The Big Street
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At the time she was cast in The Big Street (1942), Lucille Ball later wrote, "nothing much seemed to be happening for me at the studio [RKO]. My $1000 weekly paycheck came regularly, but I was still a regular among the B's."
That was about to change. Writer Damon Runyon had just struck a producing deal with RKO and was looking to make a movie out of his short story Little Pinks. It was the tale of a busboy, "Little Pinks," in love with a heartless showgirl named Gloria, also known as "Her Highness." When she is beaten up and pushed down the stairs by her gangster boyfriend, Gloria becomes crippled and is confined to a wheelchair. But Little Pinks still loves her, despite her utter callousness, and spends all his resources out of this love, even taking her to Miami so she can woo a rich man. (Andy Warhol later called this "the sickest film ever made.")
Runyon wanted Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard for the picture, but neither wanted to do it. Laughton thought himself wrong for such a timid character so Runyon acquired Henry Fonda on a loanout from Fox. Lombard felt she wasn't hard-edged enough to play Gloria and suggested Lucille Ball. RKO wasn't crazy about the idea because Ball was not a big enough star, but Runyon persisted and eventually won the argument.
Worried about the best way to play such an unlikable character, Ball sought some advice from Laughton. "Don't soften it," he told her. "If you play a bitch, play it!" Carole Lombard's death in a January 1942 plane crash made Ball even more determined to give the part her all; she decided it would be a way of honoring her friend who had originally recommended her for it.
The shoot didn't go very well for Ball. Director Irving Reis was young and inexperienced. Fonda, an ex-boyfriend of Ball's, was remote and unhelpful. And Ball's husband Desi Arnaz lurked around the set, paranoid that Ball and Fonda would rekindle their romance. (They didn't.) Nonetheless, Ball mustered an excellent performance and forever looked back on The Big Street as her favorite film and proudest role.
By the time The Big Street was released in mid-1942, Runyon had left the studio (after only a five-month stint), Reis had joined the Army, editor William Hamilton had died, and Henry Fonda was back at his home studio, 20th Century-Fox. Perhaps all these are reasons why RKO didn't promote the movie very aggressively. But that didn't stop the critics from noticing Ball's breakout performance: "The girl can really act," declared Life. "It shows Lucille Ball as a first-rate actress, far ahead of any of her other screen roles," gushed Variety. And James Agee wrote in Time, "Pretty Lucille Ball, who was born for the parts Ginger Rogers sweats over, tackles her 'emotional' role as if it were sirloin and she didn't care who was looking."
Despite the rave reviews, the movie was a box office dud and RKO had no real plans for Ball. Her performance had caught the eye of MGM producer Arthur Freed, however, who now wanted her for his upcoming musical Du Barry Was a Lady (1943). With Ball's RKO contract approaching expiration, RKO gave her the chance to share the remainder of her contract with MGM or Paramount, which had also expressed interest. Ball chose MGM because of its emphasis on musicals. (She would end up making only one more picture for RKO - Seven Days' Leave, 1942.)
Editor William Hamilton, who died at age 48 while finishing The Big Street, was a top cutter at RKO whose credits included Suspicion (1941), In Name Only (1939), Stage Door (1937), Shall We Dance (1937) and Top Hat (1935).
Ball and Fonda had previously appeared together in I Dream Too Much (1935) and would team up for one more feature in 1968: Yours, Mine and Ours.
Producer: Damon Runyon
Director: Irving Reis
Screenplay: Damon Runyon (story), Leonard Spigelgass
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Henry Fonda (Agustus Pinkerton), Lucille Ball (Gloria Lyons), Barton MacLane (Case Ables), Eugene Pallette (Nicely Nicely Johnson), Agnes Moorehead (Violette Shumberg), Sam Levene (Horsethief).
BW-89m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold