For generations of non-cineastes who grew up watching reruns of I Love Lucy when they stayed home sick from school, it may come as a surprise that Lucille Ball was a prolific film actor. Her most notable films are the ones in which she snagged dramatic supporting roles among high-profiles casts like Stage Door and Without Love, both starring Katharine Hepburn. She also cut her teeth doing comedy, playing alongside the Marx brothers in movies like 1938’s Room Service, where she undoubtedly learned the slapstick trade that would make her a household name. Unfortunately, Warner’s Lucille Ball Film Collection doesn’t include any of those films, instead focusing on her lead-role B movies for RKO and MGM and a couple of post-Lucy comedies.
Based on a magazine story, the utterly absurd but not-quite-camp The Big Street tells the tale of a busboy, Little Pinks (Henry Fonda), who inexplicably falls in love with New York nightclub singer Gloria Lyons (Ball) after saving her little yappy dog (Baby) from being splattered by a taxicab. Later, when Gloria’s sugar daddy slaps her, sending her tumbling down—oh, I don’t know—a whopping 10 steps (his immediate response to the head waiter: “She was drunk. She fell. Now get me 15 eyewitnesses to prove it”), Pinks takes the bitter, crippled Gloria to his dank basement apartment to care for her. Creepy, right? Things get increasingly far-fetched when the clearly insane Pinks attempts to push Gloria, who’s wheelchair-bound and whom he and everyone around him take to calling “Your Highness” despite her abject cruelty, through the Holland Tunnel and all the way to Miami! Once there, Gloria manages to sniff out a rich former suitor and props herself under a beach umbrella, spreads her peacock feathers for him, and pretends to be fully recovered. Of course, the stunt, unworthy of even Lucy’s most desperate schemes, fails and the film ends with Gloria not so much realizing that Pinks was the one for her all along but that he’s the only one who will have her. He helps her out of her chair and they “dance” for a few moments until she collapses. Everyone in the room has apparently moonlighted as coroners because they all know instantly that she croaked.
To say that Ball is miscast in The Big Street would be to imply that there was an actress who could have played such a ridiculously unbelievable character. (Bette Davis, perhaps? Though that’s certainly no compliment.) By film’s end, Ball allows Gloria to soften, and her voice and eyes are desperate and vulnerable when she finally acknowledges Pinks but you can’t help but expect her tears to burst into “waaaaah!”-level caricature. Ball plays diva better as a supporting player in Dance, Girl, Dance, the only good film in the collection. She also uses her own singing voice in this one, which isn’t great but isn’t Lucy-bad either and it serves the bawdy character well. Ball’s Bubbles is likeable because, unlike Gloria, we see the greedy man’s-world hurdles that force her to turn against her female counterparts in the name of survival. Ball handily overshadows the subtler Maureen O’Hara, who’s the real lead here, so it isn’t particularly offensive that the film has been retroactively marketed as a Lucille Ball film, despite the fact that she got third billing. The obvious projection screens and Hollywood sets that stand in for New York City are cringe-worthy, but Dance is often funny, touching, and reflective of director Dorothy Arzner’s singular feminist voice in old Hollywood. If not a keeper, the film is definitely one to be seen, if only for Ball’s terrific burlesque performance.
The insignificant Du Barry Was a Lady, the third pre-TV fame film in the collection, is yet another story about a female performer with money on the brain (the movies would have us believe that upward mobility was a woman’s only concern in the 1940s): boy (Gene Kelly) meets girl (Ball), boy loses girl to lottery-winning coat-check boy (Red Skelton), coat-check boy has extended dream sequence in which he, as King Louis XV, chases Madame du Barry (also Ball) around her boudoir and gives her…a giant pearl necklace. In other words: total drivel. The set is rounded out by 1963’s Critic’s Choice, based on Ira Levin’s play about an obnoxiously self-important Broadway critic (Bob Hope, who desperately tries to give his character an ounce of humanity but fails) who thinks his housewife-turned-playwright wife (Ball) is a hack (it’s just like that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy writes a semi-autobiographical novel and Ricky doesn’t approve, only not funny at all), and 1974’s Mame, a film version of the hit Broadway musical in which Ball, in her final feature role, takes on the liberal and extravagant title character made popular by Angela Lansbury. The cast also features another actress famous for her work on television, Bea Arthur, who reprises her role as Mame’s BFF and steals almost every scene she’s in. Gays will rejoice…but probably no one else.
The early RKO films (Dance, Girl, Dance, The Big Street) look and sound great, and every color in the Technicolor rainbow that is Du Barry Was a Lady, including Lucille Ball's crimson-colored hair, pop-too bad those colors are constantly fluctuating (early on, some characters appear as if they're inexplicably blushing). There are some strange effects on the outlines of bodies throughout the film and whites are a little too luminescent, but otherwise color is decent and the cheesy sound effects are loud, with Gene Kelly's fancy footwork (his tap number is the only completely watchable scene in the film), coming in crisp and clear. The nicely shot Mame gets a decent transfer (though the edges of the opening credits are slightly distorted), and every raspy syllable of Ball and co-star Bea Arthur's songs are perfectly audible.
Vintage comedy and musical shorts and "classic" cartoons (are these added features supposed to make us feel like we're watching the film in a theater in the 1940s?), theatrical trailers for the three later films, and a pretty worthless vintage featurette on Mame that's basically an extended trailer (it's called Lucky Mame on the box and DVD menu, but its actual, and equally nonsensical, title is Lucy Mame). Pretty much all that can be expected from a box set like this, though a featurette focusing on Ball's film career would have been nice.or at least a booklet with an essay explaining how and why these five films were chosen.
A nice gift for all those Lucy McGillicuddy completists out there, but everyone else can skip this box set and wait for Dance, Girl, Dance (and The Big Street, if you want a good laugh) to air on TCM.