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Most of her admirers do not realize that for many years prior to her TV
career, Lucille Ball was a very competent, dishy, and prolific motion
picture actress. This particular opus, though both sordid and
incredible, does present Miss Ball, with billing over the title, in an
undoubtedly bizarre concoction, that has, for whatever reason, been
strangely overlooked for many years. Most interesting perhaps is that
her character's name is "Lucy,"(the first time Miss Ball ever portrayed
a character with that name--though this particular 'Lucy' has nothing
in common with Mrs. Ricardo.)
Essentially it is celluloid pulp fiction detailing the romantic and criminal mis-adventures of a New York show girl reduced to dancing in the floor show of a Panamanian dive. While thus employed, she is innocently implicated in the robbery of a drunken oil prospector, who only drops jail charges, if she will agree to become his live in--"housekeeper." Enter true love here.
The illicit and licentious angles of the story, with its strong intimations of prostitution at the dive, and free-love at the prospector's camp, (with a interloper-native girl named "Cheema" no less), are unmistakably suggested, through "Sadie Thompson" style dialogue and atmosphere. For example, one of the "B girls", named Pearl, decked in cheap jewelry over a flowered frock, achieves unparalleled camp value with her lowered eyelids, hands on the hips swagger as she moves in for the kill--greeting her would be conquest with the highly original, "Hello handsome."
RKO's technical accoutrements, as would be expected, are A-1, though this is clearly a second feature. Miss Ball plays a decent and attractive doll, who retains her virtue, despite being forced to tramp the streets or the pampas, as the case would have it, (perhaps owing to her lack of education--she proudly mis-pronounces "petroleum" as "petoleum" !
Though much of the dialogue is painfully stereotypical, (Cheema witnessing a murder, declaims in threateningly thick accents with finger pointed accusingly, "Cheema tell tribe!" the story manages to engage by sheer force of its outrageous plot. Even better, is Evelyn Brent, as the madame "Lenore" (with a trollopish wardrobe that anticipates Carol Burnett as "Eunice") who gets such enunciate such subtleties as "...Be nice to Mr. McTeague Lucy or I'll fire you!"
With such dialogue as this it would appear the script is written by and for idiots, but, lo and behold, it's by Michael Kanin who later penned Katherine Hepburn's "Woman of the Year," (surely Mr. Kanin your tongue was firmly in your cheek?)
Despite her perpetually impecunious state,Miss Ball's character somehow manages a nifty array of outfits, that includes a white sharkskin suit, and a wool blazer, skirt, grosgain pumps, and trilby hat ensemble, that, assuredly would have been the envy of most Gotham girls that were "down and out" in 1939.
Yes, Miss Ball is plenty attractive here, though to witness her at the peak of her pulchritude, check out "Beauty for the Asking" also from 1939.
All in all though, with its blend of simmering sin, and triumphant virtue, as laid out in both the South American and Manhattan jungles, "Panama Lady" is really rather fun as an outrageous camp fest. Enjoy.
Unusual role for Lucille Ball as a down and out showgirl in Panama whose no-good fiancé involves her in illegal nefarious deeds. She winds up abandoned and has to escape into the jungles of Ecuador with a dangerously roguish oil prospector (Allan Lane)who graciously allows her to "shack-up" with him in a very compromising manner, even though he has a sultry native "housekeeper" who attempts to do her in by poisoning. The boyfriend eventually shows up to "rescue" her in his plane but only intends to murder her at the behest of his gun smuggling friends. This film definitely holds the interest with Ball and Lane carrying it with their downbeat nearly noir characters and situation. Stick around till the end, as you will care whether these two appealing people can make a go of things or no.
Back in the pre-TV days when the major Hollywood studios were allowed
to own chains of theatres across the country to show the films they
made and profit from both sides of the business, they had to keep those
houses booked and so churned out a steady stream of "programmers" to
fill their screens between the major "prestige" releases. Running
between 60 and 90 minutes (the equivalent of TV shows today), these
films were more than training grounds for later star performer and
directors, they frequently provided quality work for studio people
between "A List" projects. The quality varied with the studio, but
RKO-Radio was one of the best and PANAMA LADY is much better than some
suggest. Any fan of Lucille Ball's work should mark it as a "must see."
It will strongly remind them of her better known dramatic work for
director John Farrow in her next film the same year, FIVE CAME BACK.
A product of an era when the words of a screenplay mattered more than the explosions and silly chase scenes, PANAMA LADY (an RKO-Radio release now available mainly in a good print on a long out-of-print 1983 VHS release - #7001 - of a 1955 "C&C Movies for Television" print), was an above average reputed remake of an earlier pre-code/proto-Noir film about a girl caught up in the "white slave" (prostitution) trade. RKO, facing the prudish Production Code and a rising star in Lucille Ball (STAGE DOOR, ROOM SERVICE and a couple of her "Anabel" films behind her and TOO MANY GIRLS, DU BARRY WAS A LADY and BEST FOOT FORWARD still in front of her) expunged most of the references to sex in favor of timely (WWII was raging in China and would start in Europe in four months although the U.S. would hold on to its neutrality for another two and a half years) gun running and jealousy subplots and got solid dramatic performances from Lucy and her co-stars (especially Allan Lane as the good boyfriend and Donald Briggs as the bad).
Taken seriously, the 65 minute spring 1939 (May 12) release offers a lot of solid fun. The attempt at twists in the resolution of the South American plot and the O'Henry-esquire finale do come across as a little strained, but the production getting there is generally first rate after the stock footage of New York landmarks in the opening "framing" scene.
Had first tier screenwriter Michael Kanin (Garson's older brother, one film away from his Oscar winning WOMAN OF THE YEAR screenplay) worked a little harder on the last five or six minutes, the film might be far better remembered today - or was he done in by second time director Jack Hively (already having edited THE AFFAIRS OF ANABEL with Lucy and one of the SAINT films he would go on to direct) pushing too hard to finish on time and under budget? A decade later, over at Universal International, Hively was also director for one of their rare Broadway musical transfers, ARE YOU WITH IT - one of his last full Hollywood directing credits. It's one of Donald O'Connor's best performances, but also suffers from production and editing indignities which may have left a lot of good material on the cutting room floor.
1940's The Stranger on the Third Floor is usually cited as Hollywood's earliest example of true noir style, but here's a movie from a year earlier that also incorporates a guilt-ridden protagonist with a past, first-person narration, and a flashback structure. Both were probably inspired by the French film Pepe le Moko (1938), but since this is a remake of a 1931 film called Panama Flo, who knows whether they weren't all present in that version as well? In any case, it's quite a decent little B that gives Lucy one of her toughest and most downbeat dramatic parts, on a par with Dance Girl Dance; if you only know her for her later comedy days, it's well worth seeing these early roles to see the kind of realistic blue-collar gal in the Ginger Rogers mode which she played very well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
You know what confused me about this film? The idiotic notion that
McTeague, the male lead, would coerce Lucy to come with him to his
South American hideaway to serve as his housekeeper, when he already
had Cheema, another female housekeeper, in residence at his relatively
small house. And it seemed even more ridiculous that the two
housekeepers would get into several jealous and potentially deadly
Then it suddenly entered my thick head: They're his PROSTITUTES, you moron! It's a post-Code movie, so the writers had to portray Lucy and Cheema as a couple of chaste "housekeepers" who were getting into fights over which one of them would polish McTeague's banister.
After that, the movie made much more sense.
Lucille Ball is gorgeous in this film, almost Lauren Bacall-ish in many of the shots. Her character is the polar opposite of the Lucy Ricardo we all know and love. This Lucy is chronically depressed, more than a little whorish, and not the slightest bit funny. Her character would probably be a drug addict and/or alcoholic if the movie were re-made today. And, with her incredible talent, Lucille Ball pulls it off beautifully, and makes you forget the I Love Lucy she later became.
At first I was put off by Alan Lane's performance as McTeague, which I initially found nebulous and unclear. But after the film was over, I was impressed with his performance, for precisely the same reasons. It was McTeague's somewhat schizophrenic personality that actually made the movie work. And although I don't recall ever seeing Steffi Duna before, her Cheema character was exotic and intriguing. Again, her behavior was hard to pin down at first, but made more sense at the end.
Kudos also to the production and direction team, who applied a few very creative touches. Notable among those is the scene that was shot from the blindfolded Lucy's perspective, and the camera shifting to Cheema's shadow while she was doing something shadowy.
Hey guys, this movie's only an hour long. Why not give it a shot? And even if it isn't making a lot of sense at first, try to stick with it. If you're like me, the payoff will be worth the relatively short investment of time.
A great invention of cinema so far is noir, together with cinematic
sport, smoke and fireballs. Noir is new, subtle, introspective. It
advances and spins all sorts of sophisticated children, sometimes
thought as ironic.
Its origins aren't quite as interesting as what it has ballooned to, how it has encompassed the world. But if you are interested in origins, look at this. It incidentally includes Lucy (using her own name) so you can impose your own layer of noir/irony on it as a modern viewer.
In its time, it was meant to evoke "Red Dust," a little piece about prostitution in the jungle leading to love. This is actually a remake of the original that was quickly made in 32 after the success of 'Red Dust."
Post-code, you don't have much of a whiff of sex here, and Lucy doesn't give the impression of a doomed soul that true noir would later demand. But you do have a clear notion here of the central notion of noir: fate seeming to deliberately conspire against on ordinary foil, odd coincidences, extreme consequences from trivial acts. Plus rank selfishness.. What's missing is the dark, angled photography that would later be associated with noir, even for some its defining feature. And you don't yet have the heavy introductory voice-over. But you do have something similar, a framing flashback.
It has an uncharacteristic ending for a noir, a happy coupling. Lucy is saved. I think this was before she became a redhead.
Ted's Evaluation -- 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.
First off, even though I saw the film some years ago, I can't forget
Evelyn Brent's electric performance in a supporting role in which she
manages to steal every scene from the star throughout the movie's first
half. In fact, as I recall, Lucy just wisely keeps a low profile in her
appearances with Ms. Brent, who is just too much to compete with. But
finally her character takes a final exit. After that Lucy does come
alive as the star and shines from then on, rising above the mediocre
material of this B- film. And Lucy Recardo she is not!
What I like most is Lucy's line at the story's high-point: "I'm going to take just one more crack at making a gentleman out of you, and if that doesn't work, we're really in trouble!"
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you watch this film, you'll no doubt be surprised how dull and listless this film is. After all, only a little over a decade later, the star of this film, Lucille Ball, would be declared the funniest lady in America. Well, none of this is evident in this movie at all. It isn't funny (nor is it intended to be) and the movie just isn't a quality effort at all. This isn't just because this is a B-movie--after all, there are some marvelous B-pictures that transcend their modest budgets. No, the problem is that the characters just aren't very likable or believable and the script is just dull and, at times, stupid. Now as far as the stupidity of the script goes, this was really obvious towards the end. The whole way in which Lucy's evil boyfriend is shot is just pure hooey--so much so that it's almost laughable. Then, at the very end, despite it being obvious that the other man is desperately in love with her, a decent guy and very rich, Lucy tries to wander off into the crowd and forget him! Heck, I would have been thrilled to have married him (and I'm a guy)!
I meant Le Jour Se Leve probably influenced this, not Pepe le
Moko. If you really want to see this movie
it's on a Turner laserdisc.
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