Old Time Radio’s Most Glamorous Blonde, Alice Faye

One thing Hollywood never had a shortage of, it was beautiful young blonds. The studio system was more than happy to take advantage of this fact, which often did not work out well for the girls. One of our favorite blonds managed to find success, if not strictly on her own terms, at least not on the terms dictated to her by the studio system.

She was born Alice Jean Leppert to a German cop and his Irish wife in New York City’s Hells Kitchen, 1915. As soon as she knew what Broadway was, she knew she wanted to be a Star. She got her start with a kiddie vaudeville act but soon found time to make the rounds of Broadway producer’s offices. She nearly got hired several times, until they found out how young she was. She finally got hired for the chorus of the 1931 edition of George White’s Scandals after telling the producer she was eighteen and taking the stage name Alice Faye.

Because it was Broadway, Scandals was a step up from vaudeville, but the revue was very similar to what was featured in smaller houses around the country. White did hire stars like comics Willie and Eugene Howard, Metropolitan opera star Everett Marshall, and up-and-coming radio crooner Rudy Vallee. Having a keen eye for female talent, both professional and “extracurricular”, Vallee took an interest in Alice. His weekly program, The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour was one of the biggest things on radio and having cut his teeth as a crooner h recognized Alice’s attractive contralto as the feminine version of the same thing. He offered her a job, but she was not put on the air right away.

At first, Alice Faye was dressed in form-fitting gowns and sang with Vallee’s live act in hotels and nightclubs. Audiences loved the pretty young woman, and she was featured on the radio program throughout the 1933 season, usually singing two songs per broadcast. Rumors about a more than professional collaboration between Faye and Valley began to spread, which drew the attention of Fay Webb, a.k.a. Mrs. Rudy Vallee. The rumors intensified when Rudy was called to Hollywood for the film version of George White’s 1935 Scandals (1935). Leading lady Lilian Harvey walked off the film, so Vallee recommended calling Alice. Miss Faye was initially hired for one song in the film but was impressive enough that she was given the lead.

The Fox Studio makeup department redid Alice’s look as their version of MGM’s Jean Harlow. Vallee’s marriage finally wound up in divorce court, and Alice was aghast to learn that she had been named as a party to the case. This more than cooled things between Alice and Rudy, but when Fox merged with Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures, Zanuck was anxious to step in as her new mentor. His first move was to get rid of the Harlow-esque look and remodel Alice as a more wholesome type. She was cast as Shirley Temple’s mother in several films. While working on Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), Alice fell for contract player Tony Martin, and they married 1937.

Zanuck objected when Alice was cast in the lead of In Old Chicago (1938, the part had been written for Jean Harlow) which brought her together with Tyrone Power and Don Ameche for the first time. The film was a big hit, and Faye, Ameche, and Power were immediately put together again to star in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). In 1939, Alice was listed as one of Hollywood’s most dependable money-makers, and mentor Zanuck began guiding her towards more and more projects that made money for the studio rather than showcasing her talents.

Illness forced Alice to pass starring in Down Argentine Way (1940) with Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda, and the role was given to new-comer Betty Grable.  Betty was teamed with Alice in Tin Pan Alley (1940), and the publicity department created a supposed on-set rivalry between the stars which sold tickets, but Alice claimed to be totally fictional. However, her marriage to Tony Martin was breaking up, ending in divorce in 1940. Alice bought a ranch-style home in the Encino foothills. One evening while walking her dog, the pooch’s leash got tangled with that of another dog belonging to newly divorced neighbor Phil Harris, bandleader on The Jack Benny Program.

Phil and Alice’s meeting blossomed into one of Hollywood’s greatest real-life love stories. They began dating and soon married. Their relationship was strong enough to be spoofed on The Jack Benny Program and Alice joined the gang for the 1941 Thanksgiving Day program. Alice took a year off from movie making to have their first daughter, Alice was born, and after Phyllis came along she renegotiated her contract with Fox so that she would only be obligated to one picture (with an option for a second) each year.

Alice was certainly not so naïve as to think that Zanuck would not begin developing a new protégé, and as a long-time member of Fox probably supported the move. Linda Darnell was selected to be the new girl, and she was assigned to support Alice in the thriller Fallen Angel (1945). Alice felt that she gave a credible performance and was shocked and humiliated when the film was released, and she discovered that many of her scenes had been cut to better showcase Darnell. Alice claimed that she didn’t even return to the studio to collect her personal things, she simply quit.

Zanuck had her blacklisted from studio work for breach of contract, but Alice was more than happy to have more time to enjoy being a wife and mother. The Fitch Bandwagon, which was sandwiched between Edgar Bergen and Jack Benny on Sunday nights, invited Phil and Alice to guest host in 1946, and the sponsors soon realized that the interplay between the couple was more popular than the music. Fitch soon transitioned from a music program with jokes to a situation comedy with music and retitled The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

The program aired until 1954 and was often seen as an answer to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett (another sitcom about a bandleader and his singer wife raising kids in show business). Phil and Alice’s real-life marriage may not have been perfect (there is a rumor that Phil kept a second residence where he could enjoy all-night poker games with his buddies) but they were happily married for more than 50 years, until his death in 1995 (in 1941, gossip columnists were predicting the relationship would be lucky to last six months). Alice Faye was given a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6922 Hollywood Blvd for her contributions to Motion Pictures. She passed away at her home in Rancho Mirage on May 9, 1998, due to stomach cancer. She was 83.

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