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A fine biography--provided you don't mind that much of it is pure bunk...and quite dull!
In the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood made a ton of bio-pics. In most cases, the actual peoples' lives were only the barest of outlines for the films--with SIGNIFICANT padding (in other words, outright lying) to make the films more marketable. While the films were generally pretty enjoyable, they also were pure bunk--so when watching any biography from this period, take what you see and hear with a grain of salt. I say all this here because "Lillian Russell" is just one of those films--filled with fiction and is only a biography in name only.
While in some ways this film is accurate about the great stage actress Lillian Russell, here are a few ways where the film is total bull:
The film shows Lillian's parents as a loving couple. They actually separated when Lillian was 18 and she and her mother moved across country--leaving dad behind.
Lillian's first marriage in the film is the biggest problem in the film. Her creepy husband (Don Ameche) dies--leaving her a sad, sad widow who then sings HIS song as a tribute to him. In reality, it turned out this total louse was ALREADY MARRIED!!!! When Lillian discovered he was a bigamist, she divorced him! Some love story!!! He also was her second husband--and she'd been cheating on her poor old first husband!
Lillian was married four times...but not in this movie! She only married once and there is an implied marriage at the end.
Her beautiful baby is important in the film. The fact that it died as an infant was never mentioned!
Lillian herself was a feminist and suffragette--writing articles and speaking out for the cause. None of this is in the film and only her mother's political aspirations are discussed--odd considering the film is supposed to be about Lillian.
The film, despite having a completely dull and inaccurate plot, was a big-budget film--with AMAZING sets and lots of stars. It was odd, however, that despite having many big-name actors in the film that they were often used very poorly. Don Ameche, probably Fox's #1 male star at the time, plays a simpering loser--who also behaves VERY creepy 80 minutes into the film (where he basically says she can NEVER, NEVER leave him--even if she wants to!). Clearly it was NOT a role suited to such an illustrious star and might have been better for Boris Karloff! Henry Fonda basically plays a love-sick loser....and a creepy one who has stalked her from afar. Warren William is in the film...and that's all that can be said about his part. Pretty much the same can be said for Leo Carillo. Edward Arnold isn't bad as Diamond Jim Brady, however, and Helen Westley is GREAT as grandma. And as for the star, Alice Faye, this is one of her best films and the makeup and costuming folks have made her radiant. Clearly the women in this film outshine the men--as if the men, for a change, are more window dressing than people.
The overall verdict is that although the film looks great and has some decent moments, it's a dull, bloated and incredibly inaccurate film. By the way, there is a VERY funny glitch at the 89 minute mark. Lillian picks up her crying baby. The closeup of the kid is of a completely different kid--with the hair changing from brown to blond before your very eyes--and with a completely different face!! Didn't they think anyone would notice.
FYI--This film was wildly inaccurate that there is a special feature on the DVD entitled "A Woman Like No Other: The Real Lillian Russell"! It is worth seeing. It also shows that Lillian's life was FAR more interesting than the 20th Century-Fox film!
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