Lillian Russell (1940)




Director:  Irving Cummings

Starring:  Alice Faye (Helen Leonard/Lillian Russell), Don Ameche (Solomon), Henry Fonda (Alexander Moore), Edward Arnold (Diamond Jim Brady), Warren William (Jesse Lewisohn), Leo Carrillo (Tony Pastor), Nigel Bruce (William S. Gilbert), Helen Westley (Grandma Leonard),  Dorothy Peterson (Cynthia Leonard),  Lynn Bari (Edna McCauley), Claud Allister (Arthur Sullivan).

Based on the life of the buxom star of the stage, Lillian Russell (Alice Faye).  She was often a dinner companion of Diamond Jim Brady (Edward Arnold).  Lillian Russell was an American light-opera soprano; she was known as much for her beauty and flamboyant life-style as for her singing.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 


Good movie.  The United States is engaged in a civil war.  Charlie Leonard has the doctor over to his house because his wife Cynthia is about to give birth.  But the doctor is also Major Roberts and he and his men have to catch the steamboat heading downriver.  Major Roberts is able to deliver the baby, a girl that they name Helen.  Helen is one of five sisters in the house. 

Helen is a singer who wants to be in the grand opera.  But a voice teacher tells her that she is not good enough for the opera (but is good enough for other types of singing, especially with her good looks).  The voice coach tells her that he feels sorry for her because she is beautiful and is going to have trouble.  Beautiful women generally are not happy, he says.  "Men fall for your beauty and you never know which man truly loves you for you." 

In town with her grandmother, Helen and Grandmother Leonard are saved in a horse-drawn carriage run-away incident by a young man named Alexander Moore.  He later pays them a visit at home and Helen and Alexander make a pact that whoever is the first to get the job they want will buy the other one dinner. (During the heroic feat, Alex meets he famous Tony Pastor of Tony Pastor's Theatre.)

Helen's mother is deeply involved in suffragette politics and even runs for Mayor of New York (but only receives 84 votes).  A mob gathers around the Leonard house and threatens the mother with harm.    Helen is able to calm the crowd and have them disperse (partly because of her looks).  Alexander Moore shows up again.

One day Tony Pastor is eating at a cafe restaurant and hears Helen singing to her father next-door.  He asks her to come see him the next day at noon.  He offers her $25 dollars a week.  The impresario changes her name to Lillian Russell.  Alex attends her first performance and starts to goes to see her backstage, but when he sees all the flowers and gifts send to her by male admirers, he chickens out.  When Lillian learns he was at the backstage door, but left, she becomes angry and says she will forget about him. 

Lillian Russell become the idol of New York.  She has many products using her name: cigars, corsets, among other items.  One of her admirers is Diamond Jim Brady.  But he has heard that the wealthy Jessie Lewisohn is going to marry Lillian, which only briefly discourages him.

Lillian takes the lead role in "The Grand Duchess" playing at the Casino.   During one of the show's intermissions, she sings to President Grover Cleveland via a long-distance telephone call. 

While Brady and Lewisohn argue about who is going to get Lillian, she suddenly marries music composer Solomon. 

Alex returns to his home town of Pittsburgh.  He works on the "Pittsburgh Telegraph."  His editor hears him mention to someone that he knows Lillian Russell.  The editor calls Alex into his office and gives him the assignment of getting the story of the life of Lillian Russell from a family angle.  Alex travels to New York City to the home of the Leonards.  Lillian's grandmother tells Alex that she is in London with her husband.  (She also tells him that her grand daughter had fallen in love with him by the time he chickened out at the backstage door.)

In London, Lillian meets the Prince of Wales and is given the lead in a Gilbert and Sullivan production at the Savoy Theatre.  Lillian is supposed to show up for practice with Sullivan after her work day, but her meddlesome husband Solomon intervenes and confronts and insults Sullivan about too many work hours.  In response to Solomon's rudeness, Sullivan fires Lillian. 

Lillian is upset about being fired, but this is tempered by good news.  She is going to have a baby.  Lillian gives birth to a baby girl.  (Now she is trying to get Solomon from working so obsessively on his music composition.)

Alexander Moore has an appointment to see Lillian about her life story.  When they meet she asks him why he had broken their dinner pact.  She also mentions that her grandmother had died.  Lillian asks him if he has had any female prospects; just one, Lucille, a girl he has known since childhood.  The famous singer wants Alex to meet her husband, but he is asleep.  (Actually, he had just slumped over the piano and died for overwork and exhaustion.)

Lillian remains in London long enough to be a big success in an operetta.  She then returns to America with her daughter.  Back home she resumes her friendships with Brady and Lewisohn.  Lewisohn is set to marry Edna McCauley, a woman introduced to him by Diamond Jim.  Brady sees his opportunity and asks Lillian to marry him.  She says no because she does not love him.

Alexander shows up at the theatre and Lillian has her maid bring him in to see her.  He tells her that he owns his own newspaper now in Pittsburgh and yes, he had married Lucille, but they are now divorced.  Lillian remarks that they have something in common: problems with love  -- "love is so elusive at times."  She mentions that Alex seems to have punctuated her life at very crucial moments and Alex responds that maybe it wasn't coincidence.  He says he has to leave soon because he has just recently started his newspaper and is needed back in Pittsburgh.  He leaves.

After he leaves, Lillian tells her maid: "Did you hear what he said?  He's been thinking about me all this time. Get him back for me."  Alex and Lillian finally come together.


The movie was entertaining.  There was a lot of name dropping in the movie, partly because Lillian Russell met so many famous people of her time, but I found that interesting.  This helped keep my interest throughout the movie.  Alice Faye is not buxom like Lillian Russell, but she is beautiful and has a lovely voice.  Henry Fonda is good as the almost timid Mr. Moore. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background: 

1861  --  born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa.

She studies in Chicago.

1897  --  first appears on stage in New York City in the chorus of H.M.S. Pinafore.

She sings in various opera companies in England and the U.S..

1899-1904  --  she heads her own opera company with the noted Weber and Fields burlesque company of New York. Her most famous roles included leading parts in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan and those of Jacques Offenbach.

She is reported as being a friend of the lavish spender and eater Diamond Jim Brady.

1922-- she dies


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