"Lucy, I'm home."
Hard to believe but, yes, there was a theatrical life for Lucille Ball outside the famous television series, and this collection of five films displays some of her RKO, MGM, and Warner Bros. motion-picture work before and after the "I Love Lucy Show." WB make the movies available in the "Lucille Ball Film Collection" box set as well as in individual purchases if there are only occasional items that strike one's fancy. Let me briefly tell you about four of the movies and then go into greater detail about one of the more representative titles.
"Dance, Girl, Dance": The first up, chronologically, is "Dance, Girl, Dance" from RKO Radio Pictures, 1940, directed by Dorothy Arzner and co-starring Maureen O'Hara, Louis Hayward, Virginia Field, and Ralph Bellamy. In actuality, Ms. Ball receives only third billing, behind O'Hara and Hayward, but she was on her way up.
The story is a light, breezy romance with Ball doing her bit as a burlesque dancer. I first saw this film many years ago on TV, and neither then nor now has it ever struck me anything special. However, it does show us that Ms. Ball could actually act, and her role here is a far cry from the airheaded Lucy Ricardo we all came to know and (maybe) love. Frankly, Ball is the best part of the show, and my rating is based on her performance alone. 6/10
"The Big Street": Next is "The Big Street" from RKO, 1942, alternatively known as "Damon Runyon's The Big Street" because the screenwriters based the film on a story by Runyon and because Runyon himself produced it. The movie co-stars Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Eugene Palette, Agnes Moorehead, Sam Levene, Ray Collins, and Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra.
If you've seen "Guys and Dolls," you'll get the idea. Runyon painted colorful portraits of what he said were the real denizens of New York's Broadway environs, but here they come off mostly as mundane, maudlin, and trite. Fonda has the unfortunate role of a busboy who falls in love with a high-class nightclub singer, played by Ms. Ball. When the singer falls and becomes paralyzed, guess who comes to her rescue. There are good moments, but mainly it's schmaltzy and sentimental, while trying too hard to make its characters picturesque. Still, of all the movies in this collection, this one shows us the most-different side of Lucille Ball. 5/10
"Critic's Choice": After the "Lucy" show had run its course and Lucy and Desi were no longer one, Ball returned to the big screen in two films with her old pal Bob Hope. The movies were "The Facts of Life" and the one in this set, "Critic's Choice" from 1962, directed by Don Weis, based on a stage play by Ira Levin, and co-starring Marilyn Maxwell, Rip Torn, Jessie Royce Landis, John Dehner, and Jim Backus.
"Critic's Choice" and "Mame" are the only films in the set that I actually saw in a theater, in both cases to my regret. "Critic's Choice" plays like a situation comedy, I suspect much of the Broadway play's humor having been toned down for movie audiences. Ball and Hope play husband and wife, the wife a writer and the husband a critic, the conflict coming when the critic must review the writer. You can see the complications. The most-pleasing aspect of the movie is its widescreen, color presentation; otherwise, despite a plethora of quips and one-line gags from Hope, it's a fairly routine affair. 4/10
"Mame": From 1974, directed by Gene Saks and co-starring Beatrice Arthur, Bruce Davison, Joyce Van Patton, Kibby Furlong, and Robert Preston, "Mame" is notable for several reasons. First, it is a big, lavish, splashy, widescreen Warner Bros. production based on the hit Broadway musical. Second, it marked Ms. Ball's final motion-picture appearance. And, third, it is one of the worst casting of a female lead in the history of movies, perhaps second only to Barbra Streisand's starring role in "Hello, Dolly!," the two films practically killing the Hollywood musical for all time.
Ms. Ball looks hopelessly lost at sea as the supposedly sophisticated bon vivant Auntie Mame. It was one of the few films I ever considered seriously walking out of in a theater, and I don't think that was more than fifteen or twenty minutes in. I watched about fifteen or twenty minutes of the DVD, and it confirmed my earlier reaction. Ms. Ball seems positively leaden in the part. Add to that the fact that audiences probably weren't ready to accept their beloved Lucy in anything but an accepted role, and you have a decided disappointment. 3/10
"Du Barry Was a Lady": I chose to give this one a longer look because it strikes me as showing off Ms. Ball's singing talents and comedic ability to best advantage. Arthur Freed and MGM produced the film in 1943, Roy Del Ruth directed, and Red Skelton, Gene Kelly, Virginia O'Brien, Rags Ragland, Zero Mostel, and Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra co-star, with uncredited bits from Buddy Rich, Lana Turner, and Ava Gardner.
Skelton and Ball share top billing, but it's really Skelton's picture. Still, Ms. Ball had come up quite a bit in billing in just a year or two. The director, Roy Del Ruth, specialized in lightweight affairs like "Topper Returns," "Panama Hattie," "Always Leave Them Laughing," and later "Phantom of the Rue Morgue." He keeps the action moving along, but it's mostly songs, dances, and sight gags that keep the film afloat.
Although the scriptwriters based the movie on a musical comedy by Cole Porter, it appears that they removed most of the Porter songs because the opening credits list a slew of other songwriters. In any case, a series of musical numbers and comedy skits make up the bulk of the film, working almost like a revue, with only a tenuous story line to connect the bits.
Ms. Ball plays May Daly, the headliner at a nightclub called the Club Petite, where she sings and woos audiences nightly. Skelton is Louis Blore, a hatcheck guy at the club, and, naturally, he's in love with her. Gene Kelly is Alec Howe, the club's piano player, and he, too, loves May and she him, but she refuses to marry him because he has no money. She determines only to marry somebody rich, and she makes no bones about it.
Then Louis wins the Irish Sweepstakes and becomes rich. The first thing he does is announce to the world that he is going to marry May, without, however, bothering to ask her. She accepts, but she tells him that it is to be a business deal only, that she doesn't really love him. Fair enough; Louis accepts.
The second half of the film is a fantasy segment. Louis mistakenly drinks a "Rooney," a high-powered Mickey Finn that knocks him out, and he dreams he is back in time two hundred years to the French court of Louis XV. He is the king, May is his girlfriend, Madame Du Barry, and Alec is a dashing, rebellious rogue called the Black Arrow.
The best part of the movie is the opening half hour or so in the nightclub, where we see a series of entertainers perform their acts, from Ball to Kelly to the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. As the movie progresses, it gets sillier, with Skelton generally mugging and clowning his way along. Still, the movie is uncommonly glamorous in appearance, and WB's print and transfer are excellent, making "Du Barry Was a Lady" an appealing proposition for Lucille Ball fans in particular. 6/10
The first two early films are in black-and-white, and they look good for their age. "Dance, Girl, Dance" is very slightly grainy, but, otherwise, like the others it displays fine B&W contrasts, deep black levels, and more than acceptable definition. "Du Barry" is in a 1.37:1 Technicolor, and it looks pretty good, with just the tiniest bit of color bleed-through and a completely clean screen. The last two films, "Critic's Choice" and "Mame" are in 2.35:1 ratio widescreen color, and, of course, with reasonably high bit rates and anamorphic transfers, they look best of all. "Mame" is especially rich and luxuriant.
All five films come with Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtracks, which makes sense in the case of the early films but comes as a surprise in a big production like "Mame." In any case, it's good mono, clear and quiet, if lacking somewhat in the fundamentals of frequency range and dynamic impact.
All of the films in the collection come with vintage short subjects, classic cartoons (except "Mame"), theatrical trailers, and from twenty-six to thirty-three scene selections. English is the only spoken language available on all five movies, with English and French subtitles on each.
Specific to "Du Barry Was a Lady" are the Oscar-nominated Pete Smith specialty short "Seeing Hands" and the cartoon "Bah Wilderness."
As I say, of the films in this set, "Du Barry Was a Lady" is the standout. It allows Ms. Ball to sing and dance and act and showcase her talents to the best of her ability. What's more, the film is easy on the eye, and the co-stars shine. The other movies in the set I could probably do without, but I'm sure Lucile Ball fans would heartily disagree. For them, this set seems tailor-made.