With a cast of Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Al Jolson, I expected “Rose of Washington Square,” released in 1939, to offer superior entertainment. Although it succeeds on various levels, including its numerous musical numbers, it fails to elevate itself to a classic musical. Its vaudeville show and small-time gangster story doesn’t hopscotch into a clunky mess, but it also doesn’t flow easily enough into a perfect blend.
Based on the real-life Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein story, Faye stars as talented nightclub singer Rose Sargent, who marries con-man and thief Bart Clinton despite the objections of her devoted musical partner, Ted Cotter (Jolson). Cotter finally reaches success working for a famed impresario (based on Florence Ziegfeld). After Cotter sings “My Mammy” in blackface to an audience that includes the impresario, a drunken heckler amuses the audience while Cotter pleads with him to stop. Cotter’s agent (William Frawley) realizes the potential of the heckler’s funny lines and hires the heckler for Cotter’s act. This results in a big break for Cotter, and he wants Rose to join him at the top.
I find the romance between Rose and Bart to be believable, mostly because Alice Faye does such a good job of projecting sincerity. Although the film presents her with several chances to spout long-winded speeches about her man, she projects her passion for him with her effective blue eyes and significant pauses. When Bart gets caught up in a fraudulent scheme with a group of gangsters, Rose’s loyalty to Bart even convinces Ted to put up Bart’s bail after his arrest. Rose stays loyal after Bart skips bail before his trial, but her troubles with him begin to adversely affect her theater act.
Having Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, Twentieth Century-Fox’s biggest stars in 1939, should have been enough to make a great movie, but the film includes too many musical numbers. Alice Faye, who usually leans back against a wall or pillar while performing her songs in other movies, does a long dance routine in this film while singing “Rose of Washington Square.” Jolson does five songs, including “California, Here I Come” and “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye).” He also does a lot of fine acting in the film, but too much of it is in blackface.
Fanny Brice brought a lawsuit against Twentieth Century-Fox and others for stealing her story. She settled out of court, and the film enjoyed a waterfall of publicity because of the case. However, Brice needn’t have been too concerned; it seems like a generally favorable portrayal of her story. Faye and Power are very likable in Rose of Washington Square.