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William Holden got a chance to show off his comic timing in the 1949 slapstick romance, Miss Grant Takes Richmond. Not only did his role as a bookie who opens a real estate office to cover up his illegal activities give him a welcome break from Westerns, it also gave him a chance to work with Lucille Ball, cast as the wacky secretary he hires to make his office look legitimate. The part gave Ball the chance to show off the skills that would finally make her a star, after 20 years in Hollywood, on the hit sitcom I Love Lucy.
For Holden, Miss Grant Takes Richmond was another chance to break out of second-string roles. After a promising starring debut as the young boxer in Golden Boy (1939) and acclaimed work in films like Our Town (1940) and The Remarkable Andrew (1942), he'd seen little cinematic gold as he shuttled between Paramount Studios and Columbia Pictures. At the former, he was eclipsed at the box office by Alan Ladd; at the latter by his good friend Glenn Ford. Miss Grant Takes Richmond gave him a chance to break free of what he called his "smiling Jack" good guy roles to play a romantic hero with an edge. Some historians have even suggested that it paved the way for his casting in Born Yesterday (1950).
For Ball, Miss Grant Takes Richmond was part of a major career makeover. Frustrated after years of secondary films at RKO, she had moved to MGM only to be relegated to glamorous set dressing in their lavish musicals. All the while, however, she worked and watched, picking up comic tricks from the studio's resident slapstick star of the period, Red Skelton, and silent screen clown Buster Keaton, who was working there as a gag writer. When she left MGM to freelance, however, she had trouble finding suitable roles. Then she agreed to do a radio series for CBS. The network's president, Bill Paley, hoped to create a new generation of leading ladies who could move over to the infant television medium and thought Ball would be perfect. She passed on his initial offer to star in Our Miss Brooks, suggesting her friend Eve Arden would be better suited for the role of a sarcastic high school teacher. His next offer, the wacky wife in My Favorite Husband, seemed more suitable to her career plans, and she signed on. The show debuted as a one-shot fill-in, but did so well it was picked up as a summer series, then put on the regular schedule.
With the success of My Favorite Husband, Ball was a hot commodity in Hollywood. Columbia came up with what seemed the best offer -- a non-exclusive deal for three films at $85,000 a picture. Ball was attracted by the contract's openness and the studio's reputation for working quickly, which meant she would get her fee for a fairly short shooting schedule. She also thought she could get studio head Harry Cohn to hire her husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz, for a film. The studio's music department head urged Cohn to do just that, which gave Arnaz a chance to stop touring and actually live with his wife while shooting Cuban Pete (1946).
Ball also had a friend in Columbia producer S. Sylvan Simon. A former MGM director, Simon had hoped to steal Skelton from the studio to star in a series of slapstick comedies. When they couldn't break his MGM contract, however, he decided to build on Ball's radio image to turn her into a slapstick queen. His first effort in that direction was Miss Grant Takes Richmond.
Holden and Ball developed a warm working relationship. He appreciated her comic talents, and in some scenes critics have suggested he can be seen trying to control his laughter at her antics. The only problem they might have had -- he was seven years younger than she -- was solved by director Lloyd Bacon, who simply avoided any close-ups that might have shown up the disparity in their ages. Holden and Ball would reteam years later for a classic episode of I Love Lucy, in which he played himself as the victim of Lucy Ricardo's celebrity fascination.
Miss Grant Takes Richmond did well with the critics, while Ball's radio fans helped it turn a nice profit for Columbia. It wasn't a breakthrough hit for Holden -- he would have to wait for Sunset Boulevard (1950) to accomplish that -- but it showed he had the right touch for romantic comedy. Simon kept to his plan to use Ball as a slapstick comedienne, using her next in The Fuller Brush Girl (1950). Unfortunately, his surprise death a year later would put an end to their partnership. Cohn would burn off Ball's contract with a hastily made Arabian Nights potboiler, The Magic Carpet (1951). That flying turkey did little to hurt her career, however, as it came out as she was launching I Love Lucy, the television series that would make her a comedy legend.
Producer: S. Sylvan Simon
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Nat Perrin, Devery Freeman, Frank Tashlin
Based on a story by Everett Freeman
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Principal Cast: Lucille Ball (Ellen Grant), William Holden (Dick Richmond), Janis Carter (Peggy Donato), James Gleason (J. Hobart Gleason), Gloria Henry (Helen White), Frank McHugh (Kilcoyne), George Cleveland (Judge Ben Grant), Roy Roberts (Foreman), Charles Lane (Woodruff).
by Frank Miller