Towards the end of his life, George Sanders was hell to interview. In a late Sixties exchange with critic Rex Reed, he was asked about which of his leading ladies he most enjoyed working with.
Was Bette Davis, his costar in 1950’s All About Eve (which won the dyspeptic Sanders a best supporting actor Oscar) his favorite? His crisp answer: No.
Making it clear that he found Reed’s query inane and more than slightly annoying, Sanders finally responded with, Oh, all right — Lucille Ball! Lucille Ball was my favorite. (He couldn’t remember which picture they made together; it was Lured, a 1947 United Artists crime mystery directed by Douglas Sirk, which costars Charles Coburn and Boris Karloff.)
It’s telling that while the movie’s title escaped him, Sanders easily recalled that Ball was nothing if not a winning personality. Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, to go on record today that, like Sanders, we equally enjoy Lucille Ball — as a movie actress as well as a TV star.
The enormous success of the I Love Lucy tube series (originally run on CBS from 1951 to 1957) has obscured Lucy’s career — as what she termed “a second-rate” movie star –from 1933 when she first came to Hollywood to take a chorus girl part in producer Samuel Goldwyn’s Roman Scandals starring Eddie Cantor to 1940 when she first met future husband Desi Arnaz on the set of RKO’s Too Many Girls.
Her seven year stint at RKO was most pleasurable for Lucille since I’ve always been a family person, and I adopted R.K.O. as my studio family. She was also earning some serious money at the time — about $1,000 a week and making three or four pictures a year throughout the 1930s. By 1940, she had appeared in some 50 to 60 titles.
As Joe has previously written, one picture in 1942 stands out among Lucille’s movie appearances. RKO’s The Big Street is a minor classic film, only notable today because of Ball’s dramatic performance as a been-around-the-block night club singer.
It’s a fanciful tale by Damon Runyon, who also produced the film. Lucille by this time had given some good comedy performances (Stage Door, Room Service, etc.) as well as some good dramatic performances (Five Came Back, Dance, Girl, Dance).
She was even auditioned by Orson Welles (an occasional dating partner) for the role of Charles Foster Kane’s opera-singing second wife in 1941’s Citizen Kane. Her competition included Joan Crawford and Anne Baxter. The part went, of course, to Dorothy Comingore
For the male lead in The Big Street, Runyon eventually signed Henry Fonda, who was fulfilling a contract obligation to the studio. Ball and Fonda — another actor charmed by Lucille — had had a fling a few years back, and supposedly Desi Arnaz, Ball’s new husband was jealous and often visited the set to check up on his wife.
The Big Street was well received critically but just ok at the box office. However, MGM, the most successful studio back then, finally saw her potential and bought her contract from RKO. It seemed as if Lucille had finally made the big time.
Metro glamorized her, and starred her in two big Technicolor musicals. But within two years she was back to playing supporting roles. She was Hepburn’s pal in 1945’s Without Love and a year later, was second lead to Esther Williams in Easy to Wed.
Why then was The Big Street a BREAKTHROUGH film for Lucille Ball? Because it brought her to the attention of MGM and changed the direction of her career.
At MGM Lucille Ball became the flaming redhead she is remembered as today. The Lucy most people know — and is still celebrated with an annual ‘Lucy Fest’ in her hometown of Jamestown, New York —was born with her move from RKO to MGM.