Tag Archives: summer under the stars

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: LUCILLE BALL


On August 1, TCM began its annual summer tradition of Summer Under the Stars, a full month of specialized programming that honors one classic film star per day. Yesterday was devoted to the films of Edward G. Robinson, and the rest of the month will see days dedicated to such stars as Esther Williams, Ruby Keeler, Karl Malden, and Cyd Charisse. TCM fans look forward to Summer Under the Stars all year, and the announcement of the lineup is always a popular topic of discussion in the online classic film world.

Today we are watching movies starring a very familiar face–but those more versed in television may be surprised to see it on TCM. Before Lucy Ricardo, before the founding of Desilu and the immortal show that cemented Lucille Ball in our collective conscience, she was a rising star at RKO and later MGM, starring with all the big names of both studios and creating a reputation for herself as the “Queen of the B’s.”

Some of the highlights of today’s programming are windows into Lucille Ball’s career as few people know it–that of a talented dramatic actress whose foray into comedy was simply one of the many roads her career could have taken. Ball herself once said “I’m not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. I am not funny. What I am is brave.” Her comedy was a manifestation of a woman driven not toward being funny, but toward perfection and success. Movies like The Big Street and The Dark Corner give us a glimpse into what Ball’s career could have been like had she chosen drama rather than comedy.

In The Big Street, Ball plays a singer who becomes disabled after being pushed down a flight of stairs by her jealous lover, and takes refuge with Pinks (played by Henry Fonda). After a series of circumstances that include being rejected by a former lover for being in a wheelchair, she lashes out at Pinks in a scene that merits Ball an Oscar for her raw, nuanced performance. Unfortunately, the clip does not exist online.


The Dark Corner features Lucille Ball in a film noir, one that is so steeped in the noir trope that it almost seems a parody of itself. Ball is the femme fatale, the beautiful secretary who unwittingly becomes involved in an intricate murder plot. Starring with Mark Stevens and Clifton Webb in a delightful thriller, this is Lucy as you’ve never seen her. She is a convincing and attractive femme fatale, possessing an energy that holds your eyes on her whenever she is onscreen. I first saw this movie at Noir City this past year, and it was a wonderful experience to see it on the big screen for the first time with hundreds of other fans.


Other programming choices today like Best Foot Forward and The Long, Long Trailer show Lucille Ball in roles familiar to the I Love Lucy-loving public–involving raucous comedy and situational humor. But even here, the carefree nature of Ball’s comedy that has become her trademark is carefully planned and calculated to appear so.

The Long, Long Trailer, co-starring none other than Desi Arnaz, was filmed and released during the fourth season of I Love Lucy, and the influence of the show’s characters is clear in Lucy and Desi’s portrayals of their characters in this movie (in a less-than-subtle move, Desi’s character is even named “Nicky”). Talking with a friend of mine about this The Long, Long Trailer the other day, we came to the conclusion that The Long, Long Trailer is really just one big, extended episode of I Love Lucy, with similar characterizations and even similar gags used in each.

I was slightly surprised to see that TCM hadn’t programmed Dance, Girl, Dance this year for Lucille Ball day. It is one of my favorite roles of hers, and a marvelous example of how filmmakers circumvented the code to make the movies they wanted to make. Ball’s character of Bubbles in Dance, Girl, Dance is clearly a “kept woman,” in view of the massive amounts of furs, jewels, and fancy clothes that accompany her wherever she goes. And it features Lucy doing the hula, just about the most seductive dance that could ever have made it past the censors. It also sums up how Lucille Ball, despite her legacy as a comedic genius, was a woman whose genuine talent in many arenas and drive for success defied categorization.

I leave you with Lucille Ball doing the hula in Dance, Girl, Dance. Happy watching, readers!

This is an entry for the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, hosted by my friend Kristen Lopez. Check out the other entries at http://www.journeysinclassicfilm.com


Remember How Much I Loved You–Joan and Lilian Fontaine


Joan Fontaine shares a laugh with her mother, Lilian.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

First off, thank you to Jill at Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence and Michael Nazarewycz at ScribeHard On Film for hosting this terrifically clever blogathon, focusing on one star per day via the TCM Summer Under the Stars lineup. Since many readers of this site know of my love for Joan Fontaine, I felt that instead of writing a movie review for this blogathon I would contribute something more personal, a small examination of the relationship between Joan Fontaine and her mother, who played secondary roles in several Fontaine films such as The Bigamist and Ivy.

The Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre as it stands today.

Even today, while Joan lives a quiet life in Carmel at the age of 95, her mother is not far from her mind. Three years ago the Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre in Saratoga, named for Lilian’s contributions to local theatre, was undergoing renovations. To everyone’s surprise, a huge 5-figure donation came through that would cover all the necessary refurbishments. It was from Joan. She declined to be interviewed, saying that this gift is for her mother, whose ashes are scattered there and who once said about the garden “”If you ever wonder about me, come to this garden, and I’ll be here… somewhere around.”

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and also a trained singer, Lilian was a native of Reading–a large English city in the Berkshires. As an adult she ventured to Japan to try her luck in a performance career and ended up staying, marrying a handsome gentleman named Walter de Havilland. Their first daughter, Olivia Mary, was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, and Joan came along 15 months later on October 22, 1917. The de Havilland marriage was rocky, and the girls prone to illness, so on the advice of the doctor Lilian soon moved to Saratoga, California with the two girls in tow, in search of a more hospitable climate for their many ailments. Walter stayed behind.

Olivia thrived in California, but Joan remained very frail. As a young child her shyness and frequent illnesses precluded her from making school friends, and her sky-high IQ rendered it difficult for her to relate to her peers. Relations with her sister Olivia were never sunny, so having a friend at home was not an option. Isolated and often bedridden for months at a time, her mother was her sole companion and best friend.


Joan (child in black coat on the right), Lilian (in the black hat, holding Joan’s arm) and Olivia (far left) with family friends in Saratoga.

Lilian’s mothering skills were very much of her time and upbringing. She was determined that her daughters would grow up to be proper English ladies, and strict lessons in diction, manners, and even walking were commonplace in the house. When she remarried, to accountant and archdisciplinarian George Milan Fontaine, the lessons continued under his tutelage. Everything was expected to be “just so,” and if it wasn’t, extreme punishment could be expected. There was little affection in the house. As a teenager, Joan was severely scolded for holding hands with a boy during a concert, and her mother’s harsh words scarred her for life.

Yet through all of this, Joan retained a deep, unconditional love for her mother. When she began to earn money in movies, she sent monthly checks to her mother, supporting her completely of her own will. She offered Lilian, who had never really made it as an actress, roles in her films.

Skip to 5:45 in this clip from Ivy. Lilian is seated directly to the right of Joan, in the dark dress and hat.

When Lilian fell ill with cancer, Joan took over her care. Though Lilian was not always able to show it, Joan finally heard those words of love she so craved from her mother during their very last phone conversation. Right before they hung up, Lilian said to her tenderly “Remember how much I loved you.”

I like to think that this gave them a sense of resolution to a somewhat complex relationship, and that Joan could cope with the loss of her mother with the assurance that she reciprocated her love. It is a graceful end to a life, and a sweet goodbye from mother to daughter.

Lilian with Joan (on the floor) and Olivia (seated) shortly after their arrival to the United States.


Last family portrait, 1975.

Thanks again to Jill and Michael!

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: “Ball of Fire” (1941)

While browsing through the Summer Under the Stars lineup for today, I saw that Ball of Fire, a delightfully unique screwball comedy with one very catchy musical number that I find myself singing often, was on tap for this evening. I knew that I had to write an entry on it, as it is indeed a fascinating film and ahead of its time in many ways. Dealing at once with intellectualism, gangsters, burlesque, and romance, featuring a snappy script complete with endless slang terms from the era, Ball of Fire is a movie lover’s smorgasbord, with a little something to suit everyone’s taste!

The story begins as a group of aging college professors, living together in a large house, try to complete an encyclopedia that they have started. Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is writing an entry on modern slang, and to conduct research and gather participants for his study, he ventures out into the dingier parts of the city–pool halls, bars, anywhere where lower vernacular might be used. One of these establishments is a burlesque hall, wherein he sees a young dancer sing a sensual number called “Drumboogie.”

The drummer here is making a cameo appearance. Widely known and popular for their big band sound, this is the famous Gene Krupa and his orchestra. One of my favorite parts of the whole movie is how Krupa plays the matchbox like a drum at the end of this video, as the rest of the audience whispers the song. It reminds me of something Bob Fosse might have dreamed up some 30 years later.

With this number enters the character of Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom Professor Potts is very taken for her prolific use of slang. He decides to go backstage and ask Sugarpuss if she would be willing to take part in his project, but as we soon learn, Sugarpuss is a gangster’s moll whose boyfriend, Joe Lilac, is being linked to a murder case. When she hears a man knocking on the door wanting to talk to her, she is convinced that it is in relation to Joe and talks to Professor Potts in a very suspicious way. He is entranced with her usage of slang and though she keeps telling him she is not interested (“Shove in your clutch” is a phrase Professor Potts is most taken with), he leaves his card for her in case she ever is.

Those protecting Joe Lilac are concerned that if Sugarpuss were to go back to her apartment, the police would find her and make her talk. As they try to think about where to put her for the night so the police won’t know her whereabouts, Sugarpuss pulls out Professor Potts’ card, and the decision is made for her to go there for the night. She goes under the guise of being legitimately interested in Professor Potts’ investigation, and ends up staying much longer than the initial night.

Meanwhile, Joe Lilac is poised to marry her due to the fact that she wouldn’t be forced to testify against him. The protectors show up with a huge engagement ring, and though they downplay the not having to testify bit (one of my favorite lines is “He gets more bang outta you than any girl he ever met!”), it is clear that avoiding prosecution is his primary motive. However, what complicates things is that Professor Potts is beginning to fall in love with her. Eventually, the professor proposes and Sugarpuss is officially engaged to two men.

Through a series of circumstances, Sugarpuss is driven to Joe to be married along with Professor Potts and the rest of the professors in the house, but they all, including Professor Potts, think that Sugarpuss and the professor are going to be the ones having the wedding, not Sugarpuss and Joe. Once the professor finds out, he leaves Sugarpuss in anger and she is forced toward Joe. By this point, Sugarpuss really has fallen for the professor, and how exactly she gets out of her entanglement with Joe is what takes up the last 15 minutes of the movie.

I don’t usually like to spend too much time rehashing a film’s plot, preferring to leave more room for analysis, but the way this film unravels is truly like yarn–one thing leads to another, and in order to bring the character of the film into focus, the details of the plot are important to impart. In fact, the route of this plot is very typical of the comedies of Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay. When Ball of Fire is compared to a later Billy Wilder film such as Some Like it Hot (1959), the way the story unfolds is very similar.

Though today is technically Gary Cooper day on TCM, I think this is Barbara Stanwyck’s film, through and through. The real-life Barbara Stanwyck was a tough Brooklyn gal who grew up in poverty on the streets of New York, and that common slang of Sugarpuss O’Shea was her own way of speaking. I don’t think anyone else in Hollywood at that time could have been better for the part. The way she carries herself and even the way she walks is pitch perfect for the part she plays.

Stanwyck as a young girl in Brooklyn.

The others who steal the show are the absolutely adorable professors who share the house with Bertram Potts. Played notably by S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Henry Travers, and Richard Haydn, they do such things as mapping out the steps to the conga through an algorithm, and after crashing the car into a sign, explaining that by the theory of relativity that it was the sign who crashed into them. The presence of Sugarpuss in the professors’ house was supposed to be reminiscent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and the professors certainly honed the sweet and slightly otherworldly quality of the dwarves.

I get a huge kick out of this movie, and truth be told I have never met one person who didn’t love it. It’s just one of those movies that is universally liked and appreciated. If you haven’t seen it, it plays on TCM fairly frequently.

Here is Sugarpuss O’Shea in a great scene teaching the professors how to dance the conga. Thanks for reading! And don’t forget to tune in later this week for my coverage of Cinecon, starting Thursday. I’ll enable live-tweeting again, as I think that was a good way to keep you informed up to the minute!


Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: “Libeled Lady” (1936)

For my first installment to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, I have the pleasure of reviewing a truly delightful comedy by the name of Libeled Lady. The 5th of the 14 movies movies that teamed William Powell and Myrna Loy, the two possessed all the wit and charm in this movie that they are so widely known for. Add to that the talents of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, and you have yourself a real peach of a movie.

The story deals with a wealthy woman, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) suing for libel after a newspaper article accuses her of breaking up a marriage. In order to counter the suit, the newspaper company hatches an elaborate scheme to make the story true–hiring a notorious ladies’ man by the name of Bill Chandler (William Powell) to woo her and eventually be caught alone with her when his wife walks in. The plan is complicated when the two actually fall in love.

The situation with the wife is a prominent and amusing supporting story. Played by the lovely Jean Harlow, the character of Gladys is the long-suffering fiancé of Warren Haggerty, the managing editor of the newspaper being sued for libel. When the idea is developed and it comes to light that Bill Chandler is not actually married, Warren volunteers Gladys to be the pretend wife for the scheme. Some of the funniest scenes are those in which William Powell and Jean Harlow pretend to be a devoted married couple when there are people around, and as soon as they leave, they are at each other’s throats. William Powell and Jean Harlow were very well matched onscreen, and their good friendship turned to romance in real life. The two became engaged in 1935, and dated for 2 years, despite Powell’s doubts about marrying another blonde movie star after his divorce from Carole Lombard a few years earlier. When Jean Harlow fell ill on the set of Saratoga, it was William Powell who left the set of his own movie in order to take her home. I think had Jean Harlow lived longer, she and William Powell would have become as beloved a screen pairing as Powell and Myrna Loy. However, it is hard to speculate about this, as Jean Harlow died during the filming of Saratoga at the peak of her career in 1937. She was only 26.

One of my favorite scenes is one in which Bill Chandler, pretending to be an expert fisherman in order to get on the good side of Connie’s fisherman father, actually finds himself having to go fishing. Watch what happens:

This is a truly hilarious movie, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll be in for a treat.

Stay tuned for more posts during the month of August dedicated to TCM’s Summer Under the Stars programming!