually stopped making them because audiences wouldn’t show up for them. (Moviehouse managers took to plastering disclaimers across their billboards promising that this week’s offering was not a musical.) Astaire and Rogers and Busby Berkeley resurrected the movie musical in 1933, but by that time the movies had pretty much lost interest in Brice. You can catch her as herself in the fifteen-minute section of the bio The Great Ziegfeld (1936) that deals with Ziegfeld’s discovering her at Keeney’s Burlesque and, working against his trademark of glorifying the American girl, putting her in a second-hand dress and a shawl to sing “My Man.” (Funny Girl dramatizes it quite differently: it’s Streisand’s Fanny who undermines Walter Pidgeon’s Ziegfeld when he tries to feature her in an extravagant show number.) Brice is the best thing in this long, dull (Oscar-winning) picture, even though the director, Robert Z. Leonard, stupidly cuts away from two of her three songs, including “My Man.” In Everybody Sing (1938) she plays a maid for an unhinged theatrical family who winds up in a Broadway revue along with the younger daughter, Judy Garland. And in the movie revue Ziegfeld Follies of 1946 she performs a sketch with Hume Cronyn and William Frawley called “The Sweepstakes Ticket.” That’s it as far as her movie output goes. My Man is a lost film (reportedly a couple of the reels have been found), though the entire soundtrack has survived. That’s less exciting than it sounds, since it was only a part-talkie and most of the dramatic scenes were silent, but there’s an extended dialogue between her and her leading man, Guinn Williams, that gives you a sense of how she played a dramatic part. Plus you can hear two versions of “My Man,” one played at a clip and one that’s slowed way down, with an extra verse that isn’t in the popular recording she did after she interpolated the ballad into the Follies.

Brice pictured with her children.
Brice has a great clown’s face: it can look blurry or sharp-etched, broken into disparate pieces, and when she does a double take she drops her lips and widens her eyes so they’re nearly white and her mouth, gaping in amazement, is like a bottomless well. More often she appears skeptical, wised-up, a look befitting the daughter of two Brooklyn saloon keepers, which is what she was. In real life she was a smart, pragmatic woman who had tremendous skill at managing her career (it carried on without interruption for four decades, until her death in 1951), and she conveys that quality on screen. Her comic specialty – at least until she took on the persona of the superannuated nursery darling Baby Snooks – was Yiddish dialect humor, and she was brilliant at it, though in fact she herself spoke no Yiddish. It’s what she does in Everybody Sing (where she plays a Russian émigré) and “The Sweepstakes Ticket,” in the classic recording of the sketch “Mrs. Cohen at the Beach,” about a lower-middle-class Jewish family spending a day at the seashore, in “Yiddle with a Fiddle” in The Great Ziegfeld and in many of her recordings, most famously “Second Hand Rose.” These novelty numbers were mostly premised on the ironic tension between the immigrant-Jewish working-class reality of the singer (or subject) and either the outré circumstances in which she finds herself or the grandiosity of her ambitions, which, of course, the dialect comedy punctures. An example of the first is “I’m an Indian,” in which the singer bemoans the fate of her poor parents, who have to adjust to the idea that “their little Rosie Rosenstein is a terrible Indian now.” There are many examples of the second, such as “Becky Is Back in the Ballet” – Brice pronounces it “bally,” as in “ballyhoo” – and “It’s Gorgeous to Be Graceful” from Be Yourself! and “Quainty, Dainty Me” from Everybody Sing, a period number in which she wears a Queen Anne gown and sends up the trilling of operetta sopranos. (Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote this silly-funny song, in which she proclaims, “I’m delicate and fragile like a crystal chandelier” and “I even blush when I undress myself.”)

The un-accented songs tend to be ballads, with a couple of distinguished exceptions: the sly, flirtatious "I'd Rather Be Blue" (which, along with "My Man" and "Second Hand Rose," Streisand recreated in Funny Girl) and the distinctly Depression-era “If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain).” Both were written for her by Fred Fisher and her second husband, Billy Rose, who became a celebrated producer. More typically, they’re torch songs – “When a Woman Loves a Man,” the much-covered standard “Melancholy Baby,” and of course “My Man.” Actually we get “When a Woman Loves a Man” twice in Be Yourself, both at the nightclub where her character, Fannie Field, is a regular vocalist. (Brice, who was born Fania Borach, adopted Fannie as a stage name and later changed the “ie” to a “y.” The characters she plays in My Man and Be Yourself! are both named Fannie, with the original spelling.) First she sings it with a deli-platter assortment of low-rent showgirls, and it’s up-tempo and sashaying; the second rendition, after Fannie has temporarily lost her boxer lover (the likable Robert Armstrong) to an opportunistic tramp, Lil (Gertrude Astor), is downbeat, and she delivers it with a handkerchief pressed to her breast, leaning back against a pillar, as if she didn’t have the strength to stand on her own two feet. When she finishes her gaze is wavering and restless and she barely seems conscious of the club audience. (It’s a stunning performance.) The effect is similar to the difference between the two versions of “My Man” on the soundtrack of the film of the same name. This song was translated from a French ballad in the antiquated Apache style of masochistic tales of anguish given voice by women who won’t give up on their men, even though they treat them with a mixture of indifference and brutality. Such songs would raise a storm of protest these days, when we seem to be incapable of watching or listening to anything that belongs to another time and reflects an outdated mindset without editorializing about it; but if you can hear Brice’s reading of the lyrics without looking down on the singer, it’s tremendously affecting.

My favorite of her ballads, though, is the most unusual one, and it’s not well known. “The Song of the Sewing Machine” is sung by a young Jewish woman who traveled from Europe in search of freedom in America and instead finds herself chained to a sewing machine. Its “song” drowns out everything else: the sun and the moon, nature, romance, time itself, even the world beyond this one (“God is just another word / If you listen to the song of the sewing machine”). It’s a proletarian protest song for the early twentieth century, for the epoch of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Brice’s recording, performed with little vocal embroidery besides a trace of tremolo, is achingly sad but strikingly without toughness or bitterness; it has a stunning purity.

The idea of Funny Girl is that Fanny is condescended to by her mother’s poker-playing pals and initially dismissed by the burlesque-house manager Keeney for not being conventionally pretty enough to be a showgirl, but she proves that, as the script has it, she’s merely an underappreciated bagel on a plate of onion rolls – that is, she’s got talent that deserves a showcase. (As the critic Pauline Kael puts it, the movie proves that talent is beauty.) By contrast, in Be Yourself! no one disparages Fannie’s looks: when she sings at the club, the reigning fighter Mac (G. Pat Collins) and Armstrong’s Jerry Moore, who aspires to be champ, vie for her attention. Photographs of Brice show an exotic near-beauty with deep, tragic eyes (often accentuated by mascara), wearing beautiful dresses from the teens and twenties with gravitas. In one amazing picture, she holds her two children (by her first husband, Nick Arnstein, a convicted swindler) tightly to her, as if facing off the world. This is a side of her that Be Yourself! doesn’t capture – but it captures a lot of her. It gets the clowning side (in “It’s Gorgeous to Be Graceful,” “Is There Something the Matter with Otto Kahn?” and the marvelous half-love song, half-novelty number “Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love”) and the torchy side, but also the canny, practical, street-wise side – the tough-dame side. Fannie Field manages Jerry and coaches him, turning him into a successful prizefighter; then, when he deserts her for Lil, she’s clever enough to hatch a scheme to get him back. Brice should have been a movie star as well as a star of Broadway and radio. Fortunately you can watch Be Yourself! and see what Hollywood missed – and you can listen to her recordings to hear what everyone in America went crazy for.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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