Saturday, 9 July 2016

Lucy Before Lucy: Du Barry Was a Lady

In 1768, a young woman named Jeanne Bécu hatched a plan to cement her status in the world. Born the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress and unknown father, Jeanne was determined to improve her standings by becoming the official courtesan of King Louis XV of France. But in order to obtain that position, Jeanne needed a noble title. She got one by arranging a quickie marriage and falsifying key documents to imply she had some totally fake and very impressive ancestry. That’s how she became Madame du Barry, and it was only the beginning of her scandal-filled and tragic entry in the history books.

In 1939, Cole Porter thought the du Barry/Louis coupling would make a good backdrop for a sexy musical. (In his defense, he kind of thought anything would make a good backdrop for a sexy musical, it was his genius and his curse.) Broadway audiences saw the first production mounted with Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr and Betty Grable in the lead roles. The songs were raunchy and the jokes were raunchier, but it didn’t sit well with the tastemakers, and one New York Times critic wrote:

“The authors have struck a dead level of Broadway obscenity that doesn’t yield much mirth.”

I’m pretty sure that means there was too much innuendo and not enough story to back it up. Raves for the performances were the only positives to be found in the bleak petrified forest of newspaper reviews.

Which brings us to glamorous 1943, when Hollywood decided to make a version of Du Barry Was a Lady without Merman, Grable or Lahr – the things people actually liked about the show. Good idea, Hollywood.

MGM was interested in the film as a vehicle for Ann Sothern, so they bought the rights for her and started making promotional materials with her face on them. Sothern had become an unexpected sensation in 1939’s Maisie, where she played an adorably candid Brooklyn showgirl and wound up with her own film franchise and radio program. What MGM didn’t count on was that Sothern didn’t want to do the picture. (Some sources claim it was because she was pregnant with her daughter at the time, but that’s unverified and a little fishy given how the dates line up.)

It was such an unexpected surprise, the cartoon version of Sothern can still be seen in the title cards of the finished film:

Enter Lucille Ball, Sothern’s good friend and an actress transitioning between studios. It was decided that this was to be Lucy’s first outing at MGM after they'd bought her RKO contract.  Lucy would play May Daly and Madame du Barry in a dual role that revolved around a dream sequence. There would be towering wigs, dripping pearls, giant skirts, and songs. Lots of songs.

Lucy, as anybody who's seen Mame will tell you, couldn't really sing. This was handled by having Martha Mears dub her on most of her songs, except the finale number "Friendship." Occasionally, you can hear normally dubbed actors' own voices on what were considered "character songs" or songs that were supposed to be more humorous than pretty.

("Friendship" later found its way into the I Love Lucy canon when Lucy and Ethel perform it in "Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress" from season three.)

For her Technicolor debut, hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff had an idea about Lucy’s coiffure. Several years before, Lucy had started colouring her blonde hair a subtle red-gold in order to stand out among the crowd of RKO stock beauties. Guilaroff wanted to take this to the next level, and dyed it an intense shade called “Tango Red.” He then swept the whole thing into a coiled up-do and hair sprayed the hell out of it. In Lucy’s autobiography, she claims she had to crack the lacquer with the brush at night, like busting open an eggshell.

Later on, during another film for MGM called Without Love, Lucy would work with hairstylist Irma Kusley (also Katherine Hepburn’s go-to favourite for movie star hair). It was Kusley who'd stick with Lucy through all the television shows and shades of dye to come. And though Guilaroff is generally credited with creating the Lucy look, Kursely was the one who honed it into what we remember.

Meanwhile, another red-haired comedian was making waves at the studio.

Red Skelton had impressed MGM in 1940 with a screen test that included his best routines. “Doughnut Dunkers,” in which he did an array of impressions of how different people dunked their doughnuts; “Guzzler’s Gin,” which was later adapted for a small segment in 1946’s Ziegfeld Follies, as well as the inspiration for Lucy’s own Vitameatavegamin bit; and “Impressions of Movie Heroes Dying,” which was pretty much exactly what you’re thinking.

They didn’t quite know what to do with him, though, and it wasn’t until he stole every scene in 1941’s Whistling in the Dark and made hits of its sequels, Whistling in Dixie and Whistling in Brooklyn, that they decided he was worth investing in. 

In 1942, he starred in a splashy musical with Ann Sothern called Panama Hattie. The chemistry had worked, so MGM thought Skelton would make a good fit for the role of the hatcheck boy who wins the Irish sweepstakes, accidentally drugs himself, and dreams he’s Louis XV. (This was all arranged before the Sothern/Ball switch.)

The script for Du Barry Was a Lady was undergoing major reconstructive surgery while the studio was putting together its cast. A lot of the naughtier jokes were jettisoned, along with several of the Cole Porter songs which would be replaced by studio-written alternatives that better fit the clean comedy stars MGM was trying to create. The role originated by Bert Lahr had just about everything changed as it was stretched like a piece of taffy to suit Skelton’s comedic style.

Roles were dropped, merged, or morphed, character’s names were changed for no obvious reason.
Like Gene Kelly’s character, who in the play was named Alex, is now named Alec. On top of which, he’s no longer trapped in a loveless marriage without the money for divorce, and in the dream sequence he’s the dashing and mysterious Black Arrow. And while nobody really minds watching Gene Kelly swash some buckles, it does make his sections of the film strangely earnest compared to the others.

The story ended up so that Skelton's character was in love with the lead showgirl at the nightclub where he worked. When he wins the Irish sweepstakes, he decides that he finally has enough money to sweep her off her feet, but she's already in love with Gene Kelly because she's a heterosexual woman and he's Gene Kelly. Come on. No way Red Skelton can win that fight.

Still, Red's got a zany idea that involves dosing his rival with a roofie. Only he ends up drinking it himself and dreaming he's the king of France, Lucy is his mistress, and Kelly is a dashing revolutionary sworn to kill him. (He can kill as many kings as he wants as long as he keeps saying words with his voice...)

In the end, the movie suffered from the same overall complaint that the play did. While all the lead performers are terrific, the story itself is strangely without charm. But, unlike the play, the film has all the grandeur of an MGM spectacle to cover its weaknesses.

The whole thing comes across like a sugary confection of bright costumes, vaudevillian song and dance numbers, and some unexpected delights. Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra performing in powdered wigs, and brief appearances by both Lana Turner and Ava Gardner are small highlights, with the first film appearance of Zero Mostel being a big one. Mostel plays Gene Kelly's best pal, a smarmy fortune teller who steals most of the early scenes.

For Lucy fans, it’s an interesting halfway point between the glamour girl phase and the start of her career as a comedienne. And, as Lucy herself later said, if nothing else it was a wonderful thing for her to work with Red Skelton.

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