It's Awards season already at Funny Women! Each month I am going to take a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite Vintage Funny Woman. Contact us with suggestions of future nominees; these may include anyone from Vesta Tilley to Marti Caine. For the first entry I am going to propose for your votes the original ‘Funny Girl’, Fanny Brice.
“I’m the greatest star, I am by far, but no one knows it” sang Barbra Streisand in the musical film adaptation of the life of Fanny Brice, ‘Funny Girl’. This is a song I often sing to myself as a pep-talk whenever a casting director has “gone another way”, or my newest joke didn’t get the hilarious response I was expecting. Fanny Brice’s story is inspirational to anyone that felt they were an ugly duckling – although her taste in men was not the best!
Brice was born Fania Borach to Jewish immigrant parents in 1891, New York City. Fanny had an amazing voice coupled with charisma and so, at only 17 years old, she changed her name and dropped out of school to join a Burlesque revue. Before long she gained notoriety and managed to land herself a headlining role in the famous Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway before she even turned 20.
What I love about Fanny Brice is that she was unlike any other star of the Follies, a show famous for chorus lines of petite, curvy girls with blonde curls, large feathers and glamorous gowns. She was unfashionably tall and slender, with dark hair and large eyes; she certainly was not the typical cute, girly and pert-nosed showgirl of the day. Brice used this contrast to her advantage in her act and decided if she wasn’t going to be the prettiest girl, she was definitely going to be the funniest.
Here is a short film for the 1930s with Brice joining in a beauty competition with the Ziegfeld Girls
Audiences loved her but due to poor material she left the Follies and went off on tour, which included performing in London, with various musical revues. Brice, though young, was a clever business woman from the start and knew how to get ahead. She hired a specialist songwriter of female songs, Blanche Merrill, to write her character-comedy numbers which would go on to shape her career. Fanny often referred to herself as a “cartoonist working in the flesh”.
Before long Fanny returned to the Follies, this time armed with killer comedy routines. She also used her fantastic singing voice to deliver powerful torch songs such as ‘My Man’ a song that resonated with Brice’s own turbulent relationship with her second husband, and love of her life, con-man Nicky Arnstein.
Brice’s story is admirable and worth a look for anyone seeking to forge a career in performance or media. Her success did not come easy; she was hard working and tried to have it all, even performing well into the seventh month of both her pregnancies and returning straight back to rehearsals after the births. She overcame three failed marriages, including a very public scandal when husband number two Nicky Arnstein was sent to prison; she took risks at work, occasionally trying poorly-received serious material; she even had a failed nose job – anything to keep widening her appeal to the audiences of the 1920s. But Fanny always found her true home in comedy.
After the success of the first talking picture, ‘The Jazz Singer’, Fanny Brice became the first woman to star in a motion picture with sound. Sadly her film, ‘My Man’ was a flop. She only made six films in total as she never felt comfortable on screen.
Here is Fanny Brice, featuring a very young Judy Garland, in ‘Everybody Sing.’
This did not get her down though, she went straight back to the stage, this time performing in specially written shows produced by her third husband, the impresario Billy Rose.
Fanny Brice constantly evolved her career and by 1938 she had divorced Rose, and moved to California where she was starting a whole new era for herself, this time on radio. Only once did she take a break from broadcasting when she refused a salary cut brought about by the rise of television, sticking to her guns until she got the money. She played comic toddler ‘Baby Snooks’ on the radio until she died of a stroke on May 29th 1951.
During her radio hiatus, she started her autobiography which was never to be finished. I will rest my case for Fanny Brice as Vintage Funny Woman with a quote from the lady herself:
"I made most things happen for me, and if they were good, I worked to get them. If they were bad, I worked just as hard for that. But I am not sorry. I will tell anybody that and it is the truth. I lived the way I wanted to live and never did what people said I should do or advised me to do."
You can find out more about Fanny Brice in ‘Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl’ by Herbert G. Goldman and in The Jewish Women’s Archive