Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fallen Angel (1945)

Alice Faye Noir and Brooding Darnell as Femme Fatale

The 1945 film noir drama Fallen Angel was seen by Twentieth-Century Fox’s boss Darryl F. Zanuck as an opportunity to show a new Alice Faye as a transformation to dramatic star from her hugely successful previous career as the studio’s premiere leading lady of musicals.

Alice Faye’s meteoric rise to stardom beginning as a Great Depression is the stuff of which inspiration is generated. Young Alice Leppert, daughter of a New York City policeman, used her smooth, mellow voice to become a network singing sensation before Twentieth Century-Fox came calling and cinema stardom along with it.

A big assist for Faye becoming a great international superstar goes to the first American crooner, Rudy Vallee, for giving the blonde actress her major show business break. Author and former actor Robert Kendall, a friend of Faye’s for years, described the important Vallee link and what it meant to her.

“Alice’s career began as a chorus girl in the Broadway production of ‘George White’s Scandals,’” Kendall explained. “At a cast party when the show closed Alice chanced to make a recording of the song ’Mimi’ just for fun. Rudy Vallee heard her sing that number.”

Vallee was slated for an engagement at a Cleveland Hotel. He invited her to accompany him. Vallee wanted to see how she would be received by a nightclub audience.

“When Alice sang the audience responded with thunderous applause,” Kendall related. “It was then that Vallee knew that Alice Faye was star material.”

Vallee was then star of The Fleischmann Hour, a popular network radio show. It was his practice to introduce talent discoveries. One was Kate Smith. Another, ironically enough, was the man who would eventually become Alice Faye’s husband, Phil Harris. He introduced Alice with huge audience reaction the result.

When Vallee was called by Fox to come to Hollywood to film George White’s Scandals (1934) as Faye starred alongside the crooner and comedian Jimmy Durante. She became a rarity in two respects, starring in her first film effort and doing it while still in her teens.

The thirties and forties achieved major results for Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox with Alice Faye becoming the number one female star on the lot. Musicals were her forte as she appeared alongside Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and John Payne in such major hits as In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Rose of Washington Square (1939), Tin Pan Alley (1940), That Night in Rio (1941), Week-end in Havana (1941), and Hello Frisco, Hello (1943).

With Faye films raking in solid profits Zanuck pushed his star full throttle into a whirlwind pace. When asked about the surge of activity Faye delivered her friendly laugh and exclaimed, “They didn’t call it Twentieth Penitentiary Fox for nothing.”

Conversion to Drama and Film Noir

At the age of 29, at a time when Faye had introduced more hit songs into films than anyone before or after her, Zanuck decided to move her into a more concentrated dramatic role. She diligently rehearsed one song, which was to be her lone musical contribution to the film, and therein a controversy surfaced that has not diminished speculation better than six decades later.

Arthur Nicholson, who until his recent death was president of the British based Alice Faye Appreciation Society, revealed that she was supposed to sing the hit tune “Slowly” in a beach scene with leading man Dana Andrews.

“The idea was to have Alice sing the song with Andrews and for the popular male vocalist of the forties Dick Haymes to be heard singing it from a jukebox,” Nicholson explained. “The reason is that the film’s other female star, Linda Darnell, wanted to listen to ’Slowly’ on the jukebox and it was her favorite song. This furnished a contrast since Linda and Alice were the two women in Dana Andrews’ life.”

After Faye had worked diligently on the song it was decided by Zanuck and director Otto Preminger to eliminate her rendering of “Slowly.” The reason generally given for the decision was that, given Faye’s full-fledged introduction into straight drama, it would be better not to remind audiences of her musical star status. The decision upset Faye to the point that it is given as at least part of the reason why she retired from films after Fallen Angel and did not return until almost two decades later when she starred with Tom Ewell, Pat Boone, and Pamela Tiffin in the 1962 Fox release State Fair.

Strong Supporting Woman, Femme Fatale of Sorts

Dana Andrews begins Fallen Angel as a drifting con man seeking to chisel a dollar whenever and wherever he can. The first scene finds him being caught by a bus driver pretending to be asleep so he can ride beyond the price of his ticket to San Francisco.

In the novel by Marty Holland the character Andrew plays, Eric Stanton, is forcibly evicted by the driver. In the film the driver gives him a gesture reminiscent of an umpire tossing an arguing manager from a game, and so fate connects fast buck artist Stanton with the small town of Walton, located a hundred miles south of San Francisco.

Andrews’ Eric Stanton needs fast money. His agile brain connects him to fellow con artist John Carradine, who is a circuit traveler claiming to connect love ones to the dead. Andrews performs with such public relations gusto that, after he fills the local auditorium for Carradine, he is offered a regular job traveling the circuit with him.

Under other circumstances Andrews might have accepted as Carradine clearly admires his talents and the prospect of some impressive money looms in the future, but by then he has set his sights on a local woman with a contingent of local admirers. The object of Andrews’ fascination is dark-haired, voluptuous, and tough as nails Linda Darnell.

Darnell works as a waitress at the local restaurant run by Pop, played by Percy Kilbride, who would in the fifties click big opposite Marjorie Main in the successful Ma and Pa Kettle series from Universal. Pop has a crush on the younger woman as does another regular patron, a former New York City police detective played by Charles Bickford, who has come to California allegedly to improve his health. Meanwhile Darnell is also seen dating traveling salesman Bruce Cabot.

Andrews experiences Darnell’s toughness in his first visit to Pop’s restaurant. The gentle and accommodating Kilbride tells new man in town that he does not have to pay for his coffee. Darnell tartly demurs, telling her boss that he had provided a coffee for the town’s new visitor and that he should have to pay for it.

Far from being repulsed by Darnell’s toughness, Andrews is instead instantly smitten. He feels a camaraderie. She is, like him, someone from the wrong side of the tracks and he can relate to her, which means that Darnell has picked up one more male admirer in Walton, and this one is determined to proceed to great length to win her over.

Alice Faye emerges as a designated financial pigeon for Andrews. Her deceased father has left his two daughters financially secure, Alice and older sister Anne Revere. A far more skeptical Revere is dubious about Andrews’ motivation when he begins dating her sister.

The wily Revere has every reason to be skeptical. Tough girl Darnell, after telling Andrews about her impoverished youth in San Diego, delivers an ultimatum. She wants marriage to a man of means, not a drifter who will move her from town to town. Andrews will either obtain sufficient funds to keep her in style or she will have nothing to do with him. She had earlier coldly abandoned Bruce Cabot for not measuring up to her expectations.

A dramatic contrast is established between two women, a gentle trusting soul in Alice Faye not about to give her heart without purposeful sincerity and a tough opportunist in Linda Darnell. When Faye begins seeing a good side in Andrews that he at one point tells her does not exist, she assumes the role of the strong supporting woman, determined to convince him to see a side of him that she knows ultimately exists.

Faye’s character is reminiscent of Jane Wyman in another 1945 release, The Lost Weekend. Wyman is certain that a man of purpose and meaning exists beyond the alcoholic fate into which Ray Milland has fallen. Faye sees similar good in the drifting con artist, look after oneself Andrews. They both see different men beyond those that people of lesser vision and patience observe, including, ironically enough, the men themselves.

Faye fits into the classic definition of the strong supporting woman of film noir, but what about Darnell? Can she be classified as a femme fatale? She is definitely tough, uncompromising, and selfish. Darnell feels no compassion for Faye after learning that Andrews’ game plan revolves around a brief sham marriage to grab her money.

If Darnell is a femme fatale then it is one without the noticeable deadly sociopath’s demeanor of classic noir leading ladies Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Murder is an intrinsic part of doing business to Stanwyck and Greer. Tough Darnell could therefore be called a femme fatale with qualification. She is a femme fatale of sorts.

Darnell Killed, Andrews a Prime Suspect

Andrews was seen and heard arguing with Darnell the very night that she was killed. He is fingered as a murder suspect by former New York City detective Charles Bickford, who was called upon by local Walton police authorities to take charge of the investigation.

While in San Francisco with Faye, Andrews is convinced that he needs to continue his traveling ways, telling his wife about his long pattern of scruples deficiency.

At that point Faye’s inner strength and persuasiveness rises to the fore as she convinces Andrews that just because he has experienced tough times in the past is no reason that he cannot improve his character. She convinces him that continuing to run will only bury him in a deeper mire, asserting that he needs to go back to Walton and clear himself.

Andrews is very shrewd. It is just that previously his intelligence had been put to negative rather than positive results.

When he begins his own investigation he discovers that Bickford is anything but the former upstanding police officer he represented himself to be. He ties Bickford’s past record to his permanent fixture status at Pop’s Restaurant and his shared zeal with Stella to play her favorite song “Slowly” on the jukebox.

Fallen Angel is a noir gem with characters sharply delineated by Marty Holland in the novel and Harry Kleiner with his screen adaptation. As was the case in her famous musical roles opposite Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and John Payne, her quiet strength propels Dana Andrews in the right direction.

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Written by Bill Hare

Editor's note: Bill has a new book about Film Noir coming out very soon!


5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the posting of this...saw this a couple of years ago and saw Alice in a completely new light... :D

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  2. great blog

    i feel funny, because i didn't find it before :)

    noir movies are the greatest ;)

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  3. Wow, I had no idea about Alice Faye's background in musicals. (Until I saw Fallen Angel I'd never heard of her.) That explains the bizarre music used at the beginning of the trailer.

    P.S. -- Given that the film has a twist ending, do you think it wise to give everything away in the review? (I'm so glad I watched the DVD first.)

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  4. Hi all,

    This is another film that I saw only recently. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would hearterly recommend it.

    I found the direction by Otto Preminger to be wonderful with very fluid setups and interesting mise-en-scene. I did find the first 3/4 of the film very strong but that was helped by my attraction to the lovely 22 year old Linda Darnell. Her first appearance is very attention grabbing and her flippant and dismissive behaviour to the men around her shows that she clearly knows the sexual power she has over them. It is a real pity that Linda Darnell died at age 41 suffering massive burns to her body in a house fire.

    The copy I watched also has a commentary track which I have yet to listen to as I always prefer to give it some time before revisiting a film and getting the opinion of someone else. So when I do I'll probably scribble something else here.

    Cheers

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  5. The backdrop for classic film noir is often the big city with its tall, cold buildings establishing an impersonal scale. Car scenes and wide shots give a sense of the weblike grid of extended streets and alleys. In Fallen Angel, for most of the scenes we are in a small town. Andrews walks everywhere, the cafe is never crowded, it's a short stroll to the beach. The scale is intimate.

    The necessary chiaroscuro is amplified through the female leads themselves -- blond, optimistic Faye vs. dark brooding Darnell -- and their haunts -- the daytime church scene and Faye's Victorian home vs. the cafe (which seems dark even by day) and Darnell's home up a flight of wooden steps in a brick alley. Night scenes set off the day scenes. Bickford wears a dark suit, Andrews wears a medium gray suit. And Andrews inhabits a gray area.

    He is conflicted between the brightness of Faye's love and the lure of Darnell's cynical materialism. He's not a good guy, but he's not a very bad bad guy. The most evil thing about him may be his blandness. We may not see what Alice Faye sees in him but we want to give him the benefit of the doubt, largely because of her. Though we'd want to run off with Darnell too (who wouldn't?), Faye has a toughness, a willingness to hang on to her convictions that makes her much more than a mere Pollyanna or a pushover.

    Darnell, like Andrews, is wounded. She is not a femme fatale of the cold, sociopath type. She's as protective of herself as Revere is of Faye. She's unable to take a chance, to go out on a limb for love, while Faye offers it unconditionally. Faye and Darnell each deliver the goods in their roles as angels of light and darkness, respectively. And yet Andrews is also the fallen angel.

    Anne Revere's is an interesting character. Though possessing the trappings of security and comfort she shares Darnell's cynical view of love. Revere wants to be sure the "right" man marries Faye, but the right man will never come along for Revere, just as he will never come along for Darnell.

    There is a mystery about each of the main characters. Why did Bickford leave New York? Why did Andrews travel west and how did he spiral so far downward? Why is Revere's antennae so sensitive to Andrews? Why is Darnell so bitter and cynical? Why does Faye believe in Andrews?

    The characters' mysteries play out against one another and are revealed with dramatic timing.

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