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