Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lucille Ball in brilliant Technicolor

Tonight's recommended viewing on TCM is Du Barry Was a Lady, airing at 9:30 PM ET. It's showing up as part of TCM's month long salute to big bands, since Tommy Dorsey appears, along with his orchestra. However, the real reason to watch it is for Lucille Ball, in her first Technicolor role, showing off her unbelievable red hair.

Ball, along with the rest of the cast, plays a double role in this movie. The framing story is set in a nightclub, with coat-check boy Red Skelton (only in a Hollywood love triangle would you have a coat-check boy; real nightclubs would use a good-looking woman, and noirs would also use the hottest woman they could find for such a role) being in love with Ball, a singer at the nightclub; Ball, however, is in love with dancer Gene Kelly (before he became a big star, but wonderful in his one very athletic dance number), but can't marry him because she's of the wrong background. Through a comedy of errors, Skelton ends up slipping himself a mickey, with the result being a dream sequence story set in 18th century France. In the dream sequence, Skelton plays King Louis XV; Ball plays his mistress, the Madame du Barry; and Kelly plays the "bad guy" trying to steal du Barry, the Black Arrow.

The sets are beautiful. The costumes are beautiful. The one production number in the nightclub is beautiful, and Kelly's dancing has to be seen to be believed. Even Lucille Ball looks great. People who only remember her from her days on I Love Lucy and her later movies and television shows will want to watch to see just how nice she looked when she was young. It's much better than she looked in The Long, Long Trailer. Unfortunately, the story is not up to snuff. Skelton's antics are an acquired taste, and if you haven't acquired the taste, you'll probably find them grating at best. Red Skelton and Lucille Ball didn't really fit in doing period work; their attempts at humor during the dream sequence are about as forces as Bob Hope's period pieces like The Princess and the Pirate and Alias Jesse James. Gene Kelly is OK, but underused; obviously, MGM didn't realize yet just what they had in him.

The game of "spot the character actor" is always a fun one to play, and this time, we get "Rags" Ragland and Donald Meek. A younger Zero Mostel also shows up, as an irritating fortune teller. The full cast list at IMDb claims that a young Ava Gardner plays an extra, while Lana Turner makes a cameo appearance -- although truth be told, I don't remember either.

Thanks to the popularity of Lucille Ball, Du Barry Was a Lady is also available on DVD, if you miss tonight's TCM showing. It's a pleasant way to pass an hour and forty minutes, but it's not a "great" movie.

No comments: