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MGM continued its star treatment of recent acquisition Lucille Ball with the leading role in their 1943 lighthearted, youth-oriented romp, Best Foot Forward. Cast as herself, she played an actress trying to generate publicity by accepting a prom date with a prep school student. And though some actresses might have found her on-screen label as "Queen of the Bs" an insult, Ball considered it a distinct step up from the forgettable movies she made at RKO.
MGM's leading musical producer, Arthur Freed, discovered Best Foot Forward during a visit to New York in 1941. Enchanted with the show's youthful exuberance and lilting score (including the hit "Buckle Down, Winsocki"), he asked studio head Louis B. Mayer to pick up the rights for him. Unfortunately, Columbia Pictures had beaten him to the punch, with their head, Harry Cohn, planning the film as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth. He had also signed Glenn Miller's orchestra as the prom band and Shirley Temple to co-star as the girl who almost loses her man to the visiting star. When Freed insisted that the film would do well for MGM, Mayer convinced Cohn to back off for $25,000 and the loan of Gene Kelly to co-star with Hayworth in another musical, Cover Girl (1944). Even that would prove a boon to MGM. Not only did the film help make Kelly a star, but it gave him the chance to work out the choreographic ideas that would make his later films among the best screen musicals ever.
Initially, Freed offered the role of the visiting star to Lana Turner, feeling it would provide her with a comic change of pace and a chance to showcase her beauty in Technicolor. When Turner became pregnant (with Cheryl Crane), she had to bow out of the production, which opened the door for Ball. In her first film at the studio, Dubarry Was a Lady (1943), hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff had given her the red hair that would become her trademark. She also was taking advantage of Buster Keaton's presence on the lot as a gag writer; with his help she would develop the comic expertise she would later bring to I Love Lucy. Best Foot Forward also brought her the chance to work with veteran Broadway musical star William Gaxton (a big hit on-stage as the U.S. President in George Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing) and a new friend in June Allyson.
With Nancy Walker, Tommy Dix, Jack Jordan, Kenny Bowers and Gil Stratton, Allyson had been brought from New York to re-create her role in Best Foot Forward. Of all of them, she was the one who would make the biggest splash in Hollywood (Walker would return to the stage, where she would reign as a star until moving into television in the '70s; Stratton wouldn't hit it big until he became a CBS sportscaster decades later). But Allyson wasn't happy there at first. She had arrived on the West Coast with $10 in her pocket only to learn that filming had been postponed six weeks. Fortunately, the studio gave her a small but splashy role in Girl Crazy (1943), which kept a roof over her head. But she missed her life in New York City and the boyfriend she had left behind. When she confided in Ball that she was planning to leave Hollywood as soon as possible, Ball shared her own heartaches over trying to gain a toehold in show business. Dazzled by Ball's stardom, her beauty and her happy life as Mrs. Desi Arnaz (little did she know the problems Lucy and Desi were already having), all Allyson could say in response was, "Yes, but you're tall." They would remain close throughout their careers. On their next film together, Meet the People (1944), Allyson would fall for leading man Dick Powell, despite the fact that he was still married to Joan Blondell. Ball would let them meet secretly at her ranch in order to avoid a public scandal.
In a rare move for Hollywood, Freed kept most of the original score in his film version of Best Foot Forward. All that were added were a few specialties for Harry James and his band, including James's signature number, "Flight of the Bumblebee." Chuck Walters, who would move to directing with Allyson as his star in Good News (1947), staged the musical numbers. The highlights include his inspired military drills for "Buckle Down, Winsocki" and a trio of dance styles for "The Three B's," in which Allyson, Walker, and Gloria DeHaven extolled the virtues of the barrel hop, the boogie-woogie, and the blues.
Although Best Foot Forward was hardly a trend-setter like such later Freed films as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) or Singin' in the Rain (1952), it kept audiences happy for its 94-minute running time. It cost a mere $1.1 million to make and brought back $2.7 million in rentals, a decent profit for the time.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Edward Buzzell
Screenplay: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe, based on the musical by Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane and John Cecil Holm
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno
Music: Lennie Hayton, Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane
Cast: Lucille Ball (Herself), William Gaxton (Jack O'Riley), Virginia Weidler (Helen Schlesinger), Tommy Dix (Elwood), Nancy Walker (Nancy), Gloria DeHaven (Minerva), Kenny Bowers (Dutch), June Allyson (Ethel), Jack Jordan (Hunk), Beverly Tyler (Miss Delaware Water Gap), Chill Wills (Chester Shoat), Henry O'Neill (Maj. Reeber), Sara Haden (Miss Talbert), Donald MacBride (Capt. Bradd), Harry James and His Music Makers, Helen Forrest (Herself), Mickey Rooney (Himself), Gil Stratton, Stanley Donen.
C-95m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller