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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gene Kelly Centennial | Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

This is an entry for the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association, to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of Hollywood's best hoofers (Gene's actually birthday was the 23rd). Go here to read the rest of the very fabulous entries. Thank you to the CMBA for hosting!

I was a little late to the party when signing up for this blogathon, and needless to say, the best of Gene's films had already been grabbed. So unfortunately, this will not be the astute opportunity for me to ramble on endlessly about my love and affection for one of my favorite movies, Singin' in the Rain (1952). Instead I have chosen for a less well known vehicle from earlier on in Gene's career, Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) - it is, alas, no where near the perfection of Singin' in the Rain, but it does costar Lucille Ball, my favorite of all people, and thus I have chosen it to discuss today. 

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) is the story of a hat check man who is in love with the beautiful nightclub headliner at the club he works for. She, in turn, has the hearts for a poor dancer, who reciprocates her affection, but she knows she must marry for money. The hat check man strikes it rich by winning the Irish sweepstakes, and asks his crush to marry him, which she agrees to, even though she doesn't love him. The moral of all of this is brought to light when the new heir gets slipped a mickey and dreams his is in 18th century Versailles, in which he is King Louis XV, adamantly pursuing Madame Du Barry.  

Lucy practicing one of her dance routines
for the movie backstage
The film was more of a prominent milestone in Lucille Ball's career rather than Gene's. She was cast as the nightclub star May Daly/Madame Du Barry in what was her first film at MGM. She had failed to reach star status at RKO (though she had garnered the title as queen of B movies), and everyone knew - Lucy included - that MGM was her last chance to become an established movie star. As her introduction to the MGM corral of actors (after all, MGM had "more stars than the heavens"), she was cast in this film, which had been a successful Broadway play starring her good friend Ethel Mermen. It was called out to be a lush, Technicolor production, with a roster of songs by Cole Porter. To give Lucy a new image, MGM's chief hairstylist to the stars, Sidney Guilaroff, dyed her hair a stunning shade called "Tango Red", that popped on the Technicolor print, but Lucy herself was not quick to like in real life. (Lucy, born a brunette, had been dyed a Harlow blonde, then a strawberry blonde, which gradually darkened to mahogany brown). Critics were quick to call her "Technicolor Tessie," and declared no actress had looked better in color. Needless to say, Lucy kept this shade for the rest of her life.

This was the second film for budding star Gene Kelly, who obviously played the down on his luck hoofer, Alec Howe. Though only a year younger than his on screen love interest, Lucy had a list of films under her belt whereas this was only the second in what would prove to be a legendary show business career. (One could argue that both Gene and Lucy struck it big in the early 50s, Gene in his most well known film Singin' in the Rain - in '52 - and Lucy a year earlier with I Love Lucy.) Before this, Gene had made his screen debut with For Me and My Gal (1942), which he had made alongside bona fide star Judy Garland. Red Skelton is the third and final co-star, as the lucky hat check man Louis Blore.

The above mentioned are also supported by Virginia O'Brien, a fairly underrated actress in her own right.  Jo Stafford can be spotted as a member of the "Pied Piper" bind, as well as Ava Gardner for a second or two as a perfume girl, and Lana Turner makes a guest appearance as a part of one of Red Skelton's singing sketchs.

Despite the pretty impressive cast, and the cosmetic milestone this was for Lucy, the film ultimately fails to hit the mark (despite doing well at the box office), and I don't think it was a movie that neither Lucy or Gene could look back at and fondly remember. In fact, it might as very well have been one they tried to forget. Though it would for Lucy (because of her hair color change), this movie would also hold no later prominence for the birthday boy, Gene. But as contract players must, both were cast in this film with no questions asked.

This is actually, believe it or not, a movie I own on DVD - it's a part of TCM's Lucille Ball collection. When I offered to my dad the chance to watch this again in preparation of this post, he absolutely refused. And I can't blame him, because this is a real turkey. There are some pros to this film but there are tons of cons, too. (Because, even I couldn't get myself to sit through this again).

You might put the first problem of this film in the plot, which is pretty kooky. There's nothing wrong with "fun nonsense" movies, but sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, and this time around it's a case of the latter. This film is actually decent until Red Skelton gets konked back in time where he appears as King Louis XV and Lucy as Madame Du Barry, the king's notorious mistress. There are some interesting scenes, like one in which Red's King Louis chases Lucy's Du Barry around a bedroom, which includes a shot of them jumping around the bed (which, was, in fact, a trampoline - a scene Lucy didn't very much enjoy shooting as it gave her nausea!). As you can imagine, this was a number that went under the close eye of the Hays Code Office; but this film is the squeaky clean all around besides (though, according to my Lucy at the Movies book, the play was a bit raunchier and was sanitized a little before being transferred to the screen).
A promo shot for Du Barry, 1943
I think after the main cast gets shot back to Versailles in the 1700s, the film actually becomes pretty unwatchable, or at least, that's how I remember it. Still, the plot is ridiculous anyways and you couldn't put the fault in any of the cast. Obviously, everyone on here knows what I think of Lucy and I think pretty highly of Gene Kelly and Red Skelton, too - all very talented actors, and they do the best they can.  Ultimately, they are misused. Gene doesn't even get to dance as much as he could've!

So while we can conclude this is certainly not a five star movie, there are a couple of good things about this movie, too. As I said above, the actors give it their best shot. Lucy looks so gorgeous in this. It's always hard for me to pick what was period was the height of her beauty, but this would be one of the top contenders. She sports a blonde wig upon her DuBarry transformation, however, shows off her new hair color in the rest of the film, and the critics weren't kidding when they raved about the new 'Technicolor tessie.' Really, the closeup shots of her as Gene professes his love with a song are killer.

The songs in this movie are by Cole Porter and while it might not be the best work of the famed songwriter, the numbers in here are certainly decent. The most notable is probably "Friendship," the happy song-and-dance number sung by the three title actors at the end of the film. Gene obviously did his own singing, but Lucy was dubbed for all the numbers in this film by Martha Mears - with the exception of this song, for which she did her own singing. The song would also later be used on the episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel preform on television for their women's club benefit. They sing the song while they shred each other's identical dresses to pieces!  (It should be added that, unfortunately, a great deal of music from the stage play was emasculated.)

I looked long and hard to find any particularly interesting backstage stories to liven up this post about a very mediocre movie, perhaps about Lucy and the birthday boy, but I could come up with nothing. Gene Kelly, though still in the early stages of stardom, is one of the few truly notable costars Lucy worked with before she had her success in television. He and Lucy would work together three more times. In the same year, they both made appearances in Thousands Cheer, a variety film that lacks plot but is made up of skits and sketches. Then, once again in Ziegfield Follies (1946), a similar film filled with an assortment of routines, but they are in separate skits and don't share any screen time together. (Lucy is in only in it for a few minutes, but I did watch the whole movie and it was interesting - some skits are better than others; there's some nice singing by Lena Horne, Judy Garland does a fun routine that mocks Greer Garson's ladylike image, and a very notable piece where Gene and Fred Astaire dance together!). Gene Kelly also directed Lucy in her short stint in his film A Guide For the Married Man (1967). (And as for Lucy and Red Skelton - when Red won the Emmy in '52 for Best Comedian or Comedienne, he said, "You gave it to the wrong redhead tonight.")

As for Gene Kelly himself, unfortunately, this wasn't one of his better films - and so it's probably silly I chose this movie to discuss on his 100th. All the while, Gene is definitely a performer I love. He was an incredible dancer and watching him preform, he in as an art all by himself. He was very initiative when choosing his routines, and his good looks and charm made him appropriate for more sultry dance moves that Hollywood's other premiere dancer, Fred Astaire, strayed from. He also influenced so much of modern dance; Michael Jackson credited Kelly's influence numerous times. That little scar on his cheek? I've always loved it, because it added a certain degree of ruggedness and a dash of allure. Some say that Astaire was more elegant or debonair, but I think they were two entirely different dancers and it isn't very fair to compare them; they were both beautiful in their craft. And besides, Gene Kelly's lines were just as neat and pretty as Astaire's.

Gene Kelly was fabulous and I adore him to bits. This film may not be incredible, but plenty of his other movies were: first and foremost, Singin' in the Rain, but also Anchors Aweigh (1945), On the Town (1949), and An American in Paris (1951) (amongst many others, I'm sure.) So here's a big happy centennial birthday to one of Hollywood's best. Thanks for the dances, Gene (and all my apologizes for the numerous times I diverted this post over to Lucy, but I think it's okay because you worked with her enough to know how incredible she was!).

Happy 100th birthday, Gene Kelly. 


Dawn Sample said...

I have not yet seen this film, but.. I have seen the promo pictures and I thought Lucy, was absolutely beautiful. She reminded me of, Rita Hayworth.

R. D. Finch said...

Rianna, I think you're right that this is one of Gene Kelly's lesser films. I think of it more as a Red Skelton vehicle, and one's reaction to this movie will likely depend on the reaction to Skelton's brand of humor. Its plot seems the kind of thing that would have worked better on the stage than in the movies. It does have Lucy, though, and Kelly gets to sing the one good Cole Porter song in the film, "Do I Love You?" while playing on that tiny rehearsal piano. I remember the "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy and Ethel sing "Friendship'! Reading your post made reminded me that this is maybe the first example in a Kelly film of the two guys-one girl performing idea, later repeated in "Cover Girl" and "Singin' in the Rain." It is disconcerting to hear Lucy's dubbed songs. Her voice is so familiar that they really stick out.

Classicfilmboy said...

Haven't seen this one either. Everyone makes a clunker now and then, but I will have to search it out on TV and Tivo it; that way, if I don't like it, I can fast-forward through it :) Thank you for the extensive look at this film and the history behind it!

Page said...

Hi Rianna!
I know you were disappointed that didn't get a better known. liked Kelly film but I'm glad you chose DuBarry. I actually like it. And don't feel bad. I wrote about Hello Dolly which I'm still having nightmares about. Ha Ha

I love Lucy's early films and I thought she was great with Gene. They made a striking and believable pair.

I'm glad that you mentioned Cole Porter and his contribution because I liked "Friendship" and I had completely forgot that it came from this film. You've done a lot of research here and your effort shows. Wonderfully done!


KimWilson said...

They can't all be winners. Still, thanks for taking a stab at this. At least now I know how Lucy got her red locks.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Love the info about Lucy's red hair, and I do remember the "Friendship" number from "I Love Lucy." Great job.

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