Author Unknown
Modern Screen
May 1940

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“Lillian Russell,” 20th Century Fox’s $1,000,000 Extravaganza

LILLIAN RUSSELL was vibrantly beautiful. Born at the dawn of the Civil War, she lived her life with a boilingpoint fervor which made that beauty felt by millions. As the most wildly-adored actress of her day, she scorched the headlines with her escapades, inspired “Bahs” and “Ahs” with her extravagances, and won four attractive husbands with her spine-tingling, head-spinning charm. Had she been less than this she could never have been nominated for Darryl Zanuck’s Hall of Fame.

Over on the Will Rogers stage of the Twentieth CenturyFox lot, Mr. Z’s cameramen are busily recording Lillian’s career. When they are finished, her name will again leap from every tongue and she will have earned her greatest triumph, the right to stand beside those other Fox immortals, Alexander Graham Bell, Jesse James and young Mr. Lincoln.

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The casting of “Lillian Russell” was a snap. Any steno could have run her finger down the studio’s contract list and done the job. Alice Faye as the heroine was a natural. According to the publicity boys, she’s almost an exact counterpart of Russell—except for her size. True, there’s nothing skimpy about Alice, but Lillian was still a good 28 pounds up on her. You may be certain, however, that this is one historical detail which will be blithely overlooked by the producer.

Also overlooked will be two of Lillian’s mates. The researchers fought like devils to get every point down pat but somehow husbands No. 1 and No. 3 were lost in the scuffle. Of course, news that the survivors are being played by Don Ameche and Henry Fonda is enormously consoling and the hapless pair probably won’t be missed.

Lillian’s incidental romances will be more conspicuously absent. All have been thoroughly deleted with the exception of Diamond Jim Brady. With Edward Arnold oh the lot, such an omission would have been unpardonable so, as the walking gold-mine who flooded the actress with gifts and affection, Eddie will eat much and laugh loudly and never get to first base with our Lil. It’s unfortunate about the others but, as one star remarked, “We are not only dealing with history, we are dealing with the Hays’ office!” Yes, you can bring the kiddies.

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As is usual with pictures of this type, the producers have gone to incredible lengths to obtain authenticity of minute details which few movie-goers can check anyway. William Anthony McGuire, ace Hollywood writer, worked two years on the screen play, devoting at least half of that time to research alone. McGuire is a man who is entitled to his own bit of fame because he passes up the typewriterand writes entire scenarios in longhand. When he completed “Russell” he found he’d used 1,800 pencils and a few score erasers, while his manuscript, laid sheet on sheet, measured one foot, six inches from the floor!

Packed into the script are scenes demanding replicas of many of Russell’s personal possessions. The most famous, for obvious reasons, is the $3,900 corset made for her by Madame Rosa Binner. The original was an ivory brocade creation with flexible gold stays, diamond clasps and $700 worth of Belgian lace. It was a gorgeous affair—as corsets go—but when Madame Binner laced Lillian into it she found that it bulged unflatteringly around her customer’s well-rounded thighs. The outcome of this near calamity was the first corset garter, designed to keep the corset down—not to hold the stockings up as we of the two-way stretch era have come to think. Madame Binner is in Hollywood now as the picture’s technical adviser on corsets. She will supervise the reproduction of the $3,900 garment and estimates that its cost will probably run to almost $1,000.

Before the production is finished, Mr. Willys DeMond, talented hosiery creator, will present his bill for nearly $3,000. The stockings he is turning out for Alice Faye are identical copies of those worn by Lillian, right down to the hand embroidered butterflies and lace insets. Though DeMond is hitting Fox for $100 a pair, his fee will look like bargain day against the prices paid by the actress who would never have offended her legs by clothing them in anything less costly than a $400 pair. But then, Lillian earned $250,000 yearly—and never heard of income tax.

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Exclusive of the 27 gowns to be worn by Alice, 800 feminine costumes are being provided by the studio at a cost to them of over $25,000. Four thousand extras cavorting on 53 sets can be counted upon to take another substantial bite out of the budget. The sets, accurate to the last thumb-tack, will include Weber and Fields’ Music Hall, Rector’s Restaurant, Tony Pastor’s and the famous Savoy Theatre in London—which makes it simple to understand why they’ll cost approximately $200,000!

Probably the most interesting people connected with the picture are three men who really knew Lillian Russell. The first two, the ever-popular team of Weber and Fields, were her musical comedy companions at the close of the century and have come to the West Coast to portray themselves as they were fifty years ago. The third is Irving Cummings, youngish-looking director of “Lillian Russell” and her last leading man. In 1909, he and Lillian toured the country in a little number known as “In Search of a Sinner.” “But, you see,” explains Cummings, “at that time I was only a boy.”