The Big Street is a minor classic film, only notable today because of a dramatic performance by comedienne Lucille Ball.
It’s a fanciful tale by Damon Runyon, who also produced the film. Runyon is almost totally forgotten today, but in the 1920s, 30’s and 40’s he was a popular writer and chronicler of a New York society (and speech) which became known as Runyonesque.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, back again ruminating about what breakthrough movies meant for top Hollywood stars. Today we analyse what The Big Street did for the career of Lucille Ball.
Ball had been under contract to RKO for a decade. She was earning about $1,000 a week and making three or four pictures a year throughout the 1930s.
She’d 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 for the role of Charles Foster Kane’s opera-singing second wife in 1941’s Citizen Kane. Her competititon included Joan Crawford and Anne Baxter. The part went, of course, to Dorothy Comingore.
Ball seemed stuck in “B” movies. After all, the studio lot’s reigning “queens,” Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn, had first choice on all the top parts.
By 1942, however, Rogers and Hepburn had exited the studio and while RKO imported other stars (including Carole Lombard) on one or two-picture deals. As a result, the studio found itself relying more on contract players like Lucille.
Runyon actually wanted Lombard for the role of the narcissistic showgirl in Big Street. And he wanted Charles Laughton for the role of “Little Pinks,” the busboy obsessed with her. Both declined. But Lombard suggested her pal, Lucille.
For ‘Pinks,’ Runyon eventually signed Henry Fonda, who was fulfilling a contract obligation to the studio. Ball and Fonda had had a fling a few years back, and supposedly Desi Arnaz, Ball’s new husband (their 19-year-marriage began in November 1940) was jealous and often visited the set to check up on his wife.
Another rumor that has circulated through the years is that Ball was apprehensive about playing the role, which was very unsympathetic. We question this. She had played bitches before. If she was apprehensive at all it was because she knew she would be carrying the picture.
She gave a marvelous performance. In fact she’s best when the character is an unsympathetic bitch and not when her few moments of humanity shine through.
The film was well received critically and just ok at the box office. But MGM, the most successful studio, finally saw her potential and bought her contract. It seemed as if she’d 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 (she must have felt she was back at RKO) and a year later, was second lead to Esther Williams in Easy to Wed.
Then she freelanced. Back to dramas (Lured, Dark Corner) and comedies (The Fuller Brush Girl, Miss Grant Takes Richmond) None of it put her in the top rung. She’d have to depend on radio and then television to catapult her to REAL stardom.
Why then was The Big Street a BREAKTHROUGH film for Lucille Ball? Because it brought her to the attention of MGM who bought her contract from RKO and changed the direction of her career.
At MGM Lucille Ball became the flaming redhead she is remembered as today. At MGM she met comedy greats such as Buster Keaton and director Eddie Sedgewick, who taught her timing and molded her into the great physical comedian she became.
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. And that only happened because of The Big Street.