Posted by David Kalat on July 6, 2013
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.
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:
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:
It’s that girl! It’s the same girl!
Now I had to know–who is she?
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.
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.”
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