THE DVD SHELF: Fannie Brice in "Be Yourself!," Plus Friml's Operetta "Lottery Bride"

THE DVD SHELF: Fannie Brice in "Be Yourself!," Plus Friml's Operetta "Lottery Bride" This month's column discusses the initial DVD release of two 1930 musicals — Fannie Brice starring in "Be Yourself!" and the ill-fated Rudolf Friml-Jeanette MacDonald operetta, "The Lottery Bride."
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"You're a funny girl, Fannie." No, that's not a line from some old Barbra Streisand musical. It comes from a little-known 1930 talkie named Be Yourself! [Kino]. Said line was spoken by the leading man, a prizefighter, to none other than Fannie Brice (playing a nightclub singer called Fannie Field). She was a funny girl, no doubt; but Barbra Streisand (of Funny Girl) is as close to Fannie Brice as, say, Julia Roberts is to Martha Raye.

Think about it; cast Ms. Roberts in "The Martha Raye Story," and within a few years the vast majority of filmgoers would assume that Ms. Raye did, indeed, look and act kinda like Julia. (This might be a slight exaggeration, but then again it might not be.) But I digress.

The subject at hand is "Be Yourself!," which has been rescued from the land where negligible talkies go by Kino. This is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, nor a good one for that matter. Even so, it provides us with one of our few celluloid glimpses of the great Fannie. Dramaturgy aside, we get a fairly complete picture of what was apparently her performing style — lots of smirks, and more rolling eyes than Eddie Cantor — and not two but five musical numbers that demonstrate her specialties. Or at least try to demonstrate her specialties, as the songs — written by the star's then-new, overly ambitious husband — are NSG. (That's an old phrase from vaudeville days, I think, which means not-so-good.)

Billy Rose, that is. Three of the songs were written in collaboration with songwriters-about-town of the time, Henry H. Tobias, Ralph Rainger, Ballard McDonald and Jesse Greer. One suspects Rose did very little of the writing himself, offering a few lyric phrases and perhaps the title — and, most importantly, providing guaranteed placement of the songs in a major star vehicle. The other two numbers — an opera parody and a ballet parody — are credited solely to Rose himself, and they are pretty deadly. But the songs nevertheless give us the opportunity to watch Brice doing what she did so successfully on the stage during the first third of the last century. The ballet dancer act — patterned, apparently, upon an Irving Berlin number she performed in the Music Box Revue of 1924 (in which she sang "I Want to Be a Ballet Dancer," pronounced "belly dancer") — comes across both best and worst. Worst, in that the song is mirthlessly unfunny. Performed in the context of a nightclub packed with patrons, there is not a laugh from the house, which might be what kills the number. (One supposes that in those days of early sound, the equipment couldn't pick up the singer, the orchestra and the audience.) If the number lies there, Brice does a wonderful job in her swan costume. The star was approaching 40 at the time, but that bathing cap on her ears makes the years roll away. This is most probably the type of clowning that made her famous, although few remain who actually saw her on Broadway.

The film itself tells of a nightclub singer — apparently a successful one — who falls for a prizefighter. (He is played by Robert Armstrong, who four years later would star opposite a gorilla in "King Kong"). This guy tends to lie down on the job, so Fannie and her lawyer/brother become his managers. If Fannie comports herself in an overly ethnic manner, Harry Green — as the brother — is almost offensive in his ministrations. The prizefighter becomes a champ, leaving Fannie for a golddigging chorus girl in the process. Fannie fixes this by arranging for her beau to lose a championship battle. His surgically straightened nose is broken once more, which brings him back to his Fannie. Simple enough.

Not much of a movie, this "Be Yourself!," but here is the authentic funny girl. A far cry from Barbra's rendition of Fannie. (Or Fanny, as they spelled it in the Streisand musical. Brice herself once said that she was billed Fannie on stage and screen but signed her checks Fanny. Her daughter Frances, wife of the producer Funny Girl, presumably made the call.) At any rate, "Be Yourself!" is highly interesting, and a must for anyone who wants to see the real Fannie Brice.

Along with "Be Yourself!," Kino has released a second 1930 musical from producer Joseph M. Schenck. The Lottery Bride is not a Broadway transplant, but it might as well be. Arthur Hammerstein — uncle to Oscar 2d — was one of the kings of Broadway operetta, with The Firefly, Wildflower, Rose-Marie and Song of the Flame to his credit.

When hard times hit in 1929, bankruptcy beckoned. Hammerstein had the bad luck to build an out-of-the-way theatre (within a large office building) at the very worst moment. In his attempts to salvage the Hammerstein — now the Ed Sullivan — he lost everything. One of the straws he grasped at was a Hollywood contract. The Lottery Bride was billed, in big letters, as "An Arthur Hammerstein Operetta." And so it was. Rudolf Friml, operetta's greatest composer, wrote the score. Oscar, who provided book and lyrics for many of his uncle's operettas, was at the moment contracted with Sigmund Romberg by Warner Bros. Thus, the lyric assignment went to J. Keirn Brennan, who was simultaneously writing the Arthur Hammerstein-Rudolf Friml stage operetta Luana. This Hawaiian opus opened five weeks before the release of "The Lottery Bride," closing after two weeks and dealing the final blow to Arthur's fortunes.

Friml wrote a handful of song hits in the mid-to-late 1920s for Rose-Marie, The Vagabond King and The Three Musketeers. But there's nothing worth hearing in "The Lottery Bride," or Luana for that matter. The film, which stars Jeanette McDonald, is almost humorously bad. Even so, it is highly instructive as it is — presumably — constructed like a Hammerstein operetta. Not a Hollywoodized adaptation, mind you, but the real thing. "The Lottery Bride" starts with one of those stout-hearted choruses singing a drinking song. The boys comport themselves like they are made out of wood. Where else are you going to see that?

Composer-arranger-conductor Herbert Stothart, who somehow managed to get co-composer credit on a parade of musicals by Friml, Romberg, Gershwin, Youmans and others — even "The Wizard of Oz," for heaven's sake — was connected here as well; in this case, oddly enough, he provided the original story, "Bride 66." And what a farfetched story. The action takes place in Norway, which you can tell by the funny costumes and the Viking-like sets. The tavern set, for example, is full of Norwegian architecture, along with a typically Norwegian proprietress in the person of Zasu Pitts. And a typically Norwegian bandleader, Joe E. Brown. (His backup orchestra, though, is black — unusual for 1930 Hollywood, let alone Norway — and probably a famous group of the period.)

The tenor and his fiancée sing a song or two, after which — well, let's see. The girl's brother, a bank clerk, is in debt to a slimy Italian aviator. The girl seeks the slimy aviator's help; the tenor, seeing them together, fears the worst and flees to lumberjack land. The girl, after a stint in prison for protecting her brother, agrees to become a lottery bride (an early version of a mail order bride). She is shipped up north, where she is won by — the tenor's brother. Who — still mad at her for being found with the aviator — doesn't interfere with the impending marriage. Except in comes a dirigible — not the Hindenburg, but a cousin — en route to the North Pole. The pilot? Why, the Italian aviator, naturally. (He sings, too.) The whole thing ends on the Arctic ice floes, with dogs a-mushing and an icebreaker coming to the rescue with Jeanette on the prow.

All through this, they sing Friml tunes, which bear no relation to "Only a Rose," "The Indian Love Call," or even "Totem Tom-Tom." The long and short of it is that Arthur Hammerstein was sent back East, and that was that. "The Lottery Bride," which was supposed to be a big hit, wasn't. The film included a novel Technicolor sequence: the three men, dying on the ice, have musical flashbacks — in color — to scenes of their youth. This footage is apparently lost, though; the film was at some point edited down from 80 to 65 minutes, and it is this edited version that has made it to DVD. The many lapses aside, "The Lottery Bride" nevertheless makes interesting watching. It's an Arthur Hammerstein-Rudolf Friml operetta, after all. . . .

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)