Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

Happy Birthday Lucille Ball: THE DARK CORNER (20th Century Fox 1946)

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Having grown up on endless reruns of I LOVE LUCY (and her subsequent variations on the Lucy Ricardo character), I’m not used to watching Lucille Ball in a dramatic role. In fact, I think the 1985 TV movie STONE PILLOW is the only time I’ve seen her play it straight until I recently watched THE DARK CORNER on TCM, a minor but enjoyable noir with Lucy headlining a good cast in a story about a private eye framed for murder. And since today marks the 105th anniversary of the redhead’s birth, now’s as good a time as any to look back on this unheralded hardboiled tale.

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Lucy, looking mighty sexy at age 35, plays Kathleen Stewart, secretary to PI Bradford Galt, recently relocated to The Big Apple. He’s got a secret past that’s dogging him, and a shady man in a white suit following him. Galt confronts the tail, who claims to be a fellow PI named Foss working for Galt’s old partner Jardine. Kathleen’s sweet on Galt, but he keeps warning her to get out while she can. He finally reveals his deep, dark secret to her: Jardine was a blackmailer of women and embezzler who, when Galt found out, set up the detective on a manslaughter rap, earning Galt two years in stir.

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Jardine’s chummy with art gallery owner Hardy Cathcart, a sarcastic sophisticate married to Mari, a much younger woman. Slimy Jardine’s up to his old tricks, wooing Mari under Cathcart’s nose. But the cagey codger knows what’s up, and he’s hired a hitman (Stauffer, using the alias Foss) to kill Jardine and frame ex-partner Galt for the murder. Stauffer does the deed, and winds up getting shoved out a 30th floor window by Cathcart for his troubles. Jardine’s body is found under Galt’s bed, and now he and Kathleen must work diligently to solve the mystery before Galt ends up in the electric chair.

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Lucy’s good as Kathleen, working as Galt’s partner rather than just a mere secretary. Her banter with the PI is cute in a non-cloying way, and it’s not spoiling anything to let you know she gets her man in the end. Miss Ball was freelancing at this point in her career, no longer under contract to RKO or MGM, and she was getting a reputation as strictly a B-movie queen. A savvy businesswoman, Lucy moved to radio and starred in a hit sitcom called MY FAVORITE HUSBAND. That new-fangled medium television came along and, with a switch of leading men (Richard Denning to real-life husband Desi Arnaz) and change of titles, the show debuted on October 15, 1951 as I LOVE LUCY. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Mark Stevens plays tough-guy Bradford Galt, and though he’s a bit stiff, he’s  better here than in BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN . Clifton Webb is the acerbic, lovelorn Cathcart in a part very similar to his Waldo Lydecker in LAURA. The always reliable William Bendix is Foss/Stauffer, adding his particular brand of menace to the film. Kurt Kreuger, usually an evil Nazi, is the suave but just as evil Jardine. Reed Hadley keeps popping in and out as a police lieutenant keeping a sharp eye on Galt. Cathy Downs (Mari) was once the sweet title girl in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE , later costar of THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Constance Collier, Ellen Corby, Molly Lamont, Donald MacBride, Matt McHugh, John Russell, and Charles Wagenheim.

Henry Hathaway keeps things taut for the most part, though for me the film dragged in some places. Hathaway was one of those Hollywood directors not noted for any particular genre, but always managed to make good movies. Some of his other noirs were the classic KISS OF DEATH, THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, 13 RUE MADELEINE, and NIAGRA. He worked with stars like Gary Cooper (seven times!), Randolph Scott, and Mae West (GO WEST YOUNG MAN). He’s mainly regarded for his Western work, and guided John Wayne through his Oscar-winning performance in TRUE GRIT. Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography is appropriately dark and atmospheric.

THE DARK CORNER is not a great film, but it gives fans a great chance to see Lucille Ball act in a dramatic role. The girl was good, no doubt about it, and should have spread her thespic wings more often. But once she hit the small screen, everyone just wanted to see the lovable redhead clown her way through one madcap adventure after another. Happy birthday, Lucy.. we still love you!