It's the Gay '90s, and Helen Leonard (Faye), who has wanted to be a singing star from an early age, is discovered by theatrical impresario Tony Pastor (Leo Carrillo). Renamed Lillian Russell, she's an overnight sensation, inspiring wealthy men like Diamond Jim Brady (Edward Arnold) to anonymously send her jewels.
Lillian marries composer Edward Solomon (Don Ameche), a union which ends tragically, but then she's reunited with her first true love, newspaperman Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda).
The film apparently bears little resemblance to the life of the real Lillian Russell, who among other things was married twice as many times as depicted in the movie. That said, I evaluated the film strictly on the basis of how it works as a movie.
The film is on the long side, clocking in at two hours and seven minutes, and it could have used some serious editing and restructuring. William Anthony McGuire's meandering screenplay wastes time on scenes which contribute nothing to the viewer's understanding of Helen/Lillian, her family, or her times, such as an extended opening sequence depicting her birth or scenes dwelling on the bickering of composers Gilbert and Sullivan. Even scenes with Jesse Lewisohn (Warren William) and Diamond Jim Brady (Arnold) telling each other how much they love Lillian don't really add anything to her story.
Producer Daryl F. Zanuck was known as a shrewd script doctor and editor -- he famously shortened the script A LETTER TO FOUR WIVES -- but that ability is nowhere in evidence here. The film is loaded with talent, but there's only so much that can be done with this script.
While all sorts of extraneous bits are jammed into the movie, along with more leading male actors than there's reasonably time for, Lillian's career is given short shrift. She's depicted as becoming an instant sensation on the basis of one production number, "Ma Blushin' Rosie." It's nice enough, but the big group number doesn't really show Faye's voice to its best effect or convey how or why Lillian is suddenly a superstar. The audience is told men want her and women want to imitate her. Why? Perhaps some more dynamically staged musical numbers or even more backstage scenes would have more clearly answered that question.
A later scene where she sings to the President over the phone is quite enjoyable; since it takes place after Lillian has become a huge star, it serves to show in retrospect why she was successful, but doesn't capture how and why she was an immediate phenomenon.
Faye was just 24 when she made LILLIAN RUSSELL, in the superstar phase of her career. She's beautifully filmed in many scenes, and from that standpoint, Russell's success is understandable. She has some good songs, but the film isn't as musically strong as many of Faye's other films. Dramatically, Faye conveys a charming calculation, eagerly accepting the praise of her beauty and predictions for her success, and she's a very likeable personality. Although the film isn't among her best screen work, Faye's presence keeps the film interesting and worthwhile despite its flaws.
Fonda and Ameche were coming off their big success in THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939); in fact, since making that film Fonda had starred in three superior John Ford films, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939), YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940). Fonda and Ameche are adequate, but as the movie's focus tends to be either on Lillian Russell or on completely nonessential characters, they don't have a great deal to do.
Warren William is also prevented from having much screen time. Edward Arnold reprises his role as DIAMOND JIM (1935) and adds some color, but again, some of his scenes are superfluous and at the expense of Lillian Russell's story being told both more thoroughly and more concisely.
The supporting cast includes Ernest Truex as Lillian's father and Dorothy Peterson as her suffragette mother, with Helen Westley as her grandmother and Una O'Connor her loyal maid. Nigel Bruce and Claude Allister play Gilbert and Sullivan. Lynn Bari is decorative but wasted in a small role. Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own father, a role he would repeat in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942). Don't blink and you can spot Elyse Knox -- later the mother of NCIS star Mark Harmon -- as one of Lillian's sisters.
The movie was directed by Irving Cummings. The black and white cinematography was by Leon Shamroy. Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Black and White Art Direction.
LILLIAN RUSSELL was released on DVD in the Alice Faye Collection, Volume 1. It was also released as a single title in Fox's late, lamented Marquee Musicals series.