Posted by David Kalat on September 8, 2012
Fans of Lucille Ball almost certainly are familiar with the moment in I Love Lucy where she recreates the “mirror routine” with guest star Harpo Marx. And even casual film buffs may have seen Lucy with all three Marx Brothers in Room Service. Her performance alongside the Three Stooges in Three Little Pigskins may disappoint viewers by wasting her comic talents in a thankless role, but it serves as yet another notch in Lucy’s belt, another fixture of American comedy that she touched. She spent her early years as an underappreciated foil to Ginger Rogers, until she started to graduate into Ginger-ish roles of her own. There she is with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in Look Who’s Laughing–available from Warner Archive in a DVD set that includes her wonderful screwball comedy Next Time I Marry, directed by Garson Kanin. And regular readers of this blog have already seen her with Buster Keaton performing a slapstick skit in a televised tribute to Stan Laurel.
But buried in Lucy’s overstuffed CV is a comedy crossover rarely mentioned. Her appearances with the Marxes, the Stooges, Keaton, or Ginger–we know those. But what of the film she made with Harold Lloyd? Why is that so poorly remembered and rarely seen? This, then, is the story of when Harold met Lucy.
To be fair, Harold Lloyd’s onscreen appearance in this film is limited to a title card in the opening credits, and nothing about the actual content of the more would lead anyone to think, “Gee, I betcha Harold Lloyd had a hand in this.”
Lloyd had decided that his advancing age and the American public’s shifting tastes were reason enough to stop making the kind of slapstick-oriented starring vehicles for which he was known. But he remained a brilliant filmmaker with a powerful business mind, so he parlayed his skills into producing films for others. He set up shop at RKO and started writing checks out of his own accounts to back a couple of features, of which A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob was the first.
Oh, that title. This may be the worst movie title I’ve ever encountered. What were they thinking?
The intention seems to be to signal a love triangle–a girl (Lucy), a boy (Edmond O’Brien before he turned into a puffy mess), and a juvenile manchild in a state of arrested development (George Murphy). But the word “gob” never really staked out much of a space in American slang. I tried looking it up in a slang dictionary to see where it came from, and I couldn’t identify the usage intended by this woeful title (I identified other usages–it would make a fine title for an Australian porn movie.)
The love triangle puts us in the territory of romantic comedies of the period. I haven’t spent much time in this blog talking about how screwball comedies work, and for the most part I willfully misuse the term to apply too broadly to rom-coms in general. Maybe now is the time to properly address just what a screwball comedy was.
As a broadly defined genre, romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s predominantly adhered to a narrow formula, perhaps best exemplified by It Happened One Night: nutty rich girl on the run, betrothed to a perfectly fine but dull man, gets into crazy misadventures with a commoner, and their culture-clash combat serves as high-octane romantic attraction.
They didn’t all follow this template, of course, and those that hewed most closely were often self-conscious ripoffs of It Happened One Night. But if you sit down to a marathon of 1930s and 1940s rom-coms, be prepared for a smorgasbord of crazy heiresses, farcical shenanigans, and a lot of economic dislocation.
When I’ve written about screwballs before, I’ve tended to focus on the fact that they as a rule elevated the female comedians to a position of equality if not superiority over their male costars. The vast majority of these are stories of love triangles, and the majority of those are girl-boy-boy stories rather than boy-girl-girl stories, so what we’re talking about is a two decade run of comic actresses being able to dominate the screen when paired with two male costars. But the economic subtext deserves some mention too. It is really striking just how much these films hammer on the us-versus-them divide.
Hollywood had always been in the business of selling depictions of glamour to mass audiences–and it comes as no great surprise that the Great Depression imbued those depictions of glamour with unpleasant new dimensions. Audiences still wanted to see the luxury and opulence, they just now felt a new ambivalence.
How Hollywood navigated that ambivalence, though, is very curious. One can imagine that there might have been a Depression era appetite for Cinderella tales. But instead of selling fantasies about poor people plucked from their hardscrabble lives into the dreamy comfort of wealth, screwball comedies are about rich folk rescued from their dreary airless existence by the earthiness of poverty. Screwball heroes will always sacrifice money for freedom, will always choose true love over comfort.
And this brings us to A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob. Edmond O’Brien plays a man sentenced to a life of comfort. He was born wealthy, he has an undemanding job as the head of a shipping company (it isn’t even an interesting company to be head of!), he is engaged to an ice cold princess, and his fiancées mother is as shrewish as they come.
He has every reason to believe that his life will consist of nothing but known contours, every detail conformed to the socially expected norms. No day will surprise him, the future is a known quantity.
And then here comes Lucy, and with her, a whirlwind of chaos and nonsense. She brings joy and life into the dreary life of a rich boy. No wonder he falls for her.
There’s a third wheel in this love triangle, but before we meet him, a few words about the role Lucille Ball plays here. She is the focal point of slapstick antics, but not really the instigator of them. Aside from a klutzy fall off a step ladder in one scene, there’s little of the Lucy we would come to know from TV. (If you’re looking for an early Lucy flick full of crazy antics, seek out Next Time I Marry).
This brings up another aspect of screwball and early dialogue comedies worth mentioning. The major works of 1920s comedy were vehicles constructed to showcase the personality of their toplining stars. Supporting players were not permitted to steal laughs from the likes of Chaplin or Keaton (I’m leaving Lloyd out consciously, as he was a more generous costar, and sometimes outshined by the likes of Noah Young or Ernest Morrison). Come sound, and comedies increasingly became ensemble affairs, populated by colorful character actors in supporting roles given all manner of digressive and tangential business.
With the slapstick largely the province of her supporting cast, Lucille Ball instead takes over a leading role much closer to the kind of role that Ginger Rogers might take, were this a bigger budgeted and more prestigious picture. She’s a shopworn angel, buffeted by life but not beaten down. Unlike O’Brien’s character, her world is one of unknowns and risk. She has no reason to believe the future will be bright–might as well live for today and hope for the best.
They would make each other so happy.
But there’s that third person, the “gob.” George Murphy plays a wayward soul with a wandering eye. He loves Lucy and she loves him, but he is chronically incapable of making the kind of responsible choices one would need to be able to settle down. Any kind of future with him will be nothing but trouble.
So we have our triangle: the man she should be with versus the man she ought to be with, or vice versa. The choice is between the wrong mate, who comes from her world, and the right one, who does not. Clearly she should end up with O’Brien–every muscle in this picture is straining towards that goal–but that finale will have nothing to do with rescuing Lucy from a life of chaos, but rather about bringing O’Brien into that chaos. The point of the story is about saving him.
That being said, O’Brien doesn’t have the chops to carry the picture. It may be his character arc driving the plot, but the movie’s at its most interesting when Lucille Ball is on screen.
Ball was an amazingly physical comedian, but not in the sense of being a wrecking ball prop for big slapstick set pieces. Harold Lloyd was a physical comedian, and he climbed up walls. Lucy’s physicality is much more intimate. She uses every aspect of her physicality–her eyes, her posture, her body language, inflections in her voice–to convey the maximum amount of information in any given scene. She is playing an entirely different game from her costars, and shows them up so thoroughly it’s astonishing how long she languished in B-movies before ultimately deciding to take matters into her own hands and turning herself into a star. This movie comes so very close to being a Lucille Ball vehicle, but stops short–because to be a Lucille Ball vehicle people would need to be coming to the theater to see her, and she wasn’t yet at that level of stardom.
The pieces are close, though. The film is attributed to several writers, one of whom was Bert Granet, who wrote an earlier Lucy flick, Go Chase Yourself (also included on that Warner Archive set) and would return to Lucy’s orbit years later as producer of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The other top billed writer was Grover Jones, who wrote Trouble in Paradise for Ernset Lubitsch andThe Milky Way for Harold Lloyd. The director was Richard Wallace, a veteran of comedy shorts for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach who had previously directed Stan Laurel and Clyde Cook, and would go on to make rom-coms written by Nora Ephron’s parents, Henry and Phoebe.
In other words, the production team here were experienced hands at comedy, steeped in both the slapstick and screwball traditions, and both Lloyd’s past sensibility and Ball’s future one were well represented. I am not stretching the facts to call this a Harold Lloyd/Lucille Ball crossover, that properly belongs to the rom-com/screwball tradition.
As mentioned above, though, the result is hard to recognize as a Harold Lloyd picture.
Take for example the finale. Lucy’s two suitors chase each other across the city–but let’s look at how this sequence is actually staged.
Both men love her; she loves them both. In Design for Living, Ernst Lubitsch got away with letting the girl go home with both men at once, but only Ernie had the gall to try to promote three-ways to mainstream audiences. We know Lucy will end up with just one of these men, and there’s no real doubt which one it will be. The drama is in seeing how we get to that conclusion.
Earlier on, Lucy advised O’Brien that women respond to forceful displays of love. But Chekov would be disappointed, this is one gun that never gets fired: you’ll grow old waiting for O’Brien to pull that caveman stuff on Lucy. He has too much admiration and friendship for Murphy, and too much respect for Lucy to do anything to bust up her relationship.
Recognizing that his rival won’t make a move towards Lucy as long as he’s in the picture, and realizing that he’s not marriage material, Murphy takes a runner–hoping to precipitate the Happily Ever After ending that everyone’s been waiting for. But O’Brien is too noble to take advantage of the situation, and goes chasing after Murphy to reunite him with Lucy.
And so the chase. The dramatic and comic tension of the sequence lies in the complicated emotions of these two men, how both are driven to an act of self-sacrifice in the name of the woman they live. The rushing through traffic is the circumstance surrounding a scene that is about something else.
Didja notice all the process shots?
The conventional reading of Sin of Harold Diddlebock is that Lloyd’s daredevil sequence on the skyscraper ledge was a pale shadow of his thrill comedy work in the likes of Safety Last. That Lloyd had been compromised by Sturges’ decision to film that stunt sequence in front of back projection and process screens. That Lloyd did his best work when he did his stunts “for real.”
This is of course supremely silly. Lloyd had always relied on trickery for his stunts–he was missing most of the fingers of his right hand, and he was no fool. He’d figured out how to exploit an optical illusion created by Hollywood’s steep hills in order to create a forced perspective suggesting great height. Once, on a promotional tour, Lloyd arrived in a town to discover to his chagrin that the local authorities had evidently promised to the crowd that the famous comedian Harold Lloyd was going to show up and climb one of their buildings! Lloyd had to sheepishly explain that just because you see him do it on film doesn’t mean it really happened.
And here, at the climax of A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob, the big thrill sequence is all process shots and fast cuts. Lloyd is the producer here, answerable to no one, and if he wanted to shoot any of these stunts with greater verisimilitude, no one was there to tell him no.
This is just a footnote in Harold Lloyd’s career. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. That this is such an obscurity in Lucille Ball’s history is harder to explain, and touches on the great mystery of Lucy. For approximately fifteen years, she waited in Hollywood while her talents were underused. She moved up the ladder from being wasted in supporting roles to being wasted in leading roles, but then progressed no farther. Around the time this film was made, RKO executives commissioned a survey of their various prospects. The research on Ball came back with grim news: scarcely half the audience even recognized her name at all, she was considered unlikely to ever be a star.
When Lucy and Desi Arnaz pitched their idea for a sitcom, CBS brass and advertising representatives alike resisted it. I Love Lucy only got made because Lucy and her husband invested their own money and did it themselves–a move which gave them ownership and creative autonomy.
For fifteen years, Hollywood’s producers and talent scouts had Lucy’s extraordinary talent sitting right in front of them. It doesn’t take any special faculty to be able to watch something like A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob and see that this woman is operating on a whole different level than any of her costars. But not once during all this time did anyone rush in to sign her up and give her a better platform.
That’s why these early RKO films play such a minor role in any biography of Ball, why even her fans rarely speak of them. Films like this are residue of a complete professional dead end. When the time came, she had to make things happen for herself.
It has been said that two-reel theatrical shorts were a superior venue for comedy than long form features because the twenty minute running time more closely matched the average length of a vaudeville set. I have to take that on faith–I’ve never met anyone who actually saw vaudeville first hand. But it is striking how the world of two reel shorts leads into television sitcoms. Roughly twenty minutes or so of entertainment, plus commercials, fits a TV half hour slot. Laurel & Hardy and the Three Stooges both saw their theatrical two-reelers repurposed as television “episodes.”
And how did Lucy fill that half hour slot? With venerable comedy routines like “Slowly I Turned” and the mirror gag, with the stuff of slapstick. Lucy repackaged the form and content of slapstick for a new generation, but with a crucial adjustment. Much of silent slapstick had trended towards the epic misadventures of extraordinary men. Lucy scaled everything down for television, and pitched her slapstick not as the extraordinary but as the quotidian. Lucy was an exaggerated version of a person you may already know, or be.
It was a brilliant and effective formula, but Lucille Ball did not invent it. She may have perfected the sitcom, but the concept had been in place for decades.
For example, there is a man who has been lurking on the corners of this conversation since the start. He was hired to replace Harold Lloyd, and like Lucille Ball his career touched a staggering number of other comedy greats–the pioneers with whom he apprenticed in his youth, the comedians he influenced and shaped, and the celebrities who came later to pay their homage to his gifts. He made his name with a gentle breed of slapstick, scaled down to the domestic and the everyday. His comedy could veer into the absurd, but it was rooted in Seinfeldian observational detail of the daily lives of his audience. And, also like Lucille Ball, he was denied stardom in features but left behind a prodigious body of short form work.
Next week, we meet Charley Chase.
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