Tuesday, December 22

Lucy in the 40s

There was a professional life before I Love Lucy.  Lucille Ball  liked to intimate there wasn't.  She said she was washed up in Hollywood when she turned to television and that she had grown tired of making B films.  There were 24 movies in the 40s and a number of good ones.  We know what the lady could do in comedy but she was an actress whose dramatic turns always made me sit up and take notice and whose singing and dancing skills were evident.  Let's notice some of her work from those long-ago days...

Dance, Girl, Dance
This was a film that had some momentum in Ball's career.  She started the 40s with two B flicks, The Marines Fly High and You Can't Fool Your Wife... both utterly forgettable and belonging with some of her equally lackluster films of the 30s (although she made some good ones with Ginger Rogers).  Ball and Maureen O'Hara are rivals in a struggling dance troupe and have ambitions in different areas.  O'Hara wants to pursue ballet and Ball (whose character's name is Bubbles) would like to pursue a little more bump and grind.  Louis Hayward romances them both, further complicating matters.  Helmed by a pioneer in women directors, Dorothy Arzner, Ball had the showiest part in what is clearly a woman's picture.  She and O'Hara became lifelong friends.

Too Many Girls
One should watch this right after seeing any I Love Lucy episode where Lucy tries to sing in Ricky's nightclub.  One might be surprised at what a good singer she was but also how gorgeous.  Those looks were further enhanced a bit more down the road when she was photographed in color.  This musical-comedy is one of those collegiate things so popular in the decade.  She plays an unruly heiress whose father hires covert bodyguards to watch over her.  The movie maintains some fame because one of those bodyguards was Desi Arnaz in his film debut.

The Big Street
Comedies like A Girl, a Guy and a Gob and Look Who's Laughing failed to find an audience and she certainly seemed out of place in the western, Valley of the Sun.  But The Big Street was a whole other matter.  It may be the best acting she ever did in what she said was the favorite of her 85 movies.  Few female film characters have ever been as harsh, self-centered and mean as Gloria, a singer, a user and a... well, you know.  She treats Henry Fonda, a shy busboy, like dirt even though it's obvious he loves her.  How anyone could love such a character is either the film's downfall or clever plot point.  After she's paralyzed in an accident, she becomes even more unyielding, just as he's done all he can to help organize her comeback.  It's an acting potpourri with outstanding support from Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins (Lt. Tragg on Perry Mason).

Seven Days' Leave
A favorite with audiences but not the critics, its chief asset may be Ball's pairing with Victor Mature.  The two very much liked one another.  My spies never informed me how far their attraction was taken, but it's obvious there was one and they agreed they would look for another property to do together (which would be her final film of the decade).  Here, the musical-comedy has soldier Mature about to inherit a fortune with the proviso that he marry into a family that his family has long feuded with.  Guess who's a part of that family?  Oh, you're so smart.  Ball was smart, too.  She didn't renew her RKO contract (where all of the above-mentioned movies were made) and she joined more stars than there were in heaven at MGM.  Ball would be back at RKO one day.  She and Arnaz would buy the whole shebang.

Thousands Cheer &
Ziegfeld Follies
All studios liked their all-star assaults on the public where the contract players were lined up and told to sing and dance.  MGM not only jumped into the fray but, by and large, did it better and more colorfully than anyone else.  Ball, saturated in MGM color, was turned into a glamour girl.  O'Hara, Hayward, Hayworth, Crain, Fleming, Parker and Dahl certainly knew what Technicolor did for redheads.  These films usually had a young couple at the center of a romance with a gazillion stars playing themselves swirling about. 

Du Barry Was a Lady
Ball couldn't believe her good fortune to inherit a role that Ethel Merman had played on Broadway.  Nor could she believe how much money MGM spent on this production, a large chunk of which gave her a va-va-va-voom appearance.  The utterly silly schtick concerned a nightclub star who is adored by two men, a dancer and a hatcheck boy... Gene Kelly and Red Skelton.  The latter has a dream and wakes up with all three living in the times of King Louis XV.  A war-torn nation appreciated the Technicolor mindlessness.

Best Foot Forward
Even more successful than its predecessor, Ball plays herself in another musical-comedy about a circumstance that's rather vogue in this day and age... a college kid asking a movie star to be his date at the prom.  It was another Broadway play transferred to the screen, especially earmarked for Ball.  It introduced June Allyson to the movies.

Without Love
After completing the not-so-successful Meet the People with crooner Dick Powell, Ball jumped into a costarring role in one of Tracy and Hepburn's least successful outings, Without Love.  Ball's roles usually came with a smart mouth and it's in sparkling evidence here as Hepburn's best friend. I wonder, after her recent dazzling starring roles, why she accepted a sidekick role but perhaps it was due to working with Tracy and Hepburn, the latter a former costar in 1937s Stage Door.  Ball did develop an onscreen chemistry with Keenan Wynn as her love interest.

Easy to Wed
Ball and Wynn showed how good that chemistry was when they joined Esther Williams and Van Johnson for this musical remake of 1936s Libeled Lady which had starred Tracy, Myrna Loy, William Powell and Jean Harlow.  Both versions were well done and this remains one of my favorite musical-comedy Ball performances.  It concerned a slanderous newspaper story and a shaky wedding performed as a cover-up.   The highlight for me was watching Ball sing and dance to The Continental Polka, a gorgeous number that stands in direct contrast to the lack of musical talent of Lucy Ricardo.  Her followup film, Two Smart People, a crime caper, didn't work out so well due to some clunky dialogue.  Costar John Hodiak never really clicked as a leading man.

The Dark Corner
Ah, my favorite Ball role of all (and she got it on loanout to 20th Century Fox) and wouldn't you know it would be in a film noir?  Not just any noir, mind you, but one of the 10 best of the genre.  It came with the expert direction of Henry Hathaway, the delicious imperiousness of Clifton Webb and Ball at her dramatic best.  It suffers a little from a bland leading man, Mark Stevens, but he cannot do much damage to all that works so well.  Ball is a secretary, romantically involved with her boss, a private detective.  She is a strong woman, loyal to her man, who's willing to do anything she has to to help uncover who is trying to frame him for murder.  Of course like all good noirs, it is atmospheric... those shadows, the moody night scenes, psychological overtones, murky characters and a complicated plot.   Too bad she followed this up with a bomb at Universal, Lover Come Back.  She should have passed on it and just gone for the next one.

I think any actor who worked for director Douglas Sirk had a foot up on things.  Ball went to United Artists for this one, another  noir.  Oddly, given my love of the genre, I only saw this about a year ago for the first time and of course I was taken in.  A serial killer is on the loose in London (what a novel idea) and he puts ads in the newspaper to meet his victims.  When her friend is one of those murdered, a showgirl (Ball) volunteers to work with the cops to entice the killer.  The casting amuses me because there's no leading man although George Sanders, Boris Karloff (!), Charles Coburn and Cedric Hardwicke fill in ably.

Sorrowful Jones
A comedy with Franchot Tone, Her Husband's Affairs, went down like the Titanic but Ball bounced back with Sorrowful Jones, her first romp with Bob Hope.  I was never all that fond of him except as an Oscar host, but their teaming did breathe some life into the comedy format.  One always sensed a lot of ad-libbing accompanied the scripted words.  This is a retread of the Shirley Temple opus, Little Miss Marker, concerning a little girl being used as collateral to pay a debt to a bookie.  The duo would go on to do Fancy Pants (1950) The Facts of Life (1960) and Critic's Choice (1963).

Miss Grant Takes Richmond
Any actress would have been lucky to spend time in the arms of William Holden and she wouldn't even have to set her nose on fire to do it.  These were the days before Holden hit it big (although that was on the cusp).  He made a bunch of so-so comedies and this is one of them.  Ball plays an inept secretarial student, fresh out of school, who gets taken on by Holden's realty firm, although he is more concerned about his backroom bookie business.  Chuckle, chuckle.  In my opinion this was one of the first glimpses of the kind of comedy she would bring to I Love Lucy.

Scott, Mature, Ball & Sonny Tufts in Easy Living

Easy Living
She returned to her alma mater, RKO, for her final film of the decade and I think the last drama she ever did.  Her old pal Victor Mature starred as a football hero, living high on the hog, who is diagnosed with a heart disease that will sideline him for good.  Lizabeth Scott plays his selfish wife who isn't at all comfortable with fewer coins coming in.  Ball is the team secretary who loves him but doesn't wish to intrude on his marriage.  As filming was to commence, the actresses switched roles... Ball said she was tired of playing hard dames and wanted something softer.  She did well, too, but Scott certainly wound up with the showier role. 

Four short years later Ball would inhabit Lucy Ricardo and the rest, as they say, was history.

Next posting:
Movie review

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