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Twelve Crowded Hours (1939) is a better-than-average B-movie from RKO, starring Richard Dix as a newspaper reporter trying to solve the murder of his editor. He's also trying to save the brother of his girlfriend (Lucille Ball), who is falsely accused of the crime. Director Lew Landers keeps things moving briskly, and the actors do a credible job with routine material. Ball looks glamorous but has little to do, and even less to say. However, one critic thought that her performance was "fairly effective," while another wrote that "Miss Ball plays it with just the appropriate air of somnambulism."
Before she became the beloved Queen of Television, Ball slogged through a mediocre movie career that only occasionally hinted at what she could do. Twelve Crowded Hours was made during a busy few months which Ball later referred to as her "Queen of the B's" period. Ball's statuesque good looks, which had landed her in the movies in the first place, worked against casting her in the comedy roles for which she was destined, and she spent most of the 1930s barely making an impression at all.
Signed to a contract at RKO in 1935, Ball played bit parts, studied with drama coach Lela Rogers (mother of Ginger), and started landing wisecracking roles in A-pictures such as Stage Door (1937). "Eve Arden and I competed for years," Ball later recalled. "I was sick and tired of 'drop gag' parts where I strolled through a room, dropped an acidly-humorous remark, and left." Even when she got an opportunity, it never quite seemed to pan out. She was the female lead in a Marx Brothers film, Room Service (1938), but neither the film nor Ball were memorable, and the Marx Brothers got all the laughs. Shortly before making Twelve Crowded Hours, Ball was one of the dozens of actresses who auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). On her way to the audition, she was drenched in a sudden rainstorm, and showed up in David Selznick's office soaking wet, and so nervous that she fell to her knees in front of him. After The Affairs of Annabel (1938) and Annabel Takes a Tour (1938), RKO executives planned to continue the Annabel films as a B-series, but changed their minds when co-star Jack Oakie demanded too much money. Most tantalizing of all, in 1939, RKO's newly-signed wunderkind, Orson Welles, reportedly wanted Ball to star in his first film for the studio, but studio executives vetoed that idea, telling Welles that Ball couldn't carry a film.
Twelve Crowded Hours leading man Richard Dix, who had been a major star in the silent era, had made a triumphant transition to sound films, earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Cimarron (1931), one of his first films under contract at RKO. But by the end of the decade, he was mostly starring in B-movies, although he remained popular until his retirement in 1947. Dix died in 1949, at age 55.
Allan Lane, who played Ball's brother in Twelve Crowded Hours, is an actor whose name and face may not be as familiar as his voice. He would later provide the vocals for the talking horse in the television series, Mr. Ed.
Ball, of course, would ultimately find the stardom she yearned for in television. She would also have her revenge on the studio that did not consider her star material. In 1957, Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz bought the RKO studio and turned it into the production facility for their company, Desilu.
Director: Lew Landers
Producer: Robert Sisk
Screenplay: John Twist, based on a story by Garrett Fort and Peter Ruric
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editor: Harry Marker
Costume Design: Renie
Cast: Richard Dix (Nick Green), Lucille Ball (Paula Sanders), Allan Lane (Dave Sanders), Donald MacBride (Inspector Keller), Cyrus W. Kendall (Costain), Granville Bates (McEwan), John Arledge (Red), Bradley Page (Tom Miller).
by Margarita Landazuri