Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dubarry Was a Lady (Roy Del Ruth, 1943)

No ifs, ands, or buts. This is a bad movie, and it was probably a bad Broadway show in 1939 before it became a bad movie. You may ask, how could it be bad with the cast found wandering through the movie? After all, there’s Gene Kelly, and Lucille Ball, and Red Skelton, and Virginia O’Brien, and Donald Meek, and Rags Ragland, and even Zero Mostel. Well, I’ll tell you. The storyline, such as it is, serves merely as a string on which some song and dance numbers are threaded. At the outset, the movie doesn’t give much warning of impending mediocrity—a handsome woman in satin descends the sort of huge glittery staircase found only in the sort of imaginary nightclubs found in movies made from musical shows. She’s followed by a symmetrical gang of leggy women also in satin, and they are all singing and dancing to the inane title song. They outnumber the audience in the club by a factor of three to one; it’s a very exclusive nightclub.

The satiny chanteuse is May Daly (Lucille Ball). She is courted by a talented but impecunious singer/dancer/composer, Alec Howe (Gene Kelly), but she’s too brittle to marry him for love when what she really wants is to marry money. The hat-check guy Louis Blore (Red Skelton) worships her from afar and fails to notice the lovelorn but wisecracking Ginny (Virginia O’Brien) who is entirely, and inexplicably, smitten by him—she also has a pretty good musical number of her own.

There are a few other ringers brought in to upgrade the funniness, viz., Zero Mostel as “Rami the Swami,” Rags Ragland as Charlie, a cheerful lunatic with a foreign accent from no country in particular. Music by Tommy Dorsey. Add a bevy of calendar girls. If you blink you will miss tiny uncredited cameo appearances by Ava Gardner and Lana Turner.

When Louis wins a fortune in the Irish Sweepstakes, he buys a car and plans to marry May; she assents, strictly on business terms. A plan to put Louis’ rival Alec to sleep backfires, and Louis drifts into unconscious, where he becomes Louis XV, le roi de France, Ball is translated into Dubarry, and Kelly is the “Black Arrow.” Even the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra wears 18th-century costumes, and they look better that way. Mr. Dorsey himself sports his usual hornrimmed glasses under the powdered wig, also a satin suit with short trousers, hose, and high-heeled shoes with a silver buckle. And there were some bizarre moments—Buddy Rich at the drumset in full ancien regime regalia. Still, good drumming, some good trumpet work by Ziggy Elman, musical impersonations by the Oxford Boys, and some nice vocal moments with the Pied Pied Pipers (including Jo Stafford). Okay.

Well, Gene Kelly played the same part in a great many films, and he could have done this one in his sleep. No, he didn’t; he seems just as alert as always. Still, he has an open, enthusiastic, boyish face, and he certainly can dance. Red Skelton was a mugger, a rubber-faced clown, but here he seems relative subdued; in his later career on television he always went over the top—a master of crude, broad comedy. Hyuck hyuck, as it were. And though there are a good many people who might think Lucille Ball could have saved this, well, no, she couldn’t, for two reasons. First, in 1943 she was too busy being beautiful to waste time being funny. Here she is just as nearly blonde as red-headed, statuesque, with star glamour and frocks by “Irene,” and all that. It’s the sort of part many women of her day could play, and did, just as well or better. It’s a cookie-cutter role. Second, I may well be in the minority here, but quite frankly I have never been very much inclined to think she’s funny when she’s trying to be a comedian. Perhaps it’s because I grew up without a television and was not exposed during formative years and failed to form an addiction, or develop a tolerance, or whatever it is that one must go through to ach
ieve the infeebled state of those who think Lucy is the funniest thing since somebody fell down and went boom. I admit my disbelief is not strictly relevant, since she’s not funny in this movie either—but I must acknowledge that she wasn’t supposed to be. So, regretfully, I do not recommend this movie, unless you are one of those viewers who like to watch the character actors and the uncredited musicians. Otherwise, steer clear.

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