By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
Lucille Ball is, arguably, one of the most popular and easily recognized comediennes in the history of both movies and television. Even today, decades after her heyday, she’s remembered not only for her television series, including I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy, but also for a variety of big-screen comedies, from Roman Scandals (1933) to Yours, Mine and Ours (1968).
But comedies weren’t the end-all, be-all for this titian-haired actress; she was a standout in a number of films from the darker side of the screen – movies where she traded her zaniness for gravity, and lightweight fare for something more sinister. Let’s take a look at three of these: The Big Street (1942), The Dark Corner (1946) and Lured (1947).
The Big Street (1942)
The story of The Big Street – a nickname for New York’s Broadway – focuses on Augustus Pinkerton II (Henry Fonda), better known as “Little Pinks,” the name of the Damon Runyon short story upon which the film is based. A busboy, Pinks is in love with Gloria Lyons (Ball), a self-absorbed nightclub singer who is paralyzed when she’s slapped by her gangster boyfriend, Case Ables (Barton MacLane), and falls down a flight of stairs. Pinks and Gloria’s maid, Ruby (Louise Beavers), hock Gloria’s jewels and fur coat to pay for her hospital stay, but when the money runs out, Pinks invites a reluctant and ungrateful Gloria to live with him in his basement-level apartment. Growing increasingly miserable in the New York winter, Gloria convinces Pinks to take her to Miami, which he does – by pushing her in her wheelchair. Once there, Gloria is devastated by her unsuccessful ploy to reconnect with her wealthy former flame, Decatur Reed (William T. Orr), but the ever-faithful Pinks pulls out all the stops to revive her spirits and give her a once-in-a-lifetime experience of her dreams.
As Gloria Lyons, Ball brings to life a character who reveals her true colors from her very first appearance, arriving at a club where Ables has plunked down a cool 25 grand bet on an eating contest. Gloria haughtily glides into the building carrying her beloved dog, Baby, stopping when she can go no further because of the crowd of onlookers. “Kindly clear the way, please,” she snootily requests. When the man in front of her turns and gives her a dirty look (and doesn’t budge), her tone abruptly changes and she barks, “Will ya let me go through, or do I start sluggin’?!”
While generally – and rightly – viewed as ill-mannered, disrespectful, and often downright cruel, Gloria could be a veritable mass of contradictions. She’s rude to her maid, telling her in one scene to “shut your mouth” and in another to “move your big, fat feet.” She’s disparaging about the area where Pinks makes his home, grousing, “You sure live in a rotten neighborhood.” And she’s especially vicious after Decatur Reed spies her in her wheelchair, accusing Pinks of deliberately sabotaging her chances with the playboy. But this heartless behavior isn’t all there is to Gloria. Beneath all that malice is a heart of gold – it’s miniscule in size, but it’s there, nonetheless. Early in the film, when Case Ables punches Pinks, Gloria boldly comes to Pinks’s defense: “What kinda attitude is that, pushing around a little guy just because he done me a good turn?” she says. “You’ve shoved around a lot of guys in your life, mostly your own size, and that’s okay with me, but when you start pickin’ on mice, I don’t like it!” She arranges for Pinks to work in her nightclub when he gets fired from his job. We learn that she loaned money to the nightclub’s head waiter so that he could get some dental work done. And although she tries mightily to maintain her hard-shell exterior, she’s touchingly poignant when she drops her façade and reveals her true feelings about her condition.
The producer of the film was Damon Runyon, the author of the source material, who initially envisioned Carole Lombard in the role of Gloria Lyons. Lombard passed on the offer but suggested her friend Ball. Although RKO execs reportedly wanted a better-known actress for the part, Runyon held firm and Ball wound up with the part. According to her biographer, Kathleen Brady, Ball had concerns about playing a character that might negatively impact her public perception. For advice, she turned to actor Charles Laughton who, like Ball, was under contract to RKO; Laughton told her, “If you are going to play a bitch, play the bitchiest bitch who ever lived or don’t play the part at all.”
Ball apparently took Laughton’s words to heart, turning in a memorable performance that was praised by critics (even while the film bombed at the box office). The reviewer from Life called her a “first-rate actress” and declared, “The girl can really act.” Similarly, the critic for The New York Times noted Ball’s “able portrayal” and James Agee wrote in Time that Ball “tackles her ‘emotional’ role as if it were sirloin and she didn’t care who was looking.” Both Runyon and Ball were pleased with the final product, with Ball considering it as her favorite film.
The Dark Corner (1946)
Ball is top-billed in this feature as Kathleen Stewart, who has just started working as secretary to private investigator and former convict Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens). Kathleen gets more than she bargained for when she becomes romantically involved with her handsome boss and discovers that he is entangled in a set of circumstances beyond his control. He’s being followed by a stranger in a white suit, and he’s nearly run down in the street by a car – and both events appear to be tied to Galt’s former partner, Anthony Jardine (Kurt Krueger), who was responsible for sending Galt to prison. Meanwhile, the plot is thickened by the presence of wealthy art gallery owner Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) and his young and beautiful wife, Mari (Cathy Downs), along with police lieutenant Frank Reeves (Reed Hadley), who is keeping an eye on Galt’s every move.
As with Gloria in The Big Street, the viewer gains an understanding of Kathleen’s persona within moments of her first scene. She is working in Galt’s office when Lt. Reeves enters; he’s looking for her boss but tells Kathleen that she may be able to help. “I don’t know anything you couldn’t find out by asking Mr. Galt,” Kathleen says dismissively, and returns to her typewriter. Reeves continues his questioning, asking what Kathleen knows about Galt and if she keeps him busy. “I sharpen pencils, do the typing, answer the phone . . . and mind my own business,” Kathleen retorts.
Kathleen is sassy and quick with a quip, but she’s also intelligent and incisive, as she demonstrates on her first date with Galt when she notices that they’re being tailed by the man in the white suit. She’s also courageous – on that same first date, she doesn’t balk or even ask questions when Galt instructs her to follow the man in the white suit – granted, she loses him, but it’s not for lack of trying. And she’s unfailingly loyal, helpful, and supportive; even when it appears that Galt may have committed murder, Kathleen not only believes his story, but she helps clean up the scene and hide the body: “Whatever’s done to you is done to me,” she tells him.
Ball was loaned from MGM to 20th Century Fox for The Dark Corner, and by all accounts, the experience was not a positive one. Director Henry Hathaway reportedly berated Ball whenever she flubbed a line and spoke to her so severely that she began stuttering. There’s no sign of this consternation in Ball’s performance, though, and she was universally lauded by critics. The reviewer for The New York Times included her in his sweeping praise of the film’s “superior” performances, and the Los Angeles Examiner’s critic raved, “In the acting department, Lucille Ball is entitled to heavy honor. When this young lady is given half a chance, she demonstrates a quality of work that is all too rare in pictures.”
Set in London, Lured tells the rather straightforward tale of the efforts of Scotland Yard to find a crafty serial killer of beautiful blonde women. Ball plays Sandra Carpenter, an American transplant making her living as a taxi dancer. When one of her dancer pals disappears, Sandra is questioned by authorities and learns that, like her friend, each of the serial killer’s victims were lured by personal ads, and each time a woman is murdered, the police receive a cryptic poem from the killer. After she’s shown the poem the killer wrote about her friend, Sandra willingly accepts the proposal of the chief inspector (Charles Coburn) to help nab the culprit – by responding to ads seeking unattached females. Sandra valiantly embarks on this mission, but matters are complicated when she meets and falls for Robert Fleming (George Sanders), a dashing nightclub owner who may or may not be the killer.
The film starts with a unique title sequence, beginning with a shot of the feet of a man walking down a darkened city street, and the circular spot of a flashlight focusing on a crumpled London Examiner newspaper on the ground. The flashlight next travels up some stairs and across a door until it rests on a sign on the side of a building that reads “Hunt Stromberg Presents” The light then shows us the four stars of the film and the title before proceeding along the building to a series of signs displaying the supporting cast and crew. All of this is accompanied by an appropriately atmospheric score and effectively sets the stage for the story to come.
A tough, cynical, been-around-the-block type of gal, Sandra is no fool. The moment her friend (whose name is Lucy, incidentally) tells her that she plans to run off with a man with “the charm of the devil himself,” Sandra expresses concern. And she’s uniquely suited to working with the police; when the inspector general instructs her to close her eyes and describe him, she’s a whiz. “You’re kinda grayish, heavy-set, six feet tall . . . and you probably have stomach trouble. You have a signet ring on your left little finger. A watch chain with a gold pendant. And you try to be hard-boiled but you’re really a softie.” And when it comes to encounters with the opposite sex, she’s a bit reminiscent of her fellow femmes in The Big Street and The Dark Corner – the wisecracks and one-liners roll tumble forth with ease. Her first meeting with Fleming takes place at an elegant concert where she has arranged to meet a man who’s placed a personal ad. Noticing Sandra in the audience, Fleming joins her at the bar during intermission and inquires if she’s alone. “I’d like to be,” she snaps. And when he asks her if she has some sort of phobia, Sandra rejoins, “Fear of meeting the wrong people.”
Lured was directed by Douglas Sirk, years before he helmed such well-known hits as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959). This feature, though, was not a success at the box-office; Sirk maintained that the film’s name change halfway though its original theatrical release was to blame. The title was replaced by Personal Column because the Production Code Administration – which reviewed all film titles – thought that the original name was too close to “lurid.” According to Sirk, potential audiences were confused by the title changed and stayed away in droves.
But you don’t have to stay away from Lured – or the other films where Lucille Ball showed us her darker side. It’s an aspect of her acting career that’s well worth discovering.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.