Thursday, March 19, 2009

Here’s Lucy

TCM ran a Lucille Ball double feature yesterday afternoon, consisting of a pair of movies I had not previously seen. One of these was The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), which is sort of the distaff side of The Fuller Brush Man (1948; a Red Skelton vehicle that was shown right after Girl)—directed by comedy veteran Lloyd Bacon and written for the screen by future cult director Frank Tashlin.

Brush Girl is a fun little romp (though maybe a notch lower than Brush Man, which is one of Skelton’s best film comedies) that allows Lucy the lion’s share of the laughs; she does this falling-down funny “strip tease” act in the movie’s final third that’s worth catching, and she’s amazingly adept at carrying out writer Tashlin’s trademark cartoon-like sight gags and slapstick situations (the film’s climax takes place aboard a ship at sea, and there’s a sidesplitting bit with Lucy trapped in some life preservers). Co-star Eddie Albert (he plays Lucy’s thick-as-a-plank boyfriend—it took him a year to finish a six-month correspondence course) has to make do with what little he’s got, but the movie features a lot of great character actors: Carl Benton Reid, Gale Robbins, Jeff Donnell, Jerome Cowan, John Litel (okay, he’s a lawyer in this one…but a crooked lawyer, if you’ll pardon the redundancy), Fred Graham, Lee Patrick and Arthur Space—who also played the top cop in Brush Man. (Speaking of Brush Man, there’s a cameo in Brush Girl by one of its [redheaded] stars…not to mention bits contributed by Jean Willes, Emil Sitka, Isabel Randolph, Mary Treen, Lucy’s old crony Barbara “Doris Ziffel” Pepper and the voice of Mel Blanc.)

The film that kicked off the double feature is much better than Brush Girl; Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949), an effervescent romantic comedy that features Ball as a secretarial school washout who’s hired by businessman William Holden (typecast in his “likable heel” persona) to run his real estate company. Holden’s company, unbeknownst to our heroine, is actually a front for a bookmaking operation—with TDOY fave James Gleason and Frank McHugh as Holden’s “business partners.” Richmond also has some scripted contributions from Tashlin (Nat Perrin and brothers Devery and Everett Freeman wrote the bulk of the script) but they’re not quite as overwhelming here like in Brush Girl; Lucy is adorable as a woman who’s not particularly the sharpest knife in the drawer but is very committed to helping out her friends when they’re down and out (she convinces Holden during the course of the film to develop a low-cost housing project to counter the properties owned by evil landlord Will Wright). There’s a brief bit towards the end of Richmond where Lucy starts slapping Holden around and though some might be put off by that kind of humor (apparently Lucy learned a few things from the Stooges on Three Little Pigskins [1934]) it actually plays pretty funny, with the slaps acting as comic punctuation. Co-starring in this pleasant diversion are Janis Carter, Gloria “Dennis the Menace’s ma” Henry, George Cleveland and Stephen Dunne; Arthur Space is also in this one (no badge, he’s an architect) as well as Charles Lane, who would later match wits with our favorite redhead as Mr. Barnsdahl on The Lucy Show (the two were actually good friends in real life; they met while she was a chorus girl and he was toiling away in musicals at R-K-O).

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