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Jack Oakie had been a comedy star at Paramount since 1929, playing the gullible sap or goofy football player in collegiate and musical comedies. By his own admission, he was no slouch when it came to partying and he enjoyed his food. Neither did his waistline any good and by mid-decade, his leading man days were over. However, Oakie enjoyed one of the most successful careers as a supporting actor and would be nominated for an Academy Award for The Great Dictator (1940). When The Affairs of Annabel (1938) went into production, Oakie had left his home studio and literally moved next door to RKO, who teamed him up with one of their rising stars, Lucille Ball.
The Affairs of Annabel went into production on May 23, 1938 and ended a scant three weeks later. The lightning-fast direction (the film runs only 68 minutes) was by Ben Stoloff, and written by future Desilu executive producer, Bert Granet with Paul Yawitz, based on Charles Hoffman's story The Menial Star (the film's working title). It was intended as a vehicle for Oakie, and was a spoof of Hollywood and the people who work in it. Redheaded Annabel Allison (Ball) is an actress who desperately needs a hit film. Her zany press agent Lanny Morgan (Oakie) thinks up crazy schemes to get her publicity at any cost - including being arrested, having to work as a maid, and eventually being kidnapped by gangsters.
Lucille Ball, like many actors, had porcelain caps made by a dentist to be worn over her real teeth during shooting. While filming one scene, she yelled, "I'm Annabel Allison, you fool!" and the caps went flying. While her teeth might not have stuck to her, the advice and guidance that she got about playing comedy from Oakie and from her boyfriend at the time, director Alexander Hall, stayed with her for the rest of her career. Oakie and Ball remained good friends and it was Oakie who suggested that Ball and her new husband, Desi Arnaz, purchase property in Chatsworth soon after their marriage. When Jack Oakie turned seventy in November 1973, his wife, actress Victoria Horne, asked some of his friends to send letters with their memories of him. Ball wrote, "Dearest Jackie Boy, We go a long way back. I still remember when I dropped you on your head in rehearsal - all because I took my first judo lessons too seriously, and really learned how to swing a star around. I also remember you limped indignantly off the set and refused to come back for two days. Could I help it if I didn't know my own strength? I remember so many things about you - your Mom [Oakie's mother was psychologist Evelyn Offield], your scrapbooks, even the lock you had on the refrigerator so we couldn't have more than one Coke. But most of all, I remember your sense of humor, your creative know-how, and how much I learned from working with you, for which I shall be ever grateful. The only thing I didn't try to steal from you was your notable upstaging - I never had the guts."
Released on September 9, 1938, The Affairs of Annabel was well received by audiences and the critics, like The New York Times' Frank Nugent, who wrote, "A promising first [film of the new series] we might add; in a light farce vein, with some flip players in it. Lucille Ball, who has something on it, is one; Jack Oakie would be another and Lee Van Atta, whose voice is changing, is a third. Between them, and with the help of a smartly written script, they have created an amusing trifle about a movie actress and a press agent with a Svengali complex. [...] Miss Ball, who is rapidly becoming one of our brightest comediennes, plays it broadly and without a disruptive trace of whimsy. Mr. Oakie, the perfect Fuller brush man, has lost weight but none of his comic flair. He still walks like a sidewheeler and resembles a cherub enjoying a hangover. Among the picture's other human assets are Thurston Hall as an inventive genius, Bradley Page as a producing genius, Fritz Feld as a directing genius and Ruth Donnelly as a secretarial genius. As a series-opener, it's all to the good."
The Affairs of Annabel was Lucille Ball's first starring role to make an impression and elevated her to what she termed, "a second-rate star." RKO immediately rushed a sequel, Annabel Takes a Tour (1938) into production, intending for Oakie and Ball to star in a series. However, Oakie demanded too high a salary and the series was cancelled. Oakie left RKO for 20th Century-Fox, where he would co-star in several musicals, eventually retiring to his ranch in Northridge as one of the richest stars in Hollywood. Lucille Ball went on to stardom on I Love Lucy and, eventually, to buy RKO Studios and rename it Desilu.
Producers: Lou Lusty, Lee S. Marcus
Director: Benjamin Stoloff, Lew Landers (uncredited)
Screenplay: Bert Granet, Paul Yawitz (writers); Charles Hoffman (story)
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb
Film Editing: Jack Hively
Cast: Jack Oakie (Lanny Morgan), Lucille Ball (Annabel Allison), Ruth Donnelly (Josephine), Bradley Page (Howard Webb), Fritz Feld (Vladimir Dukov), Thurston Hall (Major), Elisabeth Risdon (Mrs. Margaret Fletcher), Granville Bates (Jim Fletcher), James Burke (Officer Muldoon), Lee Van Atta (Robert Fletcher).
by Lorraine LoBianco
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Nugent, Frank "RKO-Radio Introduces a New Film Series with 'The Affairs of Annabel,' at the Palace" The New York Times 13 Oct 38
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