Best known today via Barbara Streisand’s portrayal of her in the musical films Funny Girl and Funny Lady, Brice was actually rather unlike Streisand in appearance. Tall and gangly like Olive Oyl, with two bright crescent-shaped eyes on either side of her parrot-like nose, Brice was always using this mug for low comedy effect, crossing her eyes, and so forth. She usually spoke with a Yiddish accent for laughs, although she didn’t actually speak that way herself. Brice made her fame parodying the sort of women she wasn’t (cinematic vamps and high-class society dames with English accents), thereby allowing the audience to laugh at them and her at the same time. She also became very well known for singing sentimental character songs crafted around the names “Sadie” and “Rose”.
Born Fanny Borach in 1891, her parents ran a saloon in Newark where Fanny sang and danced as a child. Her father was a drunk from Alsace. Her mother, who wore the pants in the family, was from Hungary. The mother ran the saloon, but the father drank the profits. So they moved to Brooklyn, where the mother sold real estate, which you couldn’t drink, at least.
At age 14, Fanny won an amateur contest at a Brooklyn theatre when she sang “When You Know You’re Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can’t Forget.” She took the name “Brice” from a neighbor. She got a job early in the chorus of a Cohan musical starring Victor Moore The Talk of New York (1907) but was fired for joking around during rehearsal.
Hired by the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, she commissioned two songs from the then unknown Irving Berlin. One of them was “Sadie Salome, Go Home”. She was a hit in The College Girls in 1910. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910 and 1911. Like Jimmy Durante, she was one of the few to make it big in show business PRIOR to working in vaudeville. When she worked in vaudeville it was strictly prestige dates such as Hammerstein’s Victoria and the Palace. A number of Shubert musicals followed, such as The Whirl of Society (1912) and The Honeymoon Express. In the years 1916-23, she returned to the Follies. In the late 20s, it was back to vaudeville.
Her one shot at a real starring role in a talkie, the 1927 vehicle My Man (based on her theme song) was not a real hit. As Joe Smith of Smith & Dale said, “She was a very funny girl, but a good actress for only about fifteen minutes.” The truth was, she couldn’t act—she mugged too hard, and played her roles from too great a distance. You can see it in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld: in her big dramatic scene, in which she plays herself, she is definitely weeping tears of glycerine.
Brice divorced her husband, jailed gangster Nick Arnstein in 1927 and married impresario Billy Rose in 1929. A number of Rose vehicles followed, such as Sweet and Low (1930), and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931), with Phil Baker and Ted Healy. She did a Ziegfeld Follies in 1934, where she introduced her popular character Baby Snooks. In 1936 she separated from Billy Rose. Illness (spinal neuritis) and divorce caused her early retirement from the stage. She moved out to L.A. where she starred as Baby Snooks on radio, and took bit parts in movies for the remainder of her career. Brice died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The 1939 film Rose of Washington Square is supposedly based on Brice’s relationship with Arnstein. Unfortunately, it stars Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, which is sort of like casting mayonnaise and white bread in a story about mustard and pumpernickel. Lacking any hint of humor or spice, the film also makes the traditional Hollywood mistake of featuring 1939 music and fashions in a story set twenty years earlier. Funny Girl (1968) gets it better, but somehow seems to be more about its star Barbara Streisand than about Brice. The film focuses on Brice’s problematic relationship with Arnstein (Omar Sharif), who comes off in the movie – unaccountably – as a saint. the 1975 sequel Funny Lady is about Brice’s rocky marriage to Rose. Brice herself managed to make a cameo from beyond the grave in the 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig, thanks to Modern Movie Magic.
To find out more about history of vaudeville and major vaudevillians like Fanny Brice, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.