“Hello, Frisco, Hello” (1943) makes the War go away by giving us Alice Faye and John Payne in a Technicolor Barbary Coast of yesteryear. Along with Jack Oakie and June Havoc, they make a vaudeville foursome trying to rise above the honkytonks of San Francisco’s Pacific Street. Alice is “dead gone” on John Payne, but he has his sights on Nob Hill and the carriage trade.
John Payne, the brains of the quartet, aspires to greater things, and falls for wealthy socialite played by Lynn Bari, breaking our Alice Faye’s heart. He acquires several theaters, becoming an impresario and leaving his old gang behind.
The film is notable for Miss Faye’s poignant rendition of “You’ll Never Know” which she croons onstage into a prop telephone to her long-distance lover. The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and quickly became a favorite in wartime America among separated sweethearts. Her distinctive contralto singing voice, low and warm, marked her from other singing stars of her day.
“You went away, and my heart went with you,” the song goes, and it is because of the simple, yet truthful, sentimentality of the film that makes it rise above a standard plot. Alice Faye exuded a sweet vulnerability that contrasted with her earlier Depression-era films where she appeared more hard-boiled and world weary and world wise. Even her taking the hand of little Shirley Temple for a brisk, soldierly tap-dance in “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936) does little to soften the tough as nails working girl of the Depression. It took the War, and Technicolor, perhaps, to show the softer side of an actress who still maintains a certain aloofness, and this perhaps only for self defense.
In “Hello, Frisco, Hello” she also gets to twirl a lariat while singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” and shoots off a couple six shooters like percussion instruments. Wisecracking Jack Oakie gets some of the best lines, like “Look at you. You look like the last half of Finnegan’s Wake” to berate June Havoc.
Sly, man-stealing Bernice Croft, played by Lynn Bari gets to fire off, “I’ll probably spend the next week snapping whalebone in my corsets trying to do the Grizzly Bear,” in a seductive sort of yesteryear pass to Mr. Payne. June Havoc refers to her as an “enamel puss society wench.”
Some trick novelty roller skating accompanies “It’s Tulip Time in Holland,” and Miss Faye charms the stereotyped Irish with “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” By the time she goes her own way from Payne and the act, she becomes the toast of London with “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” What a fool Payne is for ever leaving her.
Here is Alice Faye singing “You Never Know.”