Best known today via Barbra 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 Frank Keeney’s 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 (and also she couldn’t dance).
Hired by the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, she commissioned two songs from the then unknown Irving Berlin. One of them was “Sadie Salome, Go Home”, which poked fun at the then still raging Salome Craze. She was a hit in The College Girls in 1910. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910 and 1911. It was during this period that she was briefly married to her first husband, a Massachusetts barber named Frank White, whom she had met while she was on tour.
Like Jimmy Durante, Brice 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, both of which starred Al Jolson. In the years 1916-23, she returned to the Follies, the time when it was at its peak, thanks to Brice and cohorts like Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Bert Williams, and Leon Errol. During these years Brice collaborated with songwriter Blanche Merrill who crafted self-deprecating songs for her like “Becky’s Back in the Ballet” and “The Yiddish Bride”. Other special numbers Bride developed during this period included “I’m an Indian” and “I’m a Vamp”. In 1921, she debuted what was to become her signature song “My Man”, a pathos-inducing torch song of the type more associated with Sophie Tucker. All of these numbers became mainstays of her vaudeville act when she returned to vaud during the peak years of the late 1920s.
Based 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. The film is now lost, but you can still see her follow up Be Yourself (1930) which also didn’t make much of a splash. 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 (whom she’d been with for about 15 years) 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 developed her popular character Baby Snooks. She had been playing Snooks in vaudeville since 1912, the name adapted from a character in George McManus’s comic strip The Newlyweds. She claimed to have based much of Snooks’ physical traits on Baby Peggy, who not only shares a birthday with Brice, but is still alive as of this writing!)
In 1936 she separated from Billy Rose. Illness (spinal neuritis and a heart attack) 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. The Baby Snooks radio show ran from 1944 through 1948, although she made appearances as the character on other shows before and after that. 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.