Thursday, June 28, 2007

dvd review: the lucille ball collection

Lucy and Henry Fonda in The Big Street
She was a television icon, a gifted comedienne, and a lovely talent that worked in all of the entertainment mediums of the 20th century. She was and still is beloved by Americans, and her popularity continues. Her television show still runs in syndication across the nation today... over fifty years after it's initial debut. Of course, I'm talking about Lucille Ball. Lucy may be more remembered for her television show with Desi, but she enjoyed a long career in films and radio before she first appeared on the small screen in 1951. Last week Warner Home Video released a five disc DVD set of some of the films from her career that will give you a different side of Lucy and will definitely illustrate how versatile and talented she was. Is the set worth your hard earned cash? Is it a Shelf Classic, or should you even bother. Find out in today's Shelf DVD review of The Lucille Ball Film Collection!

The hard facts:
Lucille Ball Film Collection
Five Discs in Snap Cases
Studio: Warner Home Video
B&W /Color (Technicolor)
Release Date: June 19, 2007
Rated: PG for Mame, NR for rest
All Films Star: Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball was born and bred in New York, and by the age of 15 had left home for the bright lights of Broadway. She didn't find success initially, and instead turned to modeling which eventually helped get her first on screen job as a "Goldwyn Girl", singers and dancing girls backing up the main stars in featured attractions. She received a contract with RKO and appeared in small parts and supporting roles in such films as Top Hat and Follow the Fleet and even appeared in a Three Stooges Short, Three Little Pigskins. Soon she was getting bigger parts and getting noticed. Her comic flair and beauty is evident in roles in the Marx Brother's classic Room Service and in Stage Door with Katherine Hepburn.

It was her performance in Stage Door, and perhaps her turn as arrogant nightclub chanteuse Gloria Lyons in The Big Street, helped gain her more acclaim and attention and led to bigger roles. She eventually left RKO and then signed with MGM in the early 1940s. The movies were better and she had better parts, but she never enjoyed "A" star status during the 40s. The pictures during this time really show her evolution as a performed and Technicolor didn't hurt her career either. Although performing as a blond, her first picture in color, Du Barry Was a Lady, was as a red head. Her hair was died flaming red specifically for the picture, but was a sensation and eventually became something of a trademark. She was known as "Technicolor Tessie". It was also during this time that she met and married Desi Arnaz after they worked together in the film Too Many Girls. I

It wasn't until she found success on the radio, on the show My Favorite Husband, that the big doors started to open. CBS came knocking on Lucy's door with an interest in creating a television show based on My Favorite Husband. Lucy agreed, but insisted that Desi play the part of her husband, and that they incorporate part of his background as a bandleader into the show. Lucy was not only a shrewd business woman, but was also seeking to strengthen her now strained marriage. CBS was reluctant, so Lucy and Desi formed the production company Desilu, and produced the pilot themselves. CBS saw the pilot and the success that Lucy and Desi had in testing the show out on tour and signed them to a contract. I Love Lucy was born.

I Love Lucy became more than just a hit, it was an institution. It is also evidence, not only of Lucy's talent, but also of her show business acumen. Desilu pioneered using film instead of kinescope, to produce the shows, which eventually led to the concept of rerunning shows later in the season or during hiatus. The show also led the way to syndication. Lucy was the first female head of a Production company, and was very successful at it. The success of the show also led to starring roles in more films, but more often than not, comedies. She made several films with Bob Hope and also re teamed with Henry Fonda in the classic Yours, Mine and Ours.

The Films:
This set gives a great look at the span of Lucille Ball's career in films, from supporting role to starring roles, to entertainment icon. The DVD set includes five films:

Dance, Girl Dance (1940, RKO)
Also Stars: Maureen O’Hara, Ralph Bellamy and Louis Hayworth
Director: Dorothy Arznar
This film is sort of a potboiler romance film that centers on the story of two competitive women who love to dance. Maureen O'Hara is Judy who loves to dance for the art and joy of it, but her friend Bubbles (Lucy) loves to dance for the fame and money it can bring. They have started out as part of a dance company of girls finding work at dives here or there, but eventually Bubbles finds success in burlesque and strip tease . She changes her name to Tiger Lily and is propelled into fame and fortune. Meanwhile Judy is scraping buy, never really pushing herself forward, but hoping for a chance. When Bubbles comes by offering a part in her show, Judy accepts. However, she doesn't realize the part is that of a "stooge" to dance a ballet in between Tiger Lily's performances to build up the hype. Even when faced with this humiliation, Judy decides to continue in the job for the money, but also not to back down from Bubbles.

Eventually a man that the girls briefly met sometime ago, and both liked, comes back into the picture. Jimmy Harris is wealthy, but also has been divorced by a woman he still loves. Naturally this complicates things and eventually Judy and Bubbles lock horns over everything between them. Ralph Bellamy appears in his typical "Nice Guy" guy role as a producer of a serious dance company who is interested in signing Judy and sees her real talent. It's a pleasant enough film, but overstays its welcome about half way through. The plot is conventional enough, and everyone performs well. Maureen O'Hara has none of her trademark spark until the very end of the film, but Lucy takes the opportunity to vamp up her role considerably. Ralph Bellamy is fairly flat, but Louis Hayward must have decided to make up for Bellamy by going in the opposite direction. He is too ham-handed when he's on screen; he's either low or high- nothing in-between. What makes this picture stand out is that Lucy's singing voice isn't dubbed, and her singing and dance numbers are quite enjoyable. The film's themes are expressed well; about men's perception of women, chasing your dreams, and the difficulties of women making their way in the world.

Extras: The DVD includes the comedy short, Just a Cute Kid and the delightful Warner Brothers cartoon: Malibu Beach Party. Malibu Beach Party is a Hollywood characiture cartoon that centers on Jack Benny (called Jack Bunny in the cartoon) giving a beach party for all his Hollywood films. It's nice to see this on DVD.

The Big Street (1942, RKO)
Also Stars: Henry Fonda, Eugene Palette, Agnes Morehead, Louise Beavers and Sam Levene
Director: Irving Reis
This Damon Runyon story includes a lovable cast of characters of low level con men, bookies, nightclub hang abouts and gamblers who have that Runyonesque heart of gold. Henry Fonda plays "Little Pinks", a busboy who has a eternal crush on nightclub singer Gloria Lyons. The problem is that haughty Gloria has a mobster boyfriend and turns her nose up at anyone who doesn't reek of money. When Pinks saves her beloved dog, Gloria repays the favor by getting him hired at her boyfriend's nightclub. Pink jumps at the chance and waits on her hand and foot.

Things take a more drastic course when Gloria's boyfriend smacks her down some stairs, which leaves Gloria with out the use of her legs. Soon Gloria is also without a job, money or even her former rich friends. Pinks never leaves her side and, with the help of his friends, is able to get Gloria treated and out of the hospital and into a room in his building. All the while he keeps up the notion that Gloria is loved and admired and missed by her former circle of friends. Pink's own friends see how much Gloria takes advantage of and orders Pinks around and they resent her for it. But when Pinks comes calling for help, they can't give up helping her for his sake. Eventually Pinks gets Gloria to Palm Beach to bask in the sun for her health, but also because she believes that a former suitor is waiting for her and is going to marry her. It isn't long before she begins to see the truth, and the icy exterior begins to crack, but it may all be a little too late.

This is an enjoyable, funny, sad and charming melodrama. I hadn't seen it in many years, and it was better than I remember. The primary reason is the supporting cast, who do a wonderful job in bringing these rascally lovable characters of assorted "guys" and "dolls" to the screen. Sam Levene is a favorite as Horsethief (you may remember him from all sorts of roles, including a recurring role as Lieutenant Abrams in The Thin Man movie series), and one of my favorite character actors, Eugene Pallette steals the show as Nicely Nicely. Agnes Moorehead (looking very different from her famous role as Bewitched's Endora) has a nice role as the voice of sentiment and reason as Violette. Fonda and Ball doing an excellent job, essentially playing against type, as the timid Pinks and the egotistical Gloria. All in all an excellent, enjoyable film.

Extras: Includes the musical short Calling All Girls (essentially a look at casting girls as chorus girls in musical shows) and the classic Warner Brothers cartoon The Hep Cat.

DuBarry Was a Lady (1943, MGM)
Also Stars: Red Skelton, Gene Kelly, Virginia O’Brien and Tommy Dorsey Director: Roy Del Ruth
This is MGM's first color musical, and it's very lavish. Adapted from the Cole Porter Broadway Musical, this is the story of Louis (Red Skelton), a hat check boy at a night club who is in love with the singer and star of the club (do you sense a running theme here?), May Daly (Lucy). Unfortunately for Louis, May is looking to marry someone with money. Despite this, she has already fallen in love with hoofer Alec, who doesn't have a dime. When Louis wins the Irish Sweepstakes, May reluctantly agrees to marry him, but not for love- just for the money. Louis doesn't mind, as long as she'll be his wife, thinking she'll grow to love him. May at least lets him know upfront, that even though she likes him, she isn't in love with him.

Alec is against the marriage and tries to talk them out of it. In an attempt to get Alec go along with things (or out of the way until they get married) one of Louis' friends slips Alec a "Mickey Finn" doped drink, but Louis drinks it instead. During his drug induced slumber, Louis dreams that he is King Louis XV of France, and that May is his mistress and Alec is the notorious rebel the Black Arrow. When Louis wakes up, he has realized that perhaps he was wrong and that money won't buy him May's heart, but that he should bring Alec and May together instead. True love and friendship win the day.

This is perhaps the highlight of the set. The rich technicolor print is a sight to see. The real star of the show is the lovable and funny Red Skelton, but there are a few others besides Lucy, Red and Gene that steal the show. For starters, this is Zero Mostel's screen debut as the nightclub swami. He is hilarious and practically runs away with the scenes he's in. Virginia O'Brien plays nightclub cigarette and candy girl, Ginny. Her deadpan singing style is highlighted in a great song, Salome (you might remember her and her deadpan delivery from the Marx Brother's film, The Big Store). Backing everyone up is the great Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. Musically highlights abound, including Six Hits and Miss, drummer Buddy Rich and singer Dick Haymes. One of my favorite numbers is early in the film, performed by a trio known as The Oxford Boys or The Three Oxford Boys. This is their only known film appearance, as far as I can tell.

Extras: Includes the Oscar-nominated Pete Smith specialty short, Seeing Hands and a great Barney Bear MGM cartoon Bah Wilderness.

Critic’s Choice (1963, Warner Brothers)
Also Stars: Bob Hope, Rip Torn and Marilyn Maxwell
Director: Don Weis

Critic's Choice is the screen adaptation of a Ira Levin Broadway play about a Broadway critic and his wife who writes a play. The film comes late in Lucy's career, after the success of her television show, and there is some element of bring that to the film. Bob Hope plays critic Parker Ballantine, a successful critic of the great white way. Parker's reviews have closed many a show, including that of his ex-wife. Remarried and raising his son, Parker is happy with where things are in his life. His wife Angela decides that she wants to write a play based on her eccentric mother and sisters. Parker is initially opposed to the idea, saying that she doesn't know how to write. Angela pushes on despite his objections and resents his resistance. Once she finishes writing the play, however, she is eager for his honest opinion. His opinion? It's a stinker. Angel gets upset, but is even more determined to get the play produced and she succeeds in doing just that. But the one thing that can come between her and Broadway success, and can cause marital problems is a review by a famous critic; her husband

This is perhaps the least worthy of the films in the set, and that's disappointing because that's a rare thing to say for Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. The film is supposed to be a comedy, but it just falls flat. The throwaway lines from Hope are funny enough, but the rest of the material is threadbare. It just shows that very talent stars can still make enough of the material to make a film OK. And Critic's Choice is OK, it's just not great. Look for a very young Rip Torn as the director of Angela's play. You won't recognize him. In fact, I was always distracted when he was in the scenes. I couldn't stop thinking about the show thirtysomething. He was a dead ringer for Ken Olin in that show.

Extras: Includes the comedy short, Calling All Tars with Bob Hope and the classic Oscar-nominated Warner Brothers cartoon, Now Hear This. In this case, the film is worth popping in for the extras alone. The comedy short shows Bob at his early funny best. It's a funny vitaphone short that's great to have in your collection. I've noticed several Bob Hope shorts beginning to appear in some of the more recent WB box sets. Here's to hoping they'll continue to do so.

Mame (1974, Warner Brothers)
Also Stars: Bea Arthur, Robert Preston, JaneConnell and Bruce Davidson
Director: Gene Saks
Lucille Ball takes over the title role, Angela Landsbury made famous on Broadway in the 1970's musical Mame. Mame is an eccentric, fun loving adventure seeking and free thinking woman, who is suddenly thrust into the role of parent when her only nephew is orphaned at the age of 10. But Mame is a woman who loves fiercely and openly, and it there for anyone who needs her. Her nephew, Patrick, steals her heart, and through her trials and ups and downs, always seeks the silver lining and bring that light to everyone she knows. The songs are classics by now, and anyone with an interest in musical theater can recognize the melodies and singing along with the words.

Bea Arthur recreates the role she originated as Mame's "dearest friend", Vera Charles. Jane Connell also recreates her role as Patrick's nanny, Anges and Robert Preston appears as Mame's husband, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. Gene Saks, who directed the show on Broadway, returns to direct here. I was somewhat surprised by the film, even though I had seen it on television when I was a kid. I've seen it several times performed on stage and really preferred the stage version. I had always felt the film was slow, and not as upbeat or exciting as the stage show. When I watched the film, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the songs and the routines. I still feel as Lucy was miscast in this role, but she pulls it off well enough. I would love to have seen Angela Landsbury in the film, but overall it's an enjoyable film. Also some scenes felt abruptly cut, like I was missing something here or there. I don't remember this in the film from when I originally saw it.

Extras: The only extras are a theatrical trailer and Lucky Mame, a sort of extended trailer for marketing. It's by watching the trailer that you can contrast the print of the film to the trailer and see just how much a great job Warner's did in securing a fine print.

As always, Warner Brothers does a fine job in getting quality prints, and restoring and cleaning them for transfer. All of them look great, and the real eye-popper is Du Barry Was a Lady. It's has the effect intended by Technicolor. The sound is superb, again, with the real standout being Du Barry Was a Lady, and Mame. The music is just great. If you can secure a soundtrack from Du Barry was a Lady, you should.

The Bottom Line:
Fans of Lucille Ball will definitely want to pick this up, especially those who are only familiar with her from her television show. You can really see the evolution of her career through these films, and there many others already out there on DVD. It's difficult to think of any other titles that haven't been released on DVD, that I'd rather see in the collection, except perhaps The Fuller Brush Girl, which was screwball comedy that I'd love to see on DVD.
Pick up The Lucille Ball Collection for Du Barry was a Lady and you'll enjoy The Big Street and Mame. Dance, Girl Dance is worth a viewing and Critic's Choice is only worth skipping through for a funny Bob sequence or two and definitely for the extras. Those who aren't particular fans of Lucy would at least want to see The Big Street and should make every effort to see Du Barry Was a Lady. Most of the films are at least a rental, but film lovers, especially musical fans, will want to make Du Barry a part of their permanent collection.

Review Rating:
If Professor Loophole were individually grading the films, they would earn the following:
Du Barry is an A+
The Big Street is a B+
Mame is a B
Dance, Girl Dance is a C>
Critic's Choice is a D-.
Overall rating: 3 1/2 stars (Groucho Glasses)

DuBarry Was a Lady is a SHELF CLASSIC. That combined with the rest of the films and the extras, and subtracting for Critic's Choice, makes The Lucille Ball Collection overall a Must Have set.

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

For parading without a license each of you gets thirty days. For planning to knock me off, you get the guillotine.


Laura said...

Enjoyed checking out your thoughts on this! Great writeup. I've never been a big Lucy fan but I'm a big MGM musicals fan (and a Maureen O'Hara fan!) so I'm looking forward DUBARRY WAS A LADY and DANCE GIRL DANCE. Sounds like there is lots of great stuff to enjoy in DUBARRY!

Best wishes,

J.C. Loophole said...

Dance Girl Dance features a different performance for lovely Maureen, but worth the look. Du Barry Was A Lady was a load of fun and I've already watched it again. Be sure to check out The Oxford Boys- is very unique. And don't miss the finale!
Also The Big Street is a good film-the supporting cast does a great job! Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a cool set. I remember seeing Mame when I was a teenager, but never liked it. I am a big Lucy fan, so this will be on my shopping list this weekend along with fireworks.

Sallie Neal said...

@ J.C.-

When you get back from vacation (which is muchly deserved), check out my blog for your wish. It's there!


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