Today Lucille Ball is widely regarded as a legend and the Queen of Comedy. Prior to her legend-making role as Lucy Ricardo in the pioneering sitcom I Love Lucy, Lucy was considered royalty in a less esteemed field–Queen of the ‘B’ movies. A ‘B’ movie does not necessarily mean that it is bad or lesser, it is just a film not given the prestige of A-list above the title type stars, the big directors, and the big budgets. During the studio era, films were often shown on a double bill. A newsreel, cartoon, and short film or serial would be shown first, followed by the B movie, and ending with the headliner, or an A film. B movies were also known as “programmers.”
Lucille Ball toiled away for a few years in uncredited and small bit roles at RKO before she was finally given a small supporting role in the A-list production, Stage Door (1937), starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. This film put Ball on the map and RKO started giving her leading roles in their B-list productions. Her first starring role was as Annabel Allison in The Affairs of Annabel (1938), co-starring Jack Oakie. In the film, Oakie plays Annabel’s agent who keeps getting her involved in one zany publicity scheme after another to promote her latest acting project. ‘Affairs’ was followed up by the sequel, Annabel Takes a Tour (1938). RKO originally intended to turn the Annabel films into a serial, but the project was aborted when Jack Oakie wanted more money.
After Annabel, Lucy starred in one B film after another, Go Chase Yourself (1938). In this film, Lucy plays the wife of a man who is mistaken for a bank robber and ends up in a high-speed police pursuit. In another film, The Next Time I Marry (1938), Lucy plays a woman who is set to inherit $20 million if she marries an American. She is in love however, with a Count from another country. Lucy meets an American man and convinces him to marry her. Eventually she ends up trapped in a trailer a la The Long Long Trailer (1954). In an excellent B film, Beauty for the Asking (1939), Lucy plays an entrepreneur who ends up inventing a new face cream after being dumped by her boyfriend, Patric Knowles. Lucy also appeared in another fantastic B-movie, Five Came Back. In this film, she plays a loose woman who ends up being a passenger on a plane that crashes in the jungle. After the plane is fixed, it is revealed that only 5/9 passengers can return home.
Lucy continued to appear in B films at RKO through the early 1940s. In fact, by the early 1940s, she had appeared in so many B movies, she earned the nickname, “Queen of the Bs.” One of the most pivotal B movies that she appeared in was Too Many Girls (1940), co-starring a young 23-year old Cuban named Desi Arnaz. Lucy and Desi met on set and it was love at first sight. She would later appear in the very charming A Girl, A Guy and A Gob (1941), co-starring a young and adorable (!) Edmond O’Brien, and George Murphy who plays a character named Coffee Cup. This is a great movie and I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, despite how awesome A Girl, A Guy and A Gob is, it was not a film that was going to elevate Lucy to A-list star status.
Despite appearing in dozens of starring roles by the early 1940s, Lucy had yet to get that one part that would change her career. There was no Morning Glory (1933; Katharine Hepburn’s first Oscar-winning role), or Of Human Bondage (1934; Bette Davis’ breakthrough part), or Captain Blood (1935; Errol Flynn’s breakthrough, star-making role) in her future. Lucy had proven herself a capable comedienne. She also had demonstrated excellent dramatic skills in films such as Dance Girl Dance (1940). This woman had “it.” She was gorgeous. She was talented. She had everything that any of her contemporaries had. So why couldn’t RKO make her a real star?
In 1943, Lucy left RKO and moved to MGM. Despite the move, she continued to appear in one film after another that really didn’t do much for her career. The biggest impact MGM made was dying her hair its signature shade of red. Later, she worked at a variety of different studios and made a lot of great films: Lured (1947), The Dark Corner (1946), Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949); but nothing made her a star. It would take her CBS radio show, My Favorite Husband, where she portrayed the first incarnation of Lucy Ricardo (albeit with a different name, Liz Cooper) to finally give her the break she needed. The success of My Favorite Husband led to being offered a television show. And thanks to Lucy and Desi’s tenacity, that television show ended up being I Love Lucy–which finally gave her the break she wanted and deserved.
Fast forward to 1957, Lucy and Desi, now the owners of the highly successful Desilu Studios television production company, were able to purchase the failing RKO Studios–the very studio that couldn’t make Lucille Ball into a movie star. Thanks to the new medium of television, Lucille Ball, the former “Queen of the Bs” was now “The First Lady of Television” and the “Queen of Comedy.”
By the late 1940s, Lucille Ball’s movie career was going nowhere. After a few years as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO, she moved to MGM. Despite being at the more glamorous studio known for “having more stars than there are in heaven,” Lucy wasn’t one of them. The biggest impact MGM had on Lucy’s career was setting Sydney Guilaroff up to do her hair for DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). He dyed her hair its signature shade of red. The red hair eventually became her trademark and she would wear it for the rest of her life. However, despite her new vivacious hair color, MGM was not giving her any roles that would catapult her into super stardom. Lucy was also in her late 30s, not old obviously, but definitely not the age of ingenue. After fifteen years in the business, it was looking like Lucy wasn’t going to make it as a movie star.
Also toiling away at MGM was silent comedy legend Buster Keaton. Buster had been a superstar back in the 1920s with his groundbreaking silent film classics such as The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr (1928), and Sherlock, Jr. (1924). He was known for his expert stunt work, impeccable timing, hilarious gags using props, and of course, being “The Great Stone Face.” In the late 1920s, MGM offered Buster a contract with their studio, which he signed despite the protests of colleagues such as Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin. Both men warned Buster that he’d be signing away all creative control if he were to sign a studio contract. Unfortunately for Buster, Lloyd and Chaplin were correct. Buster’s career was effectively ruined after signing on with MGM. The Cameraman (1928) is arguably his last, great film.
Buster ended up being tasked with making some truly terrible films in the 1930s. The direction of his career, along with pain emanating from a previously undiagnosed broken neck (broken during Sherlock, Jr.), and the breakup of his marriage to Natalie Talmadge led to him becoming an alcoholic. He languished for a while, but thankfully pulled it together by the 1940s. MGM also gave him a gig as a gag writer. He would write gags for the Marx Brothers’ last three films: At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store. He also wrote gags for In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Easy to Wed (1946) co-starring Lucille Ball.
It was during the 1940s when Buster, seeing Lucy’s potential for physical comedy, began coaching her on how to use props and how to do pratfalls without getting injured. Buster was an expert on the latter, having been literally thrown around the stage as a child during his parents’ vaudeville act. It was during one of these throws where Buster acquired his nickname, “Buster.” Buster also coached Lucy on how to keep a straight face during her comedic bits, a quality that suited her well as a key part of her “Lucy” character’s comedy is that she fully believes in any stunt she cooks up. Whether it’s Lucy Ricardo deciding to “soak up local color” in a wine vat in Rome, or pretending to be Ricky’s hillbilly date, one thing is for certain, when Lucy wants something, that woman does not screw around. She gives 110% percent each and every time.
Buster was known for his impeccable timing and he recognized this quality in Lucy as well. In the late 1940s, Buster was working at Columbia Studios starring in a series of comedic short films, and he recommended Lucy for a contract. She was given a three picture deal. Her first film under her new contract was Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1948) co-starring a then up-and-coming William Holden. He was two years away from his breakthrough, star-making role in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In ‘Richmond,’ Lucy was given the opportunity to show her physical comedy chops, including a scene where she deals with a typewriter ribbon that comes unspooled, and later a scene on a jackhammer. Her next film, The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), teamed Lucy with Eddie Albert. This film features a funny scene where Lucy and Eddie get drunk on wine while hiding in a wine barrel. Lucy’s last film in her picture deal was The Magic Carpet (1951), and the story behind that movie is stuff of legend and worth discussing in another blog entry.
At the same time Lucy was making films for Columbia, she was also appearing on CBS’ radio show, “My Favorite Husband.” This show had the same writing staff as I Love Lucy, and as a result, many of the season one I Love Lucy plots are re-hashed versions of some “My Favorite Husband” plotlines. Lucy’s radio show was very popular and successful. CBS, recognizing the potential in the new burgeoning medium of television, wanted to bring “My Favorite Husband” to the small screen, with Lucy and her radio show husband, Richard Denning, reprising their roles. However, Lucy wanted her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz to co-star with her. Desi was a bandleader with his Desi Arnaz Orchestra and as a result, was always on the road. Lucy wanted him closer to home and thought that a television show would be the perfect vehicle for both of them. However, CBS didn’t want the Cuban Arnaz playing All American Lucy’s husband, thinking that the audience wouldn’t “buy” it–despite them actually being married in real life.
To prove to CBS that the American public would accept them as a couple, Lucy and Desi decided to put together a vaudeville act and tour the country. The success of the tour would dictate whether Americans wanted to see Lucy and Desi together as a couple. Lucy and Desi enlisted the writers from “My Favorite Husband,” Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer, to put together a couple comedy bits. In one of the bits, Lucy plays “The Professor,” a cellist who wants a job in Desi’s orchestra. Not seeing her potential, Desi insists that she audition. This act would later find its way into the sixth episode of I Love Lucy, titled “The Audition.”
While Lucy rehearsed the comedic cello bit, Buster coached her on how to use the cello prop to get as many jokes out of it as possible. The cello itself was over 90% of the comedy of the sketch. He worked with Lucy on how to handle the props, the timing, everything. Part of Buster’s advice to Lucy was that she needed to treat the cello as if it were a Stradivarius and guard it with her life when she’s not using it. She couldn’t risk anyone messing around with it, since the entire act is built around the cello. A friend of Desi’s, Pepito Perez, had customized the particular cello that Lucy was using. Lucy borrowed for it the vaudeville act, the eventual pilot episode, and for the aforementioned episode of I Love Lucy. The cello had a compartment in the back which held a stool, a plunger, and other props needed for the act. Without one of these props the act would have been ruined.
Buster’s coaching paid off, the vaudeville tour and subsequent pilot were a massive success and CBS bought I Love Lucy which went on to make megastars out the entire cast, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley, but especially Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball became a superstar. She took her stardom and built an entire 30+ year career on playing her “Lucy” character. Buster Keaton’s mentorship was a big factor in Lucy’s success and it’s not hard to see his influence. He would appear with Lucy on various television programs throughout the rest of his life. There is no doubt that Lucy and Buster had great mutual respect for one another. I Love Lucy was reported to be one of Buster’s favorite television programs.
Allen Jenkins has one of those mugs and voices that is instantly recognizable the second he’s on screen and opens his mouth. He’s never the lead, or even the major second lead, but he’s always there to provide ample support. My first introduction to Allen Jenkins was in his numerous appearances on I Love Lucy, often as a police officer. His most memorable appearance was in a late second season episode, “Ricky and Fred Are TV Fans.” In this episode, Lucy and Ethel are upset about becoming boxing widows when Ricky and Fred settle in for the evening to watch “the big fight.” It is established that Ricky and Fred have spent a lot of evenings watching boxing on television and their wives are fed up with being ignored night after night. Lucy and Ethel decide to go down to the corner drug store and call Ricky on the phone. Lucy will disguise herself as one of her friends and ask Ricky to call Lucy to the phone, which should clue him in that Lucy and Ethel are gone. The plan doesn’t work however, as Ricky just answers the phone, calls Lucy to the phone, sets the receiver down, then returns to watching the fight. The entire crowd in the drug store is caught up in the fight, including Officer Jenkins (Allen Jenkins). Lucy unable to get the drugstore clerk’s attention (because he’s watching the fight on television), decides to make change for herself. The bell on the cash register gets Officer Jenkins’ attention and he accuses Lucy of trying to rob the drug store. Lucy and Ethel get away.
Later, Lucy and Ethel return to the Ricardos’ apartment only to see the phone still off the hook and Ricky and Fred still watching the fight–they didn’t even notice the women’s disappearance. Insulted, Lucy decides to climb up onto the roof to cut the electricity to the Ricardos’ apartment. It seems a little drastic, and she has no fear about being electrocuted, but that’s how Lucy works, she doesn’t screw around. Anyway, while Lucy and Ethel discuss which cord is running to the Ricardos’ apartment, Officer Jenkins finds them and brings them down to the precinct. Now at the police station, Officer Jenkins tells his superior, Officer Nelson (Frank Nelson), that he’s finally tracked down the infamous female robbers, “Pickpocket Pearl” and “Sticky Fingers Sal.” The women are identified based on their hair color. ‘Pearl’ is a blonde and ‘Sticky Fingers’ is a brunette, who must have dyed her hair red, deduces Officer Nelson.
LUCY: Dyed your hair. A lot you know. My hair is naturally red. Isn’t it Ethel? ETHEL: Look Lucy, let’s not add perjury to our other charges. LUCY: Well I might have expected something like that from you. Pick. Pocket. Pearl.
Lucille Ball as “Lucy Ricardo” and Vivian Vance as “Ethel Mertz” in “Ricky and Fred Are TV Fans” in I Love Lucy. Originally aired June 22, 1953.
Allen Jenkins went all the way back to 1939 with Lucille Ball when he appeared with her in the RKO film, Five Came Back. In the film, nine passengers board a flight from Los Angeles to Panama City. During the flight, the plane flies directly into an intense nighttime storm, which ends with the plane crashing into a rainforest. The passengers and crew survive. Eventually the plane is repaired, but can now only support the weight of five passengers. The passengers and crew must decide which five people will get to return home. Lucy plays Peggy Nolan, a woman with a shady past and Allen plays Pete, a gunman who is tasked with escorting the son of a gangster back home.
Eight years prior to Five Came Back, Allen had made his film debut in the 1931 short film, Straight and Narrow playing what else? An ex-convict. Allen played many unsavory characters throughout his career. He also appeared in many memorable pre-code films such as: Three on a Match (1932), Employees’ Entrance (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Blondie Johnson (1933), and Jimmy the Gent (1934). During the production code era, he played opposite big Warner Brothers stars like Errol Flynn (The Perfect Specimen (1937), Footsteps in the Dark (1941), and Dive Bomber (1941)) and Humphrey Bogart (Marked Woman (1938), Dead End (1937), and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) ).
Jenkins was born on April 9, 1900 in Staten Island, New York. Despite often being cast as the dimwitted thug or comic relief, Jenkins actually had a long pedigree when it came to show business training. His family earned their living in show business and he later trained at the reputable American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In the 1920s, Jenkins was working steadily on Broadway, even replacing Spencer Tracy in the play, “The Last Mile.” Jenkins’ turn in Tracy’s role is what led to Darryl F. Zanuck discovering him and bringing him out to Hollywood to work for Paramount Pictures. His first major role was reprising his Broadway role of “Frankie Wells” in the 1932 film adaptation of Blessed Event, starring Lee Tracy. This role led to Jenkins receiving steady work, often in gangster films throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
In Ball of Fire, Jenkins has a memorable role as the garbage man who rattles off one slang word after another, much to the bewilderment of the professors who are trying to write a comprehensive encyclopedia on American slang. He would later reprise his role in the film’s 1948 remake, A Song is Born.
GARBAGE MAN: I could use a bundle of scratch right now on account of I met me a mouse last week. PROFESSOR ODDLY: Mouse? GARBAGE MAN: What a pair of gams. A little in, a little out, and a little more out. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: I am still completely mystified. GARBAGE MAN: Well, with this dish on me hands and them giving away 25 smackaroos on that quizzola. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: Smackaroos? PROFESSOR ODDLY: Smackaroos? What are smackaroos? GARBAGE MAN: A smackaroo is a… PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: No such word exists. GARBAGE MAN: Oh, it don’t, huh? A smackaroo is a dollar, pal. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: Well, the accepted vulgarism for a dollar is a buck. GARBAGE MAN: The accepted vulgarism for a smackaroo is a dollar. That goes for a banger, a fish, a buck, or a rug. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: Well, what about the mouse? GARBAGE MAN: The mouse is a dish. That’s what I need the moolah for. PROFESSOR ODDLY: Moolah? GARBAGE MAN: Yeah. The dough. We’ll be stepping. Me and the smooch, I mean the dish. I mean the mouse. You know, hit the jiggles for a little drum boogie.
Allen Jenkins as “Garbage Man,” Richard Hadyn as “Professor Oddly” and Gary Cooper as “Professor Bertram Potts” in “Ball of Fire” (1941).
One of Jenkins’ last film roles was as the elevator operator who takes pity on the perpetually hungover Thelma Ritter in Pillow Talk (1959). Later, he moved to television, where he often played cops, or characters in blue-collared jobs. Aside from I Love Lucy, Jenkins also appeared in Adam 12, Bewitched, Batman, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He also made frequent appearances on Red Skelton’s show, The Red Skelton Hour, and also had a role in the 1950s sitcom, Hey Jeannie! (1956-1957). He is also remembered for voicing Officer Dribble on the cartoon series, Top Cat (1961-1962).
Allen Jenkins passed away on July 20, 1974 from lung cancer at the age of 74.
HUNK: Maybe I’m wrong. We all make mistakes, boss. That’s why they put the rubber on the ends of pencils.
Allen Jenkins as “Hunk” to Humphrey Bogart in Dead End, 1937.
I ‘m coming in hot with a last minute entry for Classic Film and TV Corner’s “Discovering Classic Cinema Blogathon.” I actually saw this blogathon announced awhile back and forgot to enter it. Oops. This is also my first opportunity to type something substantial using my new laptop that my husband got me for Christmas! Woohoo. My introduction to classic film didn’t come via the usual routes. I’m not old enough to have seen any of these movies in the theater during their original run. The first movie I saw in the theater was Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the age of 5 in 1989. Apparently I saw a re-release of The Aristocats in 1987 when I was 3, but according to my mom it did not go well and I did not see the whole movie. Lol. I traumatized my parents enough that it was 2 years before I went back. Having grown up in Salem, OR during the mid-to-late 80s through the early 00s, there wasn’t really any opportunity to see the classics in repertory theaters, as Salem doesn’t have any. While I did watch the annual TV viewings of The Wizard of Oz, and had secretly seen Psycho and The Birds despite my mom not wanting my sister and I to see them (my dad rented them while she was out of town), these did not ignite my love of classic cinema.
One evening in 1994, 10-year old me was flipping channels and came across Nickelodeon’s evening programming, something called “Nick-at-Nite.” For the record, 90s Nick-at-Nite was one of the greatest things ever and I really wish it would come back, but I digress. Anyway, I was instantly sucked in by the colorful graphics, catchy jingles and fun animation that once graced the evening Nickelodeon block. A voiceover came on screen and announced that a show called I Love Lucy was coming up on the schedule. I honestly do not recall if I’d ever seen or heard of I Love Lucy prior to this moment, but I do know that it was not something I watched regularly. The now-familiar I Love Lucy theme song started, the hearts on satin appeared with the cast’s names: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. I still remember the first episode I saw, “L.A. at Last!” with William Holden guest starring. At that moment, I had no idea who the cast members were, let alone William Holden.
I was instantly transfixed by Lucy’s antics. In “L.A. at Last!,” Lucy decides that she and the Mertzes need to find the “celebrity watering hole,” where the stars all gather at the same place, thus saving Lucy time in having to track them down one-by-one. Bobby the Bellboy suggests that the group visit Hollywood’s famed Brown Derby restaurant–a well known hotspot for celebrities. As an aside, I will forever be sad that I cannot go to the Brown Derby, nor can I go to 99% of the famous Hollywood nightclubs of the 30s-50s. No Ciro’s or The Mocambo for me. Anyway, while at the Brown Derby, Lucy, Ethel and Fred are spotting celebrities left and right. We hear multiple celebrities paged to the telephone: Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Walter Pidgeon, Ava Gardner. Lucy and the Mertzes see each and every one of them (offscreen) get up for the phone. Ethel also manages to offend Eve Arden in the neighboring booth by asking her to identify a caricature of herself as either Judy Holliday or Shelley Winters. Lucy for her part, is in awe of Ethel. “You touched her!” Lucy says, much to Ethel’s dismay at her faux pas.
Then, big star William Holden sits down in the booth next to Lucy and the Mertzes. Ethel is immediately starstruck and gets Lucy’s attention. Lucy catches a glimpse of Holden in the booth and is swooning. Being the creeper that she is, Lucy can’t stop staring at Holden, making him very uncomfortable in the process. Lucy’s encounter with Holden at the Brown Derby culminates with her tripping the waiter and causing him to dump a cream pie all over Holden’s head. Later, Holden meets Ricky at MGM and offers to give him a ride home to his Beverly Palms Hotel suite. When Ricky tells Lucy he’s brought a big star home with him, Lucy is overjoyed, until Ricky reveals the big star’s identity. Frantic, Lucy puts on a ridiculous disguise which includes large black cat eye glasses, a scarf to hide her hair, and a big putty nose. The scene that follows is hands down the funniest moment of the entire series (in my opinion). The look on William Holden and Desi Arnaz’ faces when Lucy turns around after “fixing” her putty nose is hysterical. How lucky was I to have this be the first episode of I Love Lucy that I ever saw?
I was hooked on I Love Lucy from then on, watching it at 8:00pm every night–except on Saturdays, I Love Lucy started at 10:00pm. On “Whole Lotta Lucy” Saturdays, Nick-at-Nite showed two episodes of I Love Lucy, followed by an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Every episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour featured a different guest star. With the exception of Fred MacMurray, I didn’t know who any of the guest stars were. I also knewvery few of the I Love Lucy guest stars, with the exception of John Wayne, Orson Welles, and Bob Hope. As a kid, I always figured that these were people who “were famous at the time.” Lol.
Anyway, my family and I were also avid library goers, spending approximately one Sunday afternoon a month perusing the stacks. Now fully obsessed with I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball, I checked out each and every book about her in the library. I read multiple biographies about her, Desi, Vivian Vance, and anything I Love Lucy-adjacent. From these books, I learned that Lucille Ball had a fairly extensive film career and discovered that my library had a large selection of “The Lucille Ball Signature Collection” VHS movies. I watched each and every one. At the same time, my parents’ cable package had just acquired a new channel, the recently launched TCM. Every Sunday, I would find the new TV guide supplement in the newspaper and comb through it, looking to see if any Lucille Ball films or documentaries were scheduled that week. I’d always check PBS, A&E’s Biography program, TCM and AMC (when it showed old films).
From Lucille Ball’s film career, I was introduced to a myriad of different stars who quickly became favorites of mine. Through Lucy’s film, DuBarry Was a Lady, I learned about Gene Kelly. Because of my interest in Gene, I watched Singin’ in the Rain and The Pirate. ‘Rain’ introduced me to Debbie Reynolds and ‘Pirate’ introduced me to Judy Garland, who I was aware of through The Wizard of Oz, but hadn’t seen her in anything else prior. Through Judy, I learned about Fred Astaire (Easter Parade), which led me to Ginger Rogers. Rogers I’d seen before as she’d appeared with Lucy and Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door, which I’d borrowed from the library. From Stage Door, I recognized Eve Arden from the episode of I Love Lucy I’d seen. I continued on this path of constant discoveries and am still on the path somewhat, except that I’m more familiar with all the actors and know that the ones who appeared as guest stars on I Love Lucy weren’t just people who were famous at the time of I Love Lucy’s production era.
Cornel Wilde is no longer known as “Cornel Wilde is in the penthouse!” (I Love Lucy, “The Star Upstairs”). He’s a co-star in the excellent Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney and he’s great in The Big Combo, his film being promoted on his episode of I Love Lucy. Charles Boyer isn’t just “LUCY! I love you, rawrrrrr” ((I Love Lucy, “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer”). He’s Ingrid Bergman’s terrifying husband in Gaslight, or the man who woos Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn. Boyer is the man who arranges to meet Irene Dunne at the top of the Empire State Building in Love Affair. Unbelievably, I also didn’t know anything that William Holden did aside from being hilarious in I Love Lucy. I finally saw him in Sunset Boulevard and was blown away. After having seen him in so many films now, I can definitely say that Holden was a bona fide superstar.
From reading all the library books about Lucille Ball and her film career, I learned that she made it a point to hire her friends from the movies when she had an opportunity to do so. The film friend of hers who benefitted the most from this is of course, William Frawley, who is now a legend in his own right for playing the irascible Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. Having seen a good amount of classic films now, Frawley is everywhere. He plays Errol Flynn’s boxing promoter, Billy Delaney, in Gentleman Jim. He also plays a cop in Flynn’s Footsteps in the Dark, and Deanna Durbin’s Lady on a Train. He is also in the perennial Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. Frawley had called up Lucy’s husband and Desilu Production president, Desi Arnaz, and asked for the job of Fred Mertz. CBS was hesitant to take a risk on the alcoholic Frawley, but Lucy and Desi prevailed and Frawley is now a television legend.
I find myself pointing out I Love Lucy characters in various classic films. Elizabeth Patterson who played Mrs. Trumbull is everywhere in classic film. She makes a memorable appearance as Fred MacMurray’s Aunt Emma in Remember the Night. Charles Lane is another character who pops up everywhere He appears as Lucy’s typing instructor in Miss Grant Takes Richmond (also co-starring William Holden). He also appears in uncredited roles in a million excellent pre-code films such as: Blonde Crazy, Employees’ Entrance, 42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933, She Had to Say Yes, and Blondie Johnson. He made multiple appearances in I Love Lucy: the expectant father (I always say “nine girls” when I see him in a movie), the passport office clerk, the man conducting auditions in the episode where Lucy has to tell the truth for 24 hours, and he plays the Ricardos business manager, Mr. Hickox. Allen Jenkins, has a memorable role in an episode of I Love Lucy playing a police officer who apprehends “Sticky Fingers Sal” and “Pickpocket Pearl” (Lucy and Ethel). Jenkins was almost a mainstay in Warner Brothers films, playing the sidekick to the male lead. He’s in Dive Bomber, Footsteps in the Dark, The Perfect Specimen, all with Errol Flynn. He also supports Humphrey Bogart in Dead End, Racket Busters, and the horribly named The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. I even spotted Mr. Martinelli, owner of the pizza restaurant where Lucy works for one episode, as the villain in Marked Woman with Bogart and Bette Davis!
To this day, I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball are still my favorites. I also love Classic Film and I just love how well my favorite television show and my favorite era of filmmaking are so closely intertwined.
TERRY RANDALL: I see that, in addition to your other charms, you have that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing. JEAN MAITLAND: Hmm! Fancy clothes, fancy language and everything! TERRY: Unfortunately, I learned to speak English correctly. JEAN: That won’t be much of use to you here. We all talk pig latin.
Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” and Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” in Stage Door (1937)
This is just one example of the snappy dialogue present in the 1937 RKO classic, Stage Door. MGM’s 1939 classic, The Women, is held-up as the ultimate women’s picture, mostly because of the all-female cast and it’s spectacular script full of witty one liners and innuendo. While The Women is great, I much prefer Stage Door, despite including men in the cast in addition to the spectacular female cast. The cast is more appealing to me, the story is more interesting and frankly, the film is shorter which makes it a lot more compelling. It is my opinion that The Women runs a little long and could stand some editing. But I digress. This blog entry is not about The Women, it is about Stage Door.
Stage Door, directed by Gregory La Cava, was released on October 8, 1937. As a big Lucille Ball fan, this film is notable for being Lucy’s big break and was her first decent supporting role in an A-list production–and you can’t get much more A-list than co-starring in a film with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. In addition to Lucille Ball, this film also features Eve Arden and a 14 (!) year old Ann Miller. It is hard to believe that Ann is only a child in this film, she carries herself as a much older woman and more than holds her own dancing alongside Rogers in the film. Arden is awesome because she spends much of the film with a cat wrapped around her shoulders. Gail Patrick (playing a similar character to her “Cornelia” in My Man Godfrey) and Andrea Leeds also lend support as other women in the boarding house. Adolphe Menjou co-stars as producer Anthony Powell who is acquainted with the young women at the club and to whom the women look to for roles in upcoming productions. Look for a young Jack Carson as Judy’s lumberjack beau, Mr. Milbanks.
Stage Door starts with a raucous, chaotic scene inside the Footlights Club all-female boarding house. The inhabitants of the boarding house are all aspiring Broadway performers, mostly acting, but some dancing as well. Because it’s the Great Depression and because breaking into Broadway is definitely not a sure thing, the women are struggling to survive and make ends meet. One of the boarders, Linda Shaw (Patrick) doesn’t seem to be starving, and it’s implied that she’s a kept woman–often being “kept” by Powell. We see Jean Maitland (Rogers) and Linda arguing over Linda’s borrowing Jean’s stockings without asking. Then, Judy Canfield (Ball) is observed asking Jean if she’d like to double date. Eve (Arden) walks around with a cat draped around her shoulders. The boarding house maid, Hattie (Phyllis Kennedy), contributes to the cacophony by poorly warbling some indistinguishable tune. An aging experienced actress, Ann Luther (Constance Collier), dispenses advice. Later she’ll guide Terry in her performance in her big break.
The noisy scene comes to a halt when a new boarder, Terry Randall (Hepburn), enters the Footlights Club looking for accomodations. It is apparent from the get-go that Terry is not in the same destitute situation as the other women in the club. She has money. She is interested in pursuing theater as a lark, not because she has a passion for the performing arts. Her obvious advantage makes her an instant adversary to the other women, especially Jean. According to Stage Door, Kay Hamilton (Leeds) is the best actress in the club. Kay is desperate to land the lead in Powell’s upcoming play, Enchanted April. Despite being the Footlights Club’s best actress, I find Andrea Leeds to be the weakest part of the film. I think her scenes are too saccharine and frankly, Kay comes off as pathetic. I can see why Terry is getting roles over her.
The main conflict of Stage Door comes when Terry breaks the status quo and barges into Powell’s office to demand to know why he refuses to see any of her fellow colleagues, despite their trying day after day to audition. Terry eventually ends up winning the coveted role in Enchanted April, making her the persona non grata at the Footlights Club. Hepburn’s solo scene at the end of the film when she recites the famous “the calla lilies are in bloom again…” speech is heart wrenching and one of the highlights of an otherwise dialogue-heavy film. Hepburn and Rogers are fantastic as the sparring roommates, a situation not too far removed from real life. Apparently, Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers did not get along. I would probably chalk it up to personality differences and probably a professional rivalry at RKO. Lucille Ball and Eve Arden are fantastic as the sarcastic roommates and it’s easy to see why the two women eventually became huge stars.
I love the ending of this film. After a very tragic and tense third act, Terry gives the performance of her life. Much of her performance is inspired by her friendship with Kay and how much Terry knew that Kay wanted the role. While dialogue indicates that Terry is not delivering the correct dialogue for her opening monologue, it is forgiven because she is properly evoking the mood the author intended. Terry demonstrates that she is intuitive and is an actress. At the behest of Ann, Terry goes on stage despite being distraught–“the show must go on,” as we all know. Terry is forgiven by her roommates, presumably because of her heart-wrenching performance in Enchanted April. She finally wins approval of her roommates who no longer see her as someone who is just slumming it in their boarding house as a form of entertainment. Terry has demonstrated that she has the passion and skill to be an actress on the stage. At the end of the film, Terry is shown throwing out sarcastic barbs alongside her former foe, Jean. A new starry-eyed boarder moves into the boarding house and Terry is right alongside the other women, ready to welcome the newbie into the fold.
Despite the presence of the hugely talented cast, the star of this film is the dialogue. It must have been quite a undertaking for the cast to remember all their lines.
(After Terry has spoken at length and eloquently about Shakespeare) EVE: Well, I don’t like to gossip, but that new gal seems to have an awful crush on Shakespeare! SUSAN: I wouldn’t be surprised if they got married! MARY LOU: Oh, you’re foolin’! Shakespeare is dead! SUSAN: No! MARY LOU: Well, if he’s the same one who wrote ‘Hamlet,’ he is! EVE: Never heard of it. MARY LOU: Well, certainly you must have heard of “Hamlet” ! EVE: Well, I meet so many people.
Eve Arden as “Eve,” Peggy O’Donnell as “Susan,” Margaret Early as “Mary Lou” in Stage Door (1937)
JEAN MAITLAND: (yelling) OH LINDA! LINDA SHAW: Maybe if you spoke a little LOUDER next time, everyone in the whole HOUSE could hear you. JEAN: Oh I’m sorry, I forgot you’re old and deaf.
Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” and Gail Patrick as “Linda Shaw” in Stage Door (1937)
JEAN MAITLAND: Do you mind if I ask a personal question? TERRY RANDALL: Another one? JEAN: Are those trunks full of bodies? TERRY: Just those, but I don’t intend to unpack them.
Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” and Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” in Stage Door (1937)
JEAN MAITLAND: In some ways, you’re not such a bad egg. TERRY RANDALL: As eggs go, I probably have my points.
Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” and Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” in Stage Door (1937)
KAY HAMILTON: It’s (her birthday cake) so beautiful, I hate to cut it. JUDY CANFIELD: It’s one of Hattie’s cakes. Maybe you can’t cut it. HATTIE: I resent that! LINDA SHAW: Be careful you don’t drop it on your foot. ANN LUTHER: Girls, I have the most wonderful news! JUDY: Maybe the house is on fire.
Andrea Leeds as “Kay Hamilton,” Lucille Ball as “Judy Canfield,” Phyllis Kennedy as “Hattie,” Gail Patrick as “Linda Shaw,” and Constance Collier as “Ann Luther,” in Stage Door (1937).
EVE: I’ll never put my trust in males again TERRY RANDALL: What happened to Eve? JEAN MAITLAND: She’s brokenhearted. Henry’s in a cat hospital. TERRY: An accident? JEAN: He just had a litter of kittens. TERRY: Well that’s easy to solve. Change his name to Henrietta.
Eve Arden as “Eve,” Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall,” Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland,” in Stage Door (1937).
TERRY RANDALL (in her play): The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.
Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” in Stage Door (1937)
On May 2, 1955, Van Johnson appeared as himself in “The Dancing Star,” an episode of I Love Lucy. I Love Lucy was the pioneering and now-iconic television sitcom starring his old friends, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In this episode, Lucy’s character, Lucy Ricardo, finally realizes her dream of show business success. Van Johnson is appearing in a show at the hotel where the Ricardos and Mertzes are staying while Ricky (Desi) makes his film debut. Van’s partner is sick and Lucy ends up getting the chance to fill in. In this episode, Lucy Ricardo is finally given the opportunity to perform in a musical number where she doesn’t screw it up, whether purposefully or inadvertently. For a more detailed synopsis about “The Dancing Star,” click here.
Van Johnson’s relationship with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did not start with I Love Lucy. He actually made Desi’s acquaintance first back in 1939 on Broadway. Desi had recently arrived in New York City as part of Xavier Cugat’s touring orchestra. Previously, he’d lived in Miami after emigrating there from his birthplace of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Desi had been performing as part of the Siboney Septet. He was discovered by Cugat and hired as a singer and conga drum player. Desi’s natural charisma and talent as a showman led to him forming his own orchestra. He was discovered by director George Abbott who wanted to cast Desi as Manuelito, the Argentinian football player. Van was cast in the same play as a college student and also as an understudy for the three male leads. He later understudied Gene Kelly in the Broadway production of Pal Joey which eventually led to Kelly’s discovery and subsequent Hollywood stardom.
In 1940, Van came out to Hollywood to appear in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls. Van’s role is very small. He has an uncredited role as a fellow college student and appears as part of the chorus in some of the musical numbers. Van is near Lucille Ball in the big celebratory conga number (led by Desi Arnaz and Ann Miller) at the end of the film when Pottawatomie wins the big game. Watch Lucy screw up the choreography, she very noticeably comes in early or late in every single one of the moves. However, Van’s role in Too Many Girls did not lead to any big breaks. Disenchanted, he was ready to return to New York and back to Broadway where he had experienced more success.
However, before Van left for New York City, he had lunch with Lucy at Los Angeles’ famed Chasen restaurant. She introduced him to MGM’s casting director who just happened to be sitting at a nearby table. This led to a series of screen tests at many of the big studios. He ended up scoring a $300/week ($5452/week in 2022) contract at Warner Brothers. Van made his debut as a leading man in 1942’s Murder in the Big House opposite Faye Emerson. Unfortunately for Van, this contract did not lead to big success at Warner Brothers and his contract was dropped after six months.
Eventually Van was signed to MGM where his friend, Lucille Ball, had recently signed with after leaving RKO. Van’s big break was in the 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe, which starred Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. During production, Van was in a car accident which left him with a metal plate in his forehead and numerous scars on his face. For most of his career, Van would hide his scars under heavy makeup. However, in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, he opted to not wear the heavy makeup. His large forehead scar is prominently displayed in that film. MGM wanted to replace Van in A Guy Named Joe, but Tracy advocated for him. Thanks to Tracy, Van became a star after their film was a big success at the box office.
Van continued to appear in one hit film after another. In 1946, Van appeared with his friend Lucy in Easy to Wed, a remake of the 1936 hit, Libeled Lady. Van took on the role of Bill Chandler, which was played by William Powell in the original film. Keenan Wynn, Lucille Ball and Esther Williams take on the roles played by Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy, respectively. Bill Chandler is hired by Warren Haggerty (Wynn) to marry his girlfriend Gladys (Lucy) and then romance and woo Connie Allenbury (Williams), a socialite who is suing Warren’s newspaper for a large sum of money after they publish a false story about Connie being a homewrecker. To save the newspaper from financial ruin, Warren wants Gladys to charge Connie with alienation of affection after word gets about Connie’s romance with her husband, Bill. Curiously enough, perhaps in an instance of life imitating art, Keenan Wynn’s wife, Evie, married Van Johnson on THE DAY (!) of their divorce.
Easy to Wed is not nearly as good as Libeled Lady, but it is amusing. Lucille Ball is definitely the highlight and steps into Harlow’s shoes very well. Van asserts himself nicely as the straight man and is good at portraying the All-American young man. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Van continued to appear in films in every genre from war to film noir to musicals to comedy. At the time of his 1955 appearance in I Love Lucy, Van was at the height of his fame. In one of the episodes of I Love Lucy leading up to the big cross-country drive, Lucy asks her friend Marion Strong if she’d like Lucy to give a message to “the gang.” “The Gang” being Clark (Gable), Cary (Grant), or Van (Johnson), or Marlon (Brando)?” Later while the Ricardos are celebrating their wedding anniversary in Hollywood, Ricky name-drops Van and his wife Evie to a Hollywood newspaper about a (fake) party he’s throwing at the Mocambo. Van continued to appear in films and television. In 1968, he appeared in another film with Lucille Ball, Yours, Mine and Ours. Desilu had purchased the rights to the story in 1967, right before Lucy sold the studio to Paramount. Desilu had been founded in 1950 by Lucy and Desi. Desi retired in 1962 and sold his shares to Lucy.
Van’s role in Yours, Mine and Ours is fun. He appears as Darrell Harrison, a fellow officer who works with and is friends with Frank Beardsley, played by Henry Fonda. Lucy appears as Helen North, a nurse who works in the dispensary at the base. Darrell thinks that Frank and Helen are perfect for one another, the only hitch being that Frank has 10 children and Helen has 8. To prove his point, he fixes Frank up with a young Hippie woman who is half Frank’s age and is very sexually aggressive. Frank is more modest and finds her sexual appetite off-putting. Darrell then fixes Helen up with a doctor who specializes in obstetrics and is at least half a foot shorter than she is. Darrell effortlessly brings the two characters together. For much of the rest of the film, he is used for comic relief and is delightful.
Van continued to work with Lucy. He appeared as himself during the first season of her third sitcom, Here’s Lucy, in 1968. In the episode, Van plays himself and plays a Van Johnson doppelganger. In the episode, the Van Johnson doppelganger and Lucy (as Lucy Carter), talk about Yours, Mine and Ours. The fake Van Johnson, imitating the real Van Johnson, says that he loved working with the “kooky redhead.” Lucy Carter says that she thought that she (Lucille Ball) was much too young for Henry Fonda. Later, Lucy Carter compliments the real Van Johnson on his appearance in The Romance of Rosy Ridge, which was the film debut of Janet Leigh. Eventually, Lucy remarks that she was glad Van was court-martialed in The Caine Mutiny after he refuses to go along with her schemes.
Van and Lucy continued to appear in various specials together and remained friends. After Ball’s passing in 1989, Van continued to give interviews and appear in various documentaries and retrospectives about Lucy and Desi. He was one of the interviewees in PBS’ American Masters episode about Lucille Ball, “Finding Lucy.” It is apparent that Lucy, Desi, and Van all held each other in great esteem. It is obvious through their professional and personal collaborations and the way in which Van continued to talk about his friends long after their respective passings. Van Johnson passed away in 2008 and it is nice to think that he is now back with his friends.
“They (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) were soulmates. They knew it. The whole world did.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. All my dreams came true. I was in a wonderful business and I met a lot of great people all over the world.”
It’s no secret on my blog that I love Lucy. I love Desi too. I discovered Lucy and Desi in 1994 or 1995, when I was 10 or 11 years old. One evening, I stumbled upon I Love Lucy on Nick at Nite and was hooked. From then on, I had to watch “my show.” I made sure to have my homework done by 8pm, so I could watch ‘Lucy.’ On Saturdays, at 10pm, I watched Nick at Nite’s “Whole Lotta Lucy Saturday” with 2(!) episodes of I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Nick at Nite’s “Block Party Summer” was even more exciting, because I Love Lucy always got a day–4 whole hours of I Love Lucy!
Growing up, my family also went to the library every month. I started checking out books about Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy, and everything I Love Lucy-adjacent. Through these books, I learned about Lucille Ball’s movie career. I discovered that my library had a good selection of Lucille Ball’s films on VHS! I checked out every single one. It was through I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball that I developed my knowledge and love of classic film.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have always held a special place in my heart. I Love Lucy is my absolute favorite show of all time. I have seen every episode dozens of times and never tire of it. I own the entire series on DVD. I own at least a dozen books about it. I saw the I Love Lucy colorized special in the theater. I have a dozen Lucy Ricardo Barbie Dolls. I have almost every Lucille Ball movie that’s available on DVD/Blu Ray. Lucy, Desi, and I Love Lucy is very important to me. I find it fascinating that an interest in Lucy and Desi seems to have revitalized in 2021. It’s very curious. Not that I’m unhappy about it, but why? Was the catalyst the 70th anniversary of the debut of I Love Lucy? In the past six months (give or take), we’ve had: A new Lucille Ball doll, Lucille Ball “Let’s Talk to Lucy” radio show/podcast on Sirius XM, TCM’s excellent Lucy podcast (highly recommended), and both a movie and documentary about Lucy and Desi. I hope more content is on the docket.
When I heard about Aaron Sorkin’s plan to dramatize a week in Lucy and Desi’s life, I was instantly turned off. For the record, I have not seen Being the Ricardos, nor do I plan to watch it. I saw Sorkin being interviewed on TCM, and I’m not even convinced that he’s ever seen an episode of I Love Lucy. I read about what the film is about, and he doesn’t even portray the correct episode being filmed when Lucy’s Communist allegations broke. They are filming a season 1 episode when this whole incident went down at the end of season 2/beginning of season 3. I’m not convinced about the casting of Lucy and Desi. I vehemently disagree with a quote by Sorkin stating that I Love Lucy isn’t a show that we’d find funny with a 21st century lens. I don’t know what planet Sorkin lives on, but I Love Lucy is still very popular.
Aside from the inaccuracies portrayed in Being the Ricardos, I do not want to see Lucy and Desi’s personal problems dramatized. I read Lucy’s memoir. I read Desi’s memoir. I have seen countless documentaries. I’ve read countless books. Lucy and Desi’s marital issues are well documented. Lucy and Desi fighting, Lucy and Desi divorcing, Desi’s drinking, Desi’s infidelity… these are not the things I want to think about when I think about Lucy and Desi. I want to think about the adorable couple I see in I Love Lucy. I want to think about the honeymooning couple in my favorite movie of all time: The Long, Long Trailer. I want to think about the photos of the ecstatic newlyweds after their 1940 elopement. Lucy and Desi are far more interesting than their divorce.
Thankfully, Amy Poehler came to the rescue with her new documentary, Lucy and Desi, that is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. I’m always game for a good documentary. However, because I’ve read/watched so much about Lucy and Desi, finding new programs and books that don’t simply rehash the same old stories again and again are hard to find. And while Lucy and Desi does cover some familiar ground, Poehler put a unique spin on sharing Lucy and Desi’s story. Following the same storytelling style present in TCM’s Lucy podcast, Poehler has archival audio clips of Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and people close to Lucy and Desi telling the story. While there are some actual interviews featured by people like Lucie Arnaz, Carol Burnett, and my fave, Charo, much of the story is told by Lucy and Desi themselves. I also love how clips of I Love Lucy were used to tie pieces of Lucy and Desi’s story together. Poehler actually managed to find audio, video and photos that I’d never seen before! That was the absolute best part of watching this documentary.
I liked the narrative structure of the documentary. The events in the story unfold chronologically, with Lucy’s childhood, move to New York City as a teenager, and eventual opportunity to come to Hollywood being the key events of her life. Lucy and Desi, of course mentions the tragic accident that changed the course of Lucy and her family’s lives and how that incident motivated Lucy’s work ethic. Lucy’s family was financially devastated by the accident and Lucy was determined to never be in that situation again. It was interesting that the documentary did not mention Lucy’s bout with rheumatism, which derailed her life for two years in the late 1920s. Desi’s childhood of course was a riches to rags story, with his comfortable life ruined by the overthrowing of the Cuban government in 1933. Desi’s life story cannot be portrayed without mentioning this horrible event that completely ruined Desi and his family’s lives. It is asserted in the documentary that this was a formative event in Desi’s life and that it perhaps was the root cause of Desi’s personal problems later on in his life.
Lucy and Desi’s married life is depicted with countless home movies showing two people in love. The controversy over their interracial marriage is touched upon, but it’s obvious from the home movies that race was the furthest thing from Lucy and Desi’s minds. And of course, race again is a major player in the discussion regarding the genesis of I Love Lucy and how it almost didn’t happen because CBS didn’t think Americans would find Lucy and Desi’s marriage believable. Of course, CBS was wrong. Lucy and Desi were a sensation and I Love Lucy was and continues to be a massive hit. A bittersweet moment in the documentary is when Lucie Arnaz mentions that I Love Lucy only exists because Lucy and Desi wanted to be together, and they weren’t able to achieve that. The success of the show and their studio, Desilu, is partially what drove the couple apart.
I liked that Poehler didn’t opt to dwell on the latter part of Lucy and Desi’s lives. She mentions that both remarried and spends a little bit of time on Lucille Ball as President of Desilu, but really not much else is said. We don’t care about Gary Morton, Lucille Ball’s second husband. The documentary even says as much. We don’t care about Desi’s second wife, Edith Mack Hirsch. What we do care about is the fact that Lucy and Desi stayed in love after their divorce. They stayed friends. Lucy and Desi are known for having a very amicable divorce. They never fell out of love with one another. This is definitely proven by the ending scene showing Lucy being honored at the Kennedy Center.
The one thing I always hate about documentaries about my absolute favorite stars (almost all of whom are long deceased) is that the documentary has to mention their death. I can’t even watch my Errol Flynn documentary, because I love him so much I don’t want to be reminded of his death. Yes, I know logically, they have passed. I am not in denial about the fact. However, I want to think of Lucy and Desi (and Errol) as always being alive. And while Amy Poehler does devote some content of the documentary to Desi’s passing, it is included as a way to conclude their love story. Even then, we are treated to a very moving (and heartwrenching) epilogue to their story–Lucy and Desi’s love for one another never waned, even after death, Desi still loved Lucy.
I can take some solace in knowing that even if it was just for 2.5 short years, I was alive at the same time as Lucy and Desi, two people who have brought me almost three decades of happiness. Even during difficult days, I Love Lucy can always make me laugh.
I can highly recommend Amy Poehler’s Lucy and Desi documentary. I can only hope that it becomes available on Blu Ray.
Van Johnson isn’t a name that often comes up when people think about figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, that isn’t to say that he wasn’t a star. He co-starred alongside many of Hollywood’s more legendary actors; but he never got that one film that would catapult him into the echelon of “legend.” Some of the “legendary” actors Van co-starred with: Gene Kelly (Brigadoon), Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (State of the Union), Judy Garland (In the Good Old Summertime), Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), and Elizabeth Taylor (The Last Time I Saw Paris). However, despite not ever making “the film” to propel him to legend status, Van was a big enough star to appear as himself alongside two of television’s biggest legends: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, on an episode of I Love Lucy.
The I Love Lucy episode, “The Dancing Star,” was not Van’s first experience working with Ball and Arnaz. In 1939, while trying to make it as a young actor in New York, Van scored a gig as understudy to the three male leads of George Abbot’s hit Broadway play (featuring the music of Rodgers and Hart), “Too Many Girls.” One of the main cast members (whom I’m going to assume that Van did not understudy) was the young 23-year old Cuban musician, Desi Arnaz. The play was a smash hit and Arnaz along with co-star Eddie Bracken were brought out to Hollywood to reprise their roles in the RKO film adaptation of the play.
In Hollywood, Van joined the cast as an uncredited part of the chorus. He can be seen in the background of a few scenes, but most prominently in the front of the crowd dancing during Desi Arnaz’ big conga number. Another new member of the cast of the RKO production was Lucille Ball. Ball was the star of the film and would play the role of the ingenue college student, Connie. Ball and Arnaz were introduced prior to the start of filming. However, their first meeting did not go well as Ball was still wearing the makeup and costume from her current film, Dance, Girl, Dance, which co-starred Maureen O’Hara. Ball’s makeup and costume was a black eye and a torn gold lamé dress that she wore while shooting a catfight scene with O’Hara. Looking at Ball’s black eye and torn gown, Arnaz could hardly envision her as the virginal ingenue of Too Many Girls. Later that evening, Arnaz and Ball were re-introduced. During this meeting, Ball had cleaned herself up and sported her own clothing and makeup. It was love at first sight for Ball and Arnaz and the rest, as they say, was history.
Anyway, back to Van. After Too Many Girls, he got more understudy work, including as Gene Kelly’s understudy in the Broadway play, Pal Joey. Kelly would soon be starring in his first Hollywood film, For Me and My Gal, with Judy Garland. Discouraged, Van was about to quit Hollywood when friend Lucille Ball took him to the famous Chasen’s restaurant to meet an MGM casting director. This meeting led to Van getting a screen test at Columbia and Warner Brothers. Columbia didn’t pan out, but Van scored a few roles with Warner Brothers. After his contract with Warner Brothers ended, Van was signed to MGM. MGM is where Van finally got a break and soon was appearing in films. In 1943, Van got his big break when he appeared in A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. He continued to appear in many quality films throughout the 1940s.
In 1946, Van was re-teamed with friend Ball in Easy to Wed which also co-starred Esther Williams and Keenan Wynn. Through the remainder of the 1940s, Van continued to appear in many great MGM films. By 1950, Van was freelancing, which freed him up to appear in films in other studios. During the 1950s, Van also started appearing in shows on the burgeoning medium known as television. In 1955, Van was invited to appear in a guest spot as himself on his friends’ (Arnaz and Ball) sitcom, I Love Lucy. By 1955, I Love Lucy was a massive hit and big stars were willing to appear on their show for free just to get the chance to be part of the program.
Van appears during the Hollywood story-arc of I Love Lucy in the episode, “The Dancing Star.” Ricky Ricardo (Arnaz) has been offered a role as Don Juan in Hollywood. He along with wife, Lucy (Ball), and their best friends Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance) all head to California. While in California, wacky Lucy has various run-ins with stars (William Holden, Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Harpo Marx, Rock Hudson, Sheila MacRae, Eve Arden, and CORNEL WILDE IN THE PENTHOUSE), often with disastrous results. One such star who did not suffer at the hands of Lucy however, was Van Johnson.
In “The Dancing Star,” Lucy’s old frenemy, Carolyn Appleby (Doris Singleton) shows up unexpectedly to pay Lucy and Ethel a visit while she’s on her way to Hawaii to meet-up with husband Charlie. Carolyn says that she’s going to stop over for a couple days so that she can meet all the stars Lucy’s been hobnobbing with per the postcards Lucy’s been sending out to her friends in Hollywood. Obviously, Lucy didn’t expect her friends to show up wanting to be part of the action. As Lucy is panicking, Ethel tells her that Van Johnson is appearing in a show at their hotel, The Beverly Palms. Ethel spots Van sleeping next to the pool and tells Lucy to go down there and pretend that she’s talking to him. Ethel will then casually bring Carolyn up to the window, point out Lucy and Van and all will be well.
The plan goes off, somewhat, except that Carolyn has forgotten her glasses. Apparently Carolyn Appleby must wear contact lenses and has lost them, because in her previous appearances on the series, she’s had no issues with her eyesight. However, when Carolyn is in California, she’s blind as a bat. Carolyn can only make out two red-headed blurs and just has to assume that that is Lucy and Van. Of course, Lucy can’t leave well enough alone and brags to Carolyn about all the other stars that were also down at the pool. She then further ups the ante by telling Carolyn that she’s throwing a big soiree tomorrow evening where tons of stars will be in attendance. Conveniently, Carolyn’s flight to Hawaii is supposed to depart tomorrow evening. Aw shucks.
And because it’s Lucy and she has to be the object of envy of The Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League (who usually meets on Tuesdays, never on Thursdays, but occasionally on Fridays), she tells Carolyn that she’s “chummy” with Van. Lucy’s fib is based on the fact that Carolyn can’t see and that Van’s partner is a tall red-headed woman. With Carolyn’s blurred vision, she won’t be able to tell that Van’s partner is not Lucy. However, Lucy’s “great” plan is foiled when Carolyn’s airline finds her glasses and returns them to Carolyn at the hotel. Desperate, Lucy approaches Van and begs him to dance with her. She finally gets him to agree when she flatters him by saying that she’s seen his show 14 times and knows it backwards and forwards. Ethel and Carolyn see Lucy dancing with Van and all is well.
(VAN JOHNSON in response to LUCY RICARDO’S constant proclamations of not having much time and that “she’s” going to be here any minute)
VAN JOHNSON: “Who’s going to be here any minute?”
LUCY RICARDO: “Carolyn Appleby! Who do you think?!”
Van Johnson and Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo) in “The Dancing Star,” I Love Lucy
Later that evening, Lucy gets her big chance: Van’s partner is sick and he needs someone to replace her last minute. Seeing that Lucy knows the routine, Van thinks that she’s the perfect choice. And with this set-up, we finally get to see Lucy Ricardo in one of her rare performances where she’s allowed to perform a dance number without purposeful or accidental mishaps. In the “How About You?” number, Lucy and Van perform a beautiful, simple song and dance number. Lucy looks beautiful in her feather-covered gown. She and Van are a sensation. Ricky watches his wife dance this wonderful number with a deep adoration. Ethel and Fred watch their friend, proudly. And Carolyn is overjoyed.
Wait? Carolyn?! Wasn’t she going to Hawaii?
Apparently, Carolyn has decided to put off her flight to Hawaii one more day to attend Lucy’s big Hollywood party. Yikes.
Cue the famous “Lucy Meets Harpo Marx” episode, the unofficial second part of “The Dancing Star.”
It’s not a secret that I love Lucille Ball. She’s been my favorite actress since I discovered her on her now iconic sitcom, I Love Lucy, playing the titular character, Lucy Ricardo. I Love Lucy not only made Lucille Ball a household name, it also forever cemented her identity as “Lucy.” Mention “Lucy” to almost anyone (at least those worth associating with) and Lucy Ricardo comes to mind. I was roughly 10-11 years old (circa 1994-1995) when I discovered Lucy and I Love Lucy. I began to borrow books about I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball during my family’s monthly trips to the library. As an 11-year old, I was able to read the biographies in the adult section, making it very easy to learn about my new favorite actress. In 1996, Lucy’s autobiography was published–7 years after her death. Apparently her daughter found her mother’s manuscript while going through her things and went forward with having them published. I may have been the only 12-year old who desperately wanted Lucille Ball’s autobiography.
Throughout my trips to the library and reading books about Lucille Ball, I learned about the movie career she had prior to finding stardom on television. Lucy appeared in over 70 movies prior to switching gears to the small screen. Her film career began in 1933 when she came to Hollywood to appear as a slave girl in Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals. Not one to turn down any offer of paid work, figuring that every job offered her the chance to learn and hone her craft, Lucy appeared in at least a couple dozen uncredited roles before building up her momentum enough to score small, speaking roles. By 1937, Lucy scored a juicy part in the A-list ensemble drama, Stage Door, co-starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. In 1938, Lucy was offered her first starring role in The Affairs of Annabel. Lucy plays Annabel Allison, an actress forced to carry out insane publicity schemes by her agent, played by Jack Oakie.
At the library, I managed to borrow every single Lucille Ball VHS that my library had. I was lucky in that my library seemed to have a large amount of the films in the “Lucille Ball Signature Collection.” This collection is how I saw many of Lucy’s movies, including the aforementioned The Affairs of Annabel, The Big Street, Dance Girl Dance, Too Many Girls, Seven Days Leave, and others. TCM had just come on the scene as well and I scoured the TV Guide (insert in newspaper, not the magazine) to review the upcoming week of programming. Any Lucille Ball movies were circled and set up to record on the VCR. Throughout my years of recording and watching Lucille Ball’s films, there was one film that I’d always wanted to watch and it seemed to elude me for years: A Girl, A Guy and A Gob.
Mercifully, TCM finally saved the day and aired A Girl, A Guy and A Gob at a time when I was able to see it. Then, Warner Archive went above and beyond and released the film on DVD. I have since built up a very decent sized collection of Lucille Ball’s films. Anyway, I digress.
Back to A Girl, A Guy and A Gob…
In this film, Lucy plays Dorothy ‘Dot’ Duncan, a young woman who has recently began work as a secretary to Stephen Merrick (Edmond O’Brien) a shipping magnate. Dot is obviously the “Girl” in the title. Stephen is the “Guy.” Playing the “Gob” is George Murphy. Murphy plays Claudius J. Cupp aka “Coffee Cup.” When I first watched this film, I had no idea what or who a “Gob” was. I learned that the term “Gob” refers to a sailor. Coffee Cup is a sailor in the United States Navy and it is established that he loves being in the Navy and regularly signs on for new missions after the previous one ends. It is also obvious that Dot and Coffee Cup have been together for quite some time, but I get the sense that Dot tires of waiting for Coffee Cup to settle down and somewhat resents being expected to stand idly by and wait for him to return over and over again.
The film opens with Dot and her family settling down to watch a play from inside a box seat at the theater. This is a big deal for the Duncan Family. It’s Mr. and Mrs. Duncan’s anniversary and their children have (seemingly) purchased box seats at the theater as a gift. Meanwhile, out in the lobby, Stephen and his horrible fiancee Cecilia and her equally horrible mother are impatiently waiting for Stephen to locate their tickets. Stephen’s tickets are for their box seat, the seats where he, Cecilia and her mother sit every night at the theater. Dot figures out that her brother “Pigeon,” didn’t actually buy these seats. In reality, he gambled away the ticket money (that Dot gave him) and just happened to find Stephen’s tickets. Dot and Stephen get into an argument that ends with Stephen, Cecilia and her mother having to sit in ::gasp:: the regular section of the theater. After Dot realizes how her brother happened to come away with the box seat tickets, she is embarrassed and leaves but not before accidentally dropping her purse (with a giant “D” monogram) on Stephen’s head.
The next day, Dot shows up for a secretary opening at the Herrick and Martin shipping company, unaware that the “Herrick” in the company’s name is Stephen Herrick whom she’d hit with her purse at the theater the night prior. Stephen recognizes Dot’s purse (with the very obvious “D” monogram) and identifies her as the woman from the theater. They get off to a poor start, obviously. Later that day, Coffee Cup shows up, home from another Navy “hitch” (as he calls them). Coffee Cup and Dot take a walk and Coffee Cup spots his friend Eddie, a fellow sailor who has a shtick where he bets onlookers that he can stretch himself and grow four inches. Coffee Cup and Eddie gather a crowd in front of a pet store, much to the owner’s (Franklin Pangborn) chagrin. Stephen happens to walk by, Dot spots him, and borrows five dollars from him to bet on Eddie. The contest ends in a brawl and Stephen ends up being knocked out.
When Stephen awakens, he finds himself lying on the couch in Dot’s family’s apartment. The scene is so chaotic with people dropping in, Mrs. Duncan delivers the neighbors baby and delivers the results of the bet that the family had over the weight of the new Liebowitz baby (#9). The scene is so boisterous, but full of so much love, Stephen finds himself captivated. Stephen has a date with Cecilia, but ends up dancing the night away with Coffee Cup and Dot at the Danceland Dance Hall. Cecilia ends up spending the night all dressed up, but with nowhere to go. Whoops. Cecilia is the typical fiancee of the lead–boring, snobby, a real stick in the mud.
Throughout the remainder of the film, Stephen and Dot find themselves growing closer and closer together. Dot finds herself less enthusiastic about a future with Coffee Cup, despite admirably trying to carry on with him, because he is genuinely a nice guy. However, it is easy to see that a life with him may lack the stability that Dot may need. I get the idea she isn’t crazy about Coffee Cup leaving all the time. He’s also very much about having a good time, all the time and can be irresponsible. Stephen is a nice guy, but is also professional and runs a company. Stephen also realizes that a life with Cecilia would be stodgy and miserable. It is obvious that Cecilia is with Stephen for the material goods that he can provide and presumably the boost to her social class that he provides. Stephen also finds Dot’s spontaneity exciting and makes his day-to-day routine more fun.
Henry Travers who seems to be in everything, plays Stephen’s business partner, Abel Martin. Martin, who obviously dislikes Cecilia and sees through her true intentions, plays matchmaker in this film. He casually tries to convince Stephen that Dot is the woman for him and throughout the remainder of the film, he insinuates himself into their social group to try and get Stephen and Dot together.
This is such a fun and entertaining film. I love movies with love triangles. I love seeing such a young Edmond O’Brien. This was his third film. Dare I say that I thought O’Brien was somewhat cute in this film? George Murphy is always personable and of course Lucille Ball was fabulous. Harold Lloyd produced this film and his brand of physical humor is present throughout. Lucille Ball was able to show off both her skill for acting and physical humor. It isn’t often that we get to see O’Brien in a light-hearted film as he primarily made a lot of more intense films like White Heat and The Killers. George Murphy is affable and great. It’s easy to see how his enthusiasm and zest for life would make him the ideal candidate to join the boisterous Duncan family. However, this is Ball and O’Brien’s film and they convince me of their budding romance.
If you’re looking for a fun, light-hearted romantic comedy, I wholly recommend A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob.
Full disclosure, I’ve been known to be on simultaneous kicks at a time. Some are short-lived, others go on for awhile. Last year, I was on an Edmond O’Brien kick and watched a ton of his films. Then, I briefly moved onto a Burt Lancaster kick. Then, I moved onto Robert Ryan. More recently, I was obsessed with Ralph Meeker, then I moved onto Joel McCrea.
With my recent purchase during the Kino Lorber Summer sale (still going on, through August 3), I may have reignited my Edmond O’Brien kick. during the Kino sale, I purchased the Ida Lupino Filmmakers 4-movie set for $29.95 (regular retail price $79.98). In this collection, there are two O’Brien films: The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist, both from 1953. I’ve seen both films and they are excellent. Not everyone can make you sympathize with a man who knowingly commits bigamy, but O’Brien manages to do so.
I don’t know what it is about Edmond O’Brien that I like. He’s nowhere near Errol Flynn when it comes to looks and charm. He doesn’t have extraordinary dancing ability like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. He isn’t an amazing singer like Judy Garland. He isn’t adorable like Sandra Dee (ridiculous comparison, I know). Perhaps it has something to do with his everyman persona (displayed to perfection in 1949’s D.O.A.). Whatever it is, O’Brien is definitely underrated and deserves to be better known.
The Hitch-Hiker definitely served as the catalyst to my kick. From there, I pretty much watched a different O’Brien film each night for weeks. Prior to seeing The Hitch-Hiker, I’d seen O’Brien in A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob (1941). And the only reason I watched that film was because it stars my girl, Lucille Ball. I didn’t think much of him in this film, only that I thought he was more attractive than George Murphy and I wanted Lucy to end up with him. I recently just watched this film again–okay, I watched it today–and I just love him. I think I may embark on another O’Brien kick.
A Girl, A Guy and A Gob (produced by Harold Lloyd) stars Lucille Ball, George Murphy and Edmond O’Brien. Lucy plays Dorothy ‘Dot’ Duncan, a secretary who hails from an eccentric family. One night, Dot treats her parents to an anniversary present–box seats at the opera. However, her box seats actually belong to the affluent Stephen Herrick (O’Brien), his fiancee and her mother. It seems that Stephen accidentally dropped his tickets and Dot’s brother (who was sent to the box office by Dot) picked them up. He fails to tell Dot how he obtained the box seats, he let her pretend that these were the seats he’d purchased with the money she gave him.
Stephen and his guests are understandably upset by the guests sitting in their seats. However, not wanting to make a scene or be conspicuous, Stephen drops the matter and relinquishes the seats to Dot and her family. Stephen’s fiancee, Cecilia, is furious.
The next day, Stephen discovers that his secretary, Miss Comstock, has eloped with her fiance and has quit her job. Dot enters the room and is introduced to Stephen as his new secretary. He is furious and tries to fire her, but Dot pleads her case and explains the previous night’s ticket mishap. Stephen agrees to put the night behind him and agrees to hire her as his secretary.
Stephen soon finds himself enamored of Dot and charmed by her eccentric friends and family. He also meets Dot’s beau, “Coffee Cup” (George Murphy) a sailor who returns to town after his latest stint in the Navy. He makes it known that he is planning on settling down and marrying Dot.
One day, Stephen awakens to find himself lying, trouser-less, in the Duncan’s living room. It seems that he was knocked out in the fracas in front of the pet shop after getting involved in the brawl that erupted after Coffee Cup bet onlookers $5/a piece that his friend Eddie couldn’t make himself grow 4-inches. Eddie’s talent for faking elongation and the money-making con that ensues is a running gag throughout the film.
Stephen finds himself completely charmed by Dot and her family and later accompanies her and Coffee Cup to a dance hall. He completely loses all sense of time and congas the night away, much to the chagrin of his fiancee, with whom he had a date. Oops! It’s okay though, because she sucks anyway.
As the film progresses, Stephen and Dot find their feelings for one another growing, all while Coffee Cup blissfully plans a life together for himself and Dot. This film features one of my favorite themes: the love triangle. It is obvious that Dot more than likely needs a man who is a little more serious and a little more dependable. Coffee Cup seems a bit flakey and truly loves the Navy. Whether or not he would truly be happy on land is questionable.
I actually thought that Edmond O’Brien was very attractive in this film. This is only his second film, he was only 26 when it was made. Unfortunately, bad habits led to him aging prematurely and affected his health. He had a heart attack at 45. He won the 1954 Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa (which I haven’t watched yet. It’s on my DVR though).
Edmond O’Brien films that I’ve watched and recommend:
A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob (1941)
The Killers (1946)
A Double Life (1947)
Another Part of the Forest (1948)
White Heat (1949)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
The Bigamist (1953)
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
I’ll probably end up re-watching all of these and hopefully more.