What’s the deal with Virginia O’Brien?

I’ve slagged off the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store in this forum before, but I’ll admit it has one outstanding moment–a memorable instance of absolute transgression against the norms of classical Hollywood by a defiant comedy artist. The thing is, though, this moment isn’t by one of the Marxes.

Virginia o'brien

(read on)

I was 17 when I first saw The Big Store. By that point I had hungrily consumed the Marxes’ Paramount classics, thanks to PBS broadcasts and VHS rentals, and cable movie channels like HBO and Cinemax had helped me encounter A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and A Night in Casablanca. But beyond that, the rest of their MGM output was exceedingly hard to see in those days.

Eventually I found myself in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the summer of 1987 where a campus film society was showing The Big Store theatrically–and I raced to the theater as if my life depended on it. But even that level of enthusiasm on my part wasn’t enough to transform the film from anything other than a pedestrian disappointment. Except… there’s a musical number that floored me.

It wasn’t an especially good song–not bad, but there’s a reason Captain Spaulding became Groucho’s theme song and not this. But then smack in the middle of the song, this happens:

[wpvideo iFFSTObL]

What’s wrong with this woman? It’s like something she’s wearing is on too tight, or she has bad shoes. Seeing that level of physical discomfort in a professional studio motion picture is stunning–and hilarious.

She broke the rules. That’s something usually reserved for the toplining comedy acts. Groucho can make wisecracks to the audience denigrating the quality of the material they’re performing and suggesting the audience may wish to go get a refreshment instead of watching the next bit. Robert Benchley can narrate a Bob Hope picture with no regard for what’s actually happening in the story. WC Fields can interrupt someone else’s movie to tell a rambling shaggy dog story about a one-eyed sheriff, and then leave knowing the film will be hard pressed to get back on track. But who is this woman and why was she being allowed to defy the conventions of musical theater to do something so awkward and weird? Simply put, she upstaged the Marx Brothers.

Many years later, I was watching DuBarry Was a Lady–a Technicolor musical by Roy Del Ruth starring Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, and Gene Kelly. It’s in the same tradition of vaudeville-inspired anything-goes anarchic comedies like we were discussing a few weeks ago, but happened to come out in the wrong decade. And what should happen in it, but this:

[wpvideo ILTFZndb]

It’s that girl! It’s the same girl!

Now I had to know–who is she?

dubarry01
Her name was Virginia O’Brien, and wait til you get a load of her origin story. The legend goes that she was making her stage debut in a production of Meet the People when she was striken by stage fright, and all she could do was trudge through her song while frozen in place, her body stiff and uncommunicative. According to the story, the audience ate it up, thinking it was a comedy act. In the audience, supposedly, was MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a 7 year movie contract.

I put a bunch of weasel words in that story to hedge the fact that I’m not sure it’s true–maybe it is, but if so it’s a near perfect iteration of some standard Hollywood tropes. Not only do you get the studio boss discovering the unique talent and signing her to a glamorous movie deal, but there are some specific memes from the world of comedy too: I’ve written here before about the odd tendency for Hollywood comedians to act as if their comic abilities are actually socially inappropriate behavior that has been mistaken for comedy, and they become accidental stars.

Also, some notable comedians tell origin stories about watching an audience go nuts when they performed a certain way, and that cemented their “schtick” from then on–Buster Keaton realizing he got bigger laughs when he kept a deadpan expression, for example, or the Marx Brothers going off-book to respond to a heckling audience and finding their comedy style emerging from that moment of improvisation.

One way or another, it is true that O’Brien had an MGM contract in which she was expected to do her thing: come out and sing a song in the most awkward, robotic way possible, as a comedy bit. There were rare occasions when she didn’t do her usual gag, and she did manage to have a recording career that traded only on her voice (her trademark physical discomfort doesn’t come across when you only hear her), but by the time she appeared in The Big Store she was already established enough in this particular role that she earned a credit in the film’s trailer–despite appearing in the film for no more than a couple of minutes, to do nothing other than sing part of a song.

But poor Ms. O’Brien had boxed herself into a corner. She wasn’t an actress, and so wasn’t in a position to play an awkward, deadpan comedy character to go along with these musical numbers. And there’s only so much of the nervous autistic singing routine you can put into a single film before the audience tires of the joke. She’d built a career on doing cameo bits–she had no way to transition this talent to any greater marquee prominence.

tillclouds

By the late 1940s her place in the movie world was largely at an end, so she moved over to television to do her thing with the likes of Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan.

In 1980, Lucille Ball was the special guest at a USC seminar hosted by Charles Walters, the former dance director on DuBarry Was a Lady. They screened the film and then took questions from the audience. Naturally enough, someone asked about Virginia O’Brien. Before either Lucy or Walters could reply, a voice piped up from the back of the theater, “She’s here in the cheap seats!” O’Brien stood up and the audience gave her a round of applause, as Lucy gushed, “You were always the best at what you did. You were always right on the money.”

30 Responses What’s the deal with Virginia O’Brien?
Posted By Errol Jones : July 6, 2013 10:39 am

Yes…I do have something to say..and contribute to this remarkably talented ‘gal’ who always took ‘the cheap seat’ in the many musicals she did at MGM.

I met Virginia..about 1990..after she had done a ‘one woman’ live show at the Ladies Comedy Club in Hollywood at The Troupers theater. I was managing that theater and living on premises..and also working as an actor.

Virginia had toured around with this ‘one woman’ show that told about her life in the MGM days and she did it with film clips that she had put together, of the many movies she had been the ‘odd gal’. One that you did not mention, here, is her numbers in THE HARVEY GIRLS starring Judy Garland.

Her show went well, that night and I talked to her backstage. She was with her daughter and I mentioned that TIL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY had just been released on VHS. (dvd was not big yet), to which her daughter replied..”Oh yeah, Mom, I forgot to tell you that I heard that film was just released.”

The following day, I got a call from Virginia asking me if I had found her ‘film clips’..that she used in her show. She had got home, to Big Bear, where she lived (and was also the Mayor of the town of Big Bear)…and realized that they had not picked up her ‘valuable’ film clips that she used in the show. I searched the theater for hours…everywhere I could think that it might be, because she said that she and her husband were coming down to Hollywood, that afternoon and she would drop in to see if I had found it.

When they arrived they were in a big new truck that held five passengers in the front of this truck. She didn’t come in, but honked the horn and so I went out to see them. She told me to climb in and chat for awhile.

I remember she was smoking these small brown cigarettes and both she and her husband were very friendly, but the news I had to tell her..on not finding her ‘film clips’ was not easy for me to do and I was feeling sad about giving her this news. Virginia said she was afraid that would be the case..and figured someone had stolen them.

We chatted a bit. Virginia knew I had been a vocalist on a cruise line and she wanted to know how that was, to work on a cruise line as an entertainer. I told her I had enjoyed my cruises to the Panama Canal and the Amazon.

Virginia said..”I have been thinking about maybe trying it. My good friend, Katharine Grayson told me she loved it and thought I would like it too.”

We parted that day..and I still felt bad about her loosing the film clips. I was also working at Cinema Collectors, in Hollywood as a film archivist and making up a catalog for their different movie photos and posters. A few days later, I just happened to run across (and was working on)…photos from DU BARRY WAS A LADY, so I called Virginia..in Big Bear..and asked her if she would like me to buy and send her some things from that film. Her reply was..”Errol…I must admit..I don’t recall having any ‘fond memories’ of making that film..so don’t bother sending anything to me.”

I didn’t ask her the ‘whys’…of her answer and so I never sent her anything from the show. I do think she was always taken as ‘the underdog’ in the musicals she made for MGM and feel that there must have been some ‘bad vibes’ between the cast on that film. LUCY may have ‘gushed’..as you say..but I doubt that Virginia felt the same way…about her relationship with..LUCY.

I’m glad you have remembered this very ‘dead-pan-face’ funny lady who always added a little ‘extra charm’ when she appeared in an MGM musical.

Posted By Errol Jones : July 6, 2013 10:39 am

Yes…I do have something to say..and contribute to this remarkably talented ‘gal’ who always took ‘the cheap seat’ in the many musicals she did at MGM.

I met Virginia..about 1990..after she had done a ‘one woman’ live show at the Ladies Comedy Club in Hollywood at The Troupers theater. I was managing that theater and living on premises..and also working as an actor.

Virginia had toured around with this ‘one woman’ show that told about her life in the MGM days and she did it with film clips that she had put together, of the many movies she had been the ‘odd gal’. One that you did not mention, here, is her numbers in THE HARVEY GIRLS starring Judy Garland.

Her show went well, that night and I talked to her backstage. She was with her daughter and I mentioned that TIL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY had just been released on VHS. (dvd was not big yet), to which her daughter replied..”Oh yeah, Mom, I forgot to tell you that I heard that film was just released.”

The following day, I got a call from Virginia asking me if I had found her ‘film clips’..that she used in her show. She had got home, to Big Bear, where she lived (and was also the Mayor of the town of Big Bear)…and realized that they had not picked up her ‘valuable’ film clips that she used in the show. I searched the theater for hours…everywhere I could think that it might be, because she said that she and her husband were coming down to Hollywood, that afternoon and she would drop in to see if I had found it.

When they arrived they were in a big new truck that held five passengers in the front of this truck. She didn’t come in, but honked the horn and so I went out to see them. She told me to climb in and chat for awhile.

I remember she was smoking these small brown cigarettes and both she and her husband were very friendly, but the news I had to tell her..on not finding her ‘film clips’ was not easy for me to do and I was feeling sad about giving her this news. Virginia said she was afraid that would be the case..and figured someone had stolen them.

We chatted a bit. Virginia knew I had been a vocalist on a cruise line and she wanted to know how that was, to work on a cruise line as an entertainer. I told her I had enjoyed my cruises to the Panama Canal and the Amazon.

Virginia said..”I have been thinking about maybe trying it. My good friend, Katharine Grayson told me she loved it and thought I would like it too.”

We parted that day..and I still felt bad about her loosing the film clips. I was also working at Cinema Collectors, in Hollywood as a film archivist and making up a catalog for their different movie photos and posters. A few days later, I just happened to run across (and was working on)…photos from DU BARRY WAS A LADY, so I called Virginia..in Big Bear..and asked her if she would like me to buy and send her some things from that film. Her reply was..”Errol…I must admit..I don’t recall having any ‘fond memories’ of making that film..so don’t bother sending anything to me.”

I didn’t ask her the ‘whys’…of her answer and so I never sent her anything from the show. I do think she was always taken as ‘the underdog’ in the musicals she made for MGM and feel that there must have been some ‘bad vibes’ between the cast on that film. LUCY may have ‘gushed’..as you say..but I doubt that Virginia felt the same way…about her relationship with..LUCY.

I’m glad you have remembered this very ‘dead-pan-face’ funny lady who always added a little ‘extra charm’ when she appeared in an MGM musical.

Posted By Errol Jones : July 6, 2013 10:41 am

FROM ERROL JONES…

If anyone would like to chat about this..or other comments I have made, in the past..I don’t mind giving out my e-address so you can contact me.

Errol Jones….longhotsumr@yahoo.com

Posted By Errol Jones : July 6, 2013 10:41 am

FROM ERROL JONES…

If anyone would like to chat about this..or other comments I have made, in the past..I don’t mind giving out my e-address so you can contact me.

Errol Jones….longhotsumr@yahoo.com

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : July 6, 2013 10:44 am

Well Mr. Kalat, I was 14 when I first encountered THE BIG STORE, at about 3:30am on WCBS Channel 2′s “The Late, Late Show” back in 1977!!! And any “pedestrian disappointment” that I felt succeeded in turning me into the Marx Brothers fan I am to this day. I even have an original BIG STORE one sheet on the wall of my Man Cave (so there! Nahhh!) In any case, not wanting to continue a fight that I know I will certainly lose, let me raise a minor point in regard to Miss O’Brien: she was an artist who was stuck in her deadpan routine to a great degree, but she did have at least one opportunity to break out of it. Take a look at her wonderful number in the 1945 Judy Garland film THE HARVEY GIRLS. There is none of O’Brien’s usual dead-face non-hystrionics, she’s in great voice, and she plays very well opposite Ray Bolger. But then, around mid-film, she disappears. According to what I’ve read, O’Brien was supposed to have had a much larger role in the film, but committed the unpardonable sin of getting pregnant just as the shooting started. So goodbye opportunity…. Thank you again Mr. Kalat, for exposing me to my own lack of comedic taste (and spitting on my happy memories of “The Late, Late Show” in 1977). I’m now going to crawl off into a lonely corner of my Man Cave and cry. I mean, the gall that I should actually like THE BIG STORE… (I hope you realize that I’m trying to be funny — even if I do like THE BIG STORE! It’s just another of may many problems.)

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : July 6, 2013 10:44 am

Well Mr. Kalat, I was 14 when I first encountered THE BIG STORE, at about 3:30am on WCBS Channel 2′s “The Late, Late Show” back in 1977!!! And any “pedestrian disappointment” that I felt succeeded in turning me into the Marx Brothers fan I am to this day. I even have an original BIG STORE one sheet on the wall of my Man Cave (so there! Nahhh!) In any case, not wanting to continue a fight that I know I will certainly lose, let me raise a minor point in regard to Miss O’Brien: she was an artist who was stuck in her deadpan routine to a great degree, but she did have at least one opportunity to break out of it. Take a look at her wonderful number in the 1945 Judy Garland film THE HARVEY GIRLS. There is none of O’Brien’s usual dead-face non-hystrionics, she’s in great voice, and she plays very well opposite Ray Bolger. But then, around mid-film, she disappears. According to what I’ve read, O’Brien was supposed to have had a much larger role in the film, but committed the unpardonable sin of getting pregnant just as the shooting started. So goodbye opportunity…. Thank you again Mr. Kalat, for exposing me to my own lack of comedic taste (and spitting on my happy memories of “The Late, Late Show” in 1977). I’m now going to crawl off into a lonely corner of my Man Cave and cry. I mean, the gall that I should actually like THE BIG STORE… (I hope you realize that I’m trying to be funny — even if I do like THE BIG STORE! It’s just another of may many problems.)

Posted By Ken Zimmerman Jr. : July 6, 2013 12:21 pm

I also liked The Big Store but At the Circus is also one of my favorites. Neither film will ever be on a list of classics. While the production quality may have been better on a Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, I still think Duck Soup was the best film they ever made.

I did find the Virginia O’Brien sequence odd in the movie. I was never crazy about the musical sequences, so I probably did not give it that much attention. She obviously had talent though.

Posted By Ken Zimmerman Jr. : July 6, 2013 12:21 pm

I also liked The Big Store but At the Circus is also one of my favorites. Neither film will ever be on a list of classics. While the production quality may have been better on a Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, I still think Duck Soup was the best film they ever made.

I did find the Virginia O’Brien sequence odd in the movie. I was never crazy about the musical sequences, so I probably did not give it that much attention. She obviously had talent though.

Posted By Doug : July 6, 2013 1:32 pm

David, thank you for this! A few months ago here I suggested that Virginia O’Brien looked like Dorothy Lamour’s slightly slimmer sister. She did ‘break out of deadpan’ in “The Harvey Girls”;to see her in another great role, check out “Lady Be Good” with Ann Southern, Robert Young, Eleanor Powell and (once again) Red Skelton. Her character’s name? Lull. I have it in the TCM two-set with “Born To Dance” (also a lot of fun!).

Posted By Doug : July 6, 2013 1:32 pm

David, thank you for this! A few months ago here I suggested that Virginia O’Brien looked like Dorothy Lamour’s slightly slimmer sister. She did ‘break out of deadpan’ in “The Harvey Girls”;to see her in another great role, check out “Lady Be Good” with Ann Southern, Robert Young, Eleanor Powell and (once again) Red Skelton. Her character’s name? Lull. I have it in the TCM two-set with “Born To Dance” (also a lot of fun!).

Posted By davidkalat : July 6, 2013 6:45 pm

Jeffrey–

You’re not going to lose a fight with me. I may not like some films, but I will never tell anyone they’re wrong to like them. The Big Store hasn’t worked for me–my opinion covers me only. If it works for you, that’s terrific. I know I’ve waved the flag here many a time in defense of movies others deride–and whenever someone else says they can’t stand Star Trek: The Motion Picture I merely know I’m right and they’re wrong. And if you like The Big Store, that simply means you’re right and I’m wrong. Never let anyone tell you not to like something you enjoy. (But always stay open to have someone convince you to give a second chance to something you don’t like).

Posted By davidkalat : July 6, 2013 6:45 pm

Jeffrey–

You’re not going to lose a fight with me. I may not like some films, but I will never tell anyone they’re wrong to like them. The Big Store hasn’t worked for me–my opinion covers me only. If it works for you, that’s terrific. I know I’ve waved the flag here many a time in defense of movies others deride–and whenever someone else says they can’t stand Star Trek: The Motion Picture I merely know I’m right and they’re wrong. And if you like The Big Store, that simply means you’re right and I’m wrong. Never let anyone tell you not to like something you enjoy. (But always stay open to have someone convince you to give a second chance to something you don’t like).

Posted By tdraicer : July 6, 2013 8:46 pm

>Never let anyone tell you not to like something you enjoy. (But always stay open to have someone convince you to give a second chance to something you don’t like).

Brilliant! That should hang over the desk of every movie critic or blogger. (But then I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

Posted By tdraicer : July 6, 2013 8:46 pm

>Never let anyone tell you not to like something you enjoy. (But always stay open to have someone convince you to give a second chance to something you don’t like).

Brilliant! That should hang over the desk of every movie critic or blogger. (But then I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

Posted By Jim C. : July 6, 2013 9:31 pm

Virginia O’Brien was much more than a frozen-faced freak act.She does a very creditable job in a comedic supporting role in Ship Ahoy,starring Eleanor Powell, and gets pursued by Bert Lahr to boot!

Posted By Jim C. : July 6, 2013 9:31 pm

Virginia O’Brien was much more than a frozen-faced freak act.She does a very creditable job in a comedic supporting role in Ship Ahoy,starring Eleanor Powell, and gets pursued by Bert Lahr to boot!

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : July 6, 2013 10:15 pm

David -

Thank you for your very civilized and rational reply to my emotion filled rant. You are right, of course, and everything you say I was aware of all along, and respect hearing from you more than you know. After all, I do love Harry Langdon’s THREE’S A CROWD (many thanks to you), and that’s about as large a club among film buffs as Marx Brothers fans who love THE BIG STORE. In your honor, I will set aside time to give STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE another chance, or maybe even POPEYE. Many thanks, and we always await the next great Kalat blog or commentary (nice one on the Criterion THINGS TO COME, by the way).

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : July 6, 2013 10:15 pm

David -

Thank you for your very civilized and rational reply to my emotion filled rant. You are right, of course, and everything you say I was aware of all along, and respect hearing from you more than you know. After all, I do love Harry Langdon’s THREE’S A CROWD (many thanks to you), and that’s about as large a club among film buffs as Marx Brothers fans who love THE BIG STORE. In your honor, I will set aside time to give STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE another chance, or maybe even POPEYE. Many thanks, and we always await the next great Kalat blog or commentary (nice one on the Criterion THINGS TO COME, by the way).

Posted By FilmBuffRich : July 7, 2013 9:12 am

Coincidentally, I rewatched my taped copy of HULLABALOO just last week and my attention was caught by Ms. O’Brien’s appearance in the film. Of course, she was portraying a young singer auditioning for a spot on a radio show, so her stage freight look particularly suited the scene. Nice to read more about her.

Posted By FilmBuffRich : July 7, 2013 9:12 am

Coincidentally, I rewatched my taped copy of HULLABALOO just last week and my attention was caught by Ms. O’Brien’s appearance in the film. Of course, she was portraying a young singer auditioning for a spot on a radio show, so her stage freight look particularly suited the scene. Nice to read more about her.

Posted By Lamar : July 7, 2013 9:54 am

I also enjoy Virginia O’Brien (at one point I had a vhs tape of all her numbers, taped off TCM) she did have “real” acting parts in two Red Skelton movies near the end of her Metro contract-neither movie was that good. “The Big Store” is my favorite minor Marx Bros. movie. Love the music & Tony Martin & the charming Virginia Grey, the scene in the bedroom furniture department with it’s outrageous (but not mean spirited) ethnic stereotyping-not to mention those beds, Harpo in the fabric department with bitchy Marion Martin, etc. Nice to know I’m not alone with this secret shame.

Posted By Lamar : July 7, 2013 9:54 am

I also enjoy Virginia O’Brien (at one point I had a vhs tape of all her numbers, taped off TCM) she did have “real” acting parts in two Red Skelton movies near the end of her Metro contract-neither movie was that good. “The Big Store” is my favorite minor Marx Bros. movie. Love the music & Tony Martin & the charming Virginia Grey, the scene in the bedroom furniture department with it’s outrageous (but not mean spirited) ethnic stereotyping-not to mention those beds, Harpo in the fabric department with bitchy Marion Martin, etc. Nice to know I’m not alone with this secret shame.

Posted By B Piper : July 7, 2013 12:41 pm

Always like Virginia O’Brien. When the cast does a reprise of “Friendship” at the end of DUBARRY she momentarily drops the deadpan look, smiling and singing and looking entirely charming. I used to wonder why she didn’t get more leads — until I saw MERTON OF THE MOVIES. She really wasn’t much of an actress, but still a very engaging performer.

Posted By B Piper : July 7, 2013 12:41 pm

Always like Virginia O’Brien. When the cast does a reprise of “Friendship” at the end of DUBARRY she momentarily drops the deadpan look, smiling and singing and looking entirely charming. I used to wonder why she didn’t get more leads — until I saw MERTON OF THE MOVIES. She really wasn’t much of an actress, but still a very engaging performer.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : July 7, 2013 2:02 pm

Lamar -

I will share your secret shame in ragard to THE BIG STORE any day. In fact, the last time I watched the film was the very evening after Tony Martin’s passing had been announced. For me, it was kind of like my own private memorial service, and its during times like that all the old memories just come flying back… And I’m honored to say that they are happy ones.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : July 7, 2013 2:02 pm

Lamar -

I will share your secret shame in ragard to THE BIG STORE any day. In fact, the last time I watched the film was the very evening after Tony Martin’s passing had been announced. For me, it was kind of like my own private memorial service, and its during times like that all the old memories just come flying back… And I’m honored to say that they are happy ones.

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2013 2:25 pm

More O’Brien trivia: her uncle was director Lloyd Bacon, and for 13 years she was married to the first screen Superman, Kirk Alyn.

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2013 2:25 pm

More O’Brien trivia: her uncle was director Lloyd Bacon, and for 13 years she was married to the first screen Superman, Kirk Alyn.

Posted By robbushblog : July 9, 2013 10:39 am

Deadpan singing is something I’ve been doing to comic effect for many years. I don’t recall ever seeing her do it, but I will gladly give her credit.

Posted By robbushblog : July 9, 2013 10:39 am

Deadpan singing is something I’ve been doing to comic effect for many years. I don’t recall ever seeing her do it, but I will gladly give her credit.

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