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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 »
Some historical films are totally worthless as guides to the lives and careers of the people they discuss. PARNELL, for instance, is a dismal film about the great Irish nationalist leader. LILLIAN RUSSELL is not a good guide to the career of the the famed singer and entertainer of the 1890s. There are omissions and polite bowdlerizing. For example, her marriage to Edward Solomon the composer(played by Don Ameche) was not ended by his dropping dead from overwork. Effective movie moment that it is, the marriage ended when Lillian discovered her husband was a bigamist with a living first wife. The relationship with Gilbert and Sullivan was not ended on such a sad but friendly note. Lillian did appear in PATIENCE, but she never played IOLANTHE (Gilbert claimed she did not want to rehearse as much as he insisted his performers do; rumor said that Gilbert tried to get Lillian onto the "casting couch" at the Savoy but she said no). Also, it is highly unlikely that Sullivan would have agreed to Lillian singing another composer's song in his operetta (even if between acts).
Henry Fonda's Alexander Moore is a bland enough character - handsome and kindly in the film, but not as colorful as rivals Ameche, Edward Arnold ("Diamond Jim" Brady) and Warren Williams (Jesse Lewisohn). In real life he was an important newspaperman in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, and (less acceptable in hindsight) a close friend of Warren Harding and Harry Daugherty's "Ohio Gang" of political spoils-men. Lillian, by the way, died in 1922, in the middle of Harding's corrupt administration.
The best things in the film are Faye, as pretty as usual in 19th Century costume, and warbling songs like "Blue Love Bird" in her best voice. That is worth watching. Then there is the color of the theater in the mauve decade. Tony Pastor's, the Savoy Operas, the stage of 19th Century Broadway (back then down near 14th Street and Union Square). My favorite moment: Joe Weber and Lou Fields in costume as their "Dutch" characters of the 1890s, demolishing a game of "Casino". It is a priceless moment of theatrical magic, that briefly tells us more about the real 1890s than the fake movie script for this film. Watch it for Joe and Lou and Alice.
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