Fox tuner Faye dies at 83

Once studio's biggest musical draw

Alice Faye, perhaps the brightest musical comedy light at 20th Century Fox during the 1930s and ’40s, died of cancer Saturday. She was 83.

Faye died at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, where she underwent surgery last month to remove two stomach tumors. Her daughters, Alice Regan and Phyllis Harris, were at her bedside when she died, according to Jewel Baxter, Faye’s spokeswoman.

Faye introduced such classic popular tunes as “You’ll Never Know” (the 1943 Oscar-winning song from “Hello Frisco, Hello”), “Goodnight, My Love” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which helped make her a top box-office attraction.

“Actually, all those films were the same script,” she once joked about the parade of musicals she did at Fox. “All they did was change Don (Ameche) over here and Ty (Power) over there. They were fun, though, and it was a good way to make a living.”

Family woman

However, after her relationship with studio head Darryl Zanuck soured (she referred to the studio as Penitentiary Fox) Faye walked out on her contract and largely retired from show business to devote herself to husband Phil Harris and raising a family.

She was born Alice Jeanne Leppert on May 5, 1915, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. After trying unsuccessfully to join the Ziegfeld Follies at the age of 13, for a brief time Faye became a member of the Chester Hale dance group, which played engagements at Manhattan’s Capitol Theater and East Coast resorts.

A job in the chorus of George White’s “Scandals” (during which she officially changed her name) led to a radio singing engagement on the weekly show of Rudy Vallee, who was starring in “Scandals.” When Fox bought the film rights to the Broadway show in 1933, Vallee was asked to star and persuaded the studio to let Faye sing one number in the film. When the movie’s female star, Lilian Harvey, withdrew, complaining that her role was too small, Vallee promoted Faye to replace her.

Though never a great beauty, she epitomized the girl next door: attractive and spunky but non-threatening and warm. Her vivacious, wholesome style persuaded Fox to sign her and give her a publicity build-up.

Just another blond starlet

For a time, Faye was just another blond starlet, thrown into a succession of indifferent movies such as “Now I’ll Tell” opposite Spencer Tracy. It wasn’t until 1935 and the film “King of Burlesque” that Faye was able to cut loose and introduce the first of her most memorable songs, “I’m Shooting High.” Thereafter she was paired with another rising Fox star, Shirley Temple, in such films as “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Stowaway” (which featured her hit rendition of “Goodnight, My Love”).

Faye’s projects, if not better material, began to be better produced. By 1936 she was earning $2,000 a week.

The film that made her a star contained a part originally set to be played by Jean Harlow. “In Old Chicago” was a bogus but widely popular drama with music about the great Chicago fire. It featured two of Faye’s perennial co-stars, Power and Ameche, as did the successful “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which featured 20 Berlin songs including one especially written for Faye, “Now It Can Be Told.” It remained her favorite film.

Top 10 draw

By the end of the decade Faye was a top 10 box-office attraction, appearing in stuffy costume musicals such as “Rose of Washington Square.” In 1941, after her divorce from singer Tony Martin, Faye married orchestra leader Phil Harris in a union that was naysayed by industry wags, but which lasted until his death.

Also in 1941, she starred in one of the first of the Fox romantic musical comedies set in “exotic” locations, “Weekend in Havana,” with Carmen Miranda and another popular Fox leading man, John Payne. After having her first child in 1942, Faye starred in the popular “Hello Frisco, Hello,” introducing her signature tune “You’ll Never Know.” It was followed by the campy “The Gang’s All Here,” also with Miranda.

In an attempt to retool her image, Faye starred in a murder mystery, “Fallen Angel,” which was recut to more prominently feature her co-star, Linda Darnell. Faye was so incensed that she refused to do “The Dolly Sisters” opposite Fox’s other reigning queen, Betty Grable. She repeatedly turned down good roles and spent more time with her family.

From 1946-54 she appeared on “The Phil Harris-Alice Faye” show on radio and occasionally on television, including specials put on by her friend Bob Hope. Faye did not return to films until 1962 in a poor remake of “State Fair” and later in cameos in “Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood” and a featured role in “The Magic of Lassie.” In 1974 she starred in a Broadway revival of the musical “Good News” opposite Gene Nelson and toured with the show for two years.

Faye is survived by her two daughters, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

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