August 16, 2011

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To celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday on August 6th, Warner Archive released three films from her time as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO. She appeared in 21 films for the studio between 1938 and 1942, nabbing seven credits in ’38 alone. Made quickly and forgotten even faster, these occasionally flat farces are enlivened by Ball’s bracingly physical performances and the brisk pacing instilled by a trio of talented studio directors.  The Lucille Ball RKO Comedy Collection, Vol. 1,  includes Go Chase Yourself  (1938), Next Time I Marry (1938) and Look Who’s Laughing (1941).

After being let go from Columbia after a string of bit parts, Ball was brought to RKO upon the recommendation of producer Pandro S. Berman, who gave her supporting roles in the Astaire-Rogers musicals Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). She continued in small roles in “A” pictures, memorably in Stage Door (1937), but with her salary bumped to $2,000 a week, RKO ramped up her schedule to include B productions in between her prestige jobs. The first of these was Go Chase Yourself(1938), a Joe Penner vehicle directed by veteran Edward F. Cline, who had started out with Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton.

Penner was a Hungarian-born comic who hit it big on the radio in the early ’30s. In Radio’s Forgotten Years Elizabeth Mcleod described his work as, “utter slapstick foolishness, delivered in an endearingly simpering style that’s the closest thing the 1930s had to Pee-wee Herman.” By 1938 his popularity had faded, and he would die of heart failure three years later at the age of 36.

His shtick does not translate well in Go Chase Yourself, in which he plays a gullible bank clerk who unknowingly gets mixed up in a robbery. He has a slow, mewling delivery that is out of step with the manic tempo, with scenes flitting by before he can land a punchline. And with his shy, shuffling gait he seems to recede into the frame. He is not helped by director Cline’s disinterest, composing everything in flat frontal shots.

Somehow Penner’s foundling has a wife, and Lucille Ball invigorates the drab proceedings with her lightbulb flashing eyes and brassy insouciance. Her character has had enough of the Penner character’s idiocies, understandably, and rails at him with superova-strength nags. It’s a small, thinly sketched role, but Ball enlarges her henpecking wife into somebody more righteous and destructive, an inkling of the chaos Lucy would later unleash.

She gets more room to stretch out in the charming It Happened One Night (1934) knockoff, Next Time I Marry (1938). In this class-jumping marriage comedy, Ball gets her first starring credit as Nancy Crocker Fleming, a dizzy heiress who has to marry an American to earn her inheritance. Her fiancee is the mincingly European Count Georgi (Lee Bowman), so Nancy looks for an All-American doofus to get the cash.

The eye-opening opener finds Nancy cruising by a WPA ditch-digging project in New Jersey, asking each worker if they’re married. She hits her jackpot with Anthony (James Ellison), a philosophical bum (he quotes Omar Khayyam) curious to see where this adventurous dame will lead him. He is friskier than she had expected, brandishing their marriage license and forcing her to go on an RV trip across the Southwest, with Count Georgi and the press corps on their tail.

Packed with incident and surprisingly rich characterizations, it’s a worthy imitator of the Frank Capra classic. The NY Times agreed, saying, “No student of the motion picture in its more thoughtfully budgeted branches can afford to miss it.”  Ball is given a juicy screwball character and she runs with it, flipping from an impudently immature socialite into a lovestruck klutz with aplomb. Both run on nervous energy, they just flow in different directions. James Ellison’s rough-hewn masculinity is a good foil for Ball’s machinations, the calm before her storm. Next Time I Marry was Garson Kanin’s second film as a director (he would be best remembered for his screenwriting career with his wife Ruth Gordon, which produced Adam’s Rib), and his work is swiftly paced and sensitive to his performers’ talents. In her biography Lucille, Kathleen Brady interviewed Kanin about the film:

She [Lucille Ball] was extremely inventive to the point I was surprised she didn’t want to write. Like most good actresses, she did not like to be directed. She did not need to be. She was her own self.

This self isn’t very evident in Look Who’s Laughing (1941), a radio star corralling exercise for ace director Allan Dwan. Ball is shunted into an admiring girlfriend role here, as Edgar Bergen and “Fibber McGee and Molly” take up most of the screen time. Here is Dwan in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

“M.C.A. wanted to get their people into motion pictures – they were beginning to build into this giant outfit they eventually became. And they did it by making packages. Instead of just representing people, they put people together. They had Edgar Bergen and ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ – big radio stars – and they bought me away from my agent so I’d be one of their clients and part of a package. And so when they went to RKO, they supplied the whole works – stars, director and everything.”

After the studios were divested of their movie theaters in the 1948 Paramount Decision, this became the normal way of doing business, and remains so today. The agency delivered RKO a package, and the studio agreed to fund it. Look Who’s Laughing is an excuse for viewers to see these still wildly popular radio personalities in the flesh, so the plot conceives a way for Bergen (playing himself) and his dummy Charlie McCarthy to crash the world of Fibber McGee and Molly in Wistful Vista, somewhere in the Midwest.

After wrapping up another season on the radio, with Lucille Ball as his loving assistant Julie, Bergen and McCarthy fly out on vacation, but crash land in Wistful Vista. Fibber McGee is scheming to get an airplane manufacturer into the town, and Bergen’s business contacts could be the deciding factor. But of course there are some backdoor shenanigans by the theatrically villainous Gildersleeve (Harold Peary), and it takes a bit of deceptive seduction from Julie to right the wrongs.

The leads were radio stars for a reason. The Charlie McCarthy doll has more screen presence than the mono-tonal Bergen (and says the best line, “What fools we morons be”, to a soda jerk), while  Fibber McGee and Molly’s gentle bickering couple routine is anodyne and forgettable, the template for so many of today’s sitcoms in which a incompetent husband is indulged by a wise woman (they are the real life husband and wife Jim and Marian Jordan). I have no doubt their work is stronger over the airwaves.

Lucille Ball, while given little to do except look alluring in a nurse’s outfit and yearn after Bergen’s dead-eyed stare, pushes against the boundaries in her character. As with the other titles in the box set, she was assigned a type and invigorated it, this time injecting a frank sexuality and clumsiness to the stock “His Girl Friday” character. Lucille said, “I started as a model because I looked like a model, and ‘the other woman’ or ‘the career girl’ because I have a deep aggressive voice that has no softness or romance to it.” She took the talent at her disposal, sharpened them, and then tripped over them for a laugh.