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Anyone who has the slightest desire to learn more about the incredible talent of Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda owes it to themselves to see this marvelous movie. Over the years, these two stars built up such powerful images of themselves as star characters, and most of the public came to know them as a result of the cumulative impressions which they made on our individual consciousness. Your strong impression of Lucille Ball is as a comedian, correct? You seldom if ever think of her as a dramatic actress. Can you imagine Lucille Ball playing a role of a vain self-centered and arrogant harridan who seems to live for the sole purpose of tormenting the lowly busboy who is her one true friend in all the world? Few people can imagine Lucy in such a role, but if you watch this movie, you will see it happen. It is also totally believable because, even though Lucy worked primarily as a comedian, she was a great dramatic actress when she chose to accept a role of that type. As for Henry Fonda, who could even conceive of casting this great actor as a busboy? It was early in his career and he is playing a role of the type that he would never have to play again, but he pulls it off. You wonder at times why he is taking so much abuse from this woman. But the answer is incredibly simple. He deeply loves the woman, and his love comes shining through. If you want to see two great stars at work in the early days of their careers, check out this movie.
...and that's not the movie's fault. Those who've panned The Big Street
and this review say more about themselves than the movie.
Damon Runyon was a beloved chronicler of a microcosm that no longer exists - the street life of New York's Broadway district, during its heyday, when it was known as The Great White Way or The Big Street. You will never see characters like Runyon's anywhere else in literature or film. The closest are perhaps to be found in Dickens, say, the souls who populate the London of Mr. Pickwick.
Other comments, who have been put off by the dialog finding it saccharine or phony, don't understand the special language Runyon uses for his characters, the picaresque vernacular of the small-time Broadway hustlers, promoters, racetrack touts and "professors," whose schemes and rackets are cloaked with highfalutin patter.
Among the steady, low-level service people who interface with these demi-mondes is Little Pinks, "the best busboy in the whole wide world". Pinks (Henry Fonda), has a good heart and the misfortune of falling head-over-heels for a gangster's moll, played against type by Lucille Ball, who has none of the former (good heart) and plenty of the latter (misfortune). Devoted to a fault, Pinks acts as her guardian angel, from her pinnacle, all the way to her pitiful decline and fall. Director Irving Reis, knows how to keep his material from becoming mired in bathos by using Runyon's whimsy and humor and the most delightful character players in Hollywood, from Eugene Palette and Agnes Moorehead to Ray Collins, Louis Beavers and Hans Conried.
"The Big Street" faithfully recreates Runyon's world and its inhabitants. Like all of his stories, it is a parable, and like all parables it teaches a lesson. But the lesson is delivered gently, never preaching. The most moving moment comes in the final scene, at once tragic and triumphant. The tragedy is apparent. But the triumph, the triumph of love over all, is apparently lost on the idiots who have panned this gem.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
THE BIG STREET (RKO Radio, 1942), directed by Irving Reis, from the
story by Damon Runyan, who also produced, stars Henry Fonda and Lucille
Ball in a very offbeat film. It's a variation of sorts to W. Somerset
Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," in focusing upon an egotistic, arrogant
woman loved by an ever caring young man addressing her as "her
highness," and taking all the verbal abuse he can handle. While the
woman is question might have been played to the liking of overly
melodramatic leading ladies as Bette Davis or Ida Lupino, it's
surprisingly acted by comedienne Lucille Ball in a performance that can
not be categorized as her best movie, but certainly the greatest acting
challenge of her career.
The first half of the story is set in New York City around the busy district of Broadway, better known as "The Big Street," where various characters, obtaining typically yet unusual Runyan names as "Horsethief" (Sam Levine), Professor "B" (Ray Collins) and "Nicely-Nicely" (Eugene Palette), are introduced. Then comes a busboy from Mindy's Cafe called "Little Pinks" (Henry Fonda) who, during an eating contest sponsored by his employer, Case Abels (Barton MacLane), leaves his post to rescue a pekingese loose in heavy traffic belonging to Gloria Lyons (Lucille Ball), a self-centered nightclub singer and Abel's girlfriend. For neglecting his post, causing him to lose a $1,000 wager, Abels socks Pinks in the jaw for his trouble and fires him. In appreciation for saving her dog, "Thanks, kid!" Gloria provides Pinks with another job as busboy. Gloria, whose very much interested in a millionaire named Decatur Reed (William Orr), sees her opportunity in living the high life and breaking away from Abels. When she tells Abels she's walking out on him, he slaps her so forcibly, causing her fall backwards down a long flight of stairs, permanently crippling her. In spite of eye witnesses, Abels makes it known that Gloria "was drunk" and "the fall accidental." Abandoned and alone, the only one to remain loyal to Gloria is Pinks. He not only works extra hours to pay for her hospital bills, but offers her lodging in his apartment surrounded by neighbors "beneath her class." Pinks goes even further by taking her away from those long bitter New York winters by wheel-chairing and hitchhiking her down really big street to Miami, where the second half of the story is set. In spite of his good deeds, Gloria's goal is not on Pinks but in resuming her high society living by marrying rich men. Spotting Decatur Reed on the beach where she is sunbathing, the two become reacquainted, but once he finds her to be a cripple, he makes it clear he's no longer interested. This rejection causes Gloria to be bitter and nastier, even to a point of placing all the fault on Pinks. He walks out on her after she hits a nerve, by belittling his line of work. Pinks continues his busboy profession in a nightclub that so happens to be leased by Abels. When he learns that Gloria may be close to dying, Pinks weakens, comes to her aide again, doing everything possible, even to a point of stealing priceless jewelry and expensive dinner dress to offer her so she'll have the will to live and become the old girl, or "her highness" again. This, folks, is not the rest of the story. The climax, as truly moving as it is, may not earn any Academy Award nominations, but indicates how good Fonda and Ball are when it comes to something as challenging as this.
A tragic melodrama with some doses of comedy that at times puts this movie a little off balance, which is probably why the movie may not be for everyone's viewing pleasure, it's Lucille Ball, as a troubled woman, whose main problem is believing she's something she's not, who keeps the story together. By profession a comedienne, this is a welcome change of pace in her career. Those highly familiar by Ball's TV work on situation comedies, especially the legendary "I Love Lucy" (1951-57) show, will be simply surprised and amazed in her ability as an dramatic actress, even though the story gets to be a bit too much with its melodramatics and expecting its viewers to accept certain aspects that doesn't quite come off as logical. Overlooking these faults, it is Ball who has the key scenes worth noting: the expression on Gloria's face while sitting up on her hospital to find she's unable to feel and move her legs; her change of moods from laughter to tears while shivering in a cold damp apartment; and the most famous one of all set in the nightclub with the spotlight on Pinks dancing with the crippled Gloria. How this is accomplished is simply amazing and heartfelt.
Aside from singling out performances of both Fonda and Ball, the supporting players, especially Agnes Moorehead and Eugene Palette (the latter who loves to eat), come off second best in their amusing yet likable secondary couple; Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra conducting to the tune of "Who Knows?" with dubbed vocalization on two different occasions by Ball; Louise Beavers as Gloria's maid, Ruby; along with Hans Conried, Marion Martin, Marion Martin and George Cleveland in smaller roles. While both Fonda and Ball had long and prolific careers, they didn't get to work together again until 26 years later with the domestic comedy success of YOURS, MINE AND OURS (UA, 1968).
Formerly available on video cassette in the 1990s as part of the "Lucille Ball Signature Collection," cable television broadcast history of THE BIG STREET consisted of frequent showings on American Movie Classics prior to 2001, and at present, Turner Classic Movies (**1/2) .
The Big Street (1942)
Packed with great actors, major and minor, in a fast fast whirlwind
First of all, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins played the previous year in another raging movie of some fame (Citizen Kane, yup), and here they are loaded up against a dozen other great character actors, plus a couple big names. Headlining is the well known Henry Fonda, still young, but fresh off of a couple great films, Grapes of Wrath (1940), and The Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). But in a kind of startling role for those who know Lucille Ball as a brilliant and goofy t.v. comedian a decade later, we have her here as a big-eyed femme fatale, or would-be femme fatale until fate takes a turn.
You might think this one is a screwball comedy the way it starts, but keep watching-- there is violence and trauma soon enough, and the movie takes a turn that Fonda is worthy of. There is a Frank Capra feel-good element amidst the hardship, but it is full of verve, and all these odd characters who really are (were and are) what New York is at its best. The director Irving Reis (with photographer Russell Metty) keeps the scenes snappy, and sometimes moves from a closeup of a face to a background quickly, to let a character make a dramatic point. There are lots of movie tricks, quick fades from scene to scene to show the passing of time, and some tacky back projection, and it really goes along with the fairy tale narrative.
And there really is an unbelievable ending, which you have to take with the whole flavor of the movie, a kind of sincerity/fantasy mixture.
Years before Damon Runyon got Broadway and screen immortality with Guys
and Dolls, one of his short stories was adapted for the silver screen
concerning the unrequited love of a bus boy for a Broadway entertainer.
That story was The Big Street and the title is named for the street
that Runyon chronicled, Broadway.
Though The Big Street got good reviews for its stars Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball, the subject matter was way too much of a downer for mass audience appeal. The plot as it is tells the story of Little Pinks who is madly in love with this nightclub entertainer who being the mistress of gangster Barton MacLane, can't see him for beans and wouldn't look up from the table to try.
That all changes when MacLane slaps her so hard she falls down a flight of stairs and becomes paralyzed. All abandon her then and in truth she didn't exactly near and endear herself to too many. That is except for Fonda and the Broadway characters he lines up to give her a helping hand.
A movie like The Big Street could not be made today because we don't have the rich assortment of character players to entertain us. The people Damon Runyon created were made for such performers as Sam Levene, Ray Collins, Millard Mitchell, etc. And of course the two best performers who steal the film from the leads when they're on are Agnes Moorehead and Eugene Palette. Moorehead didn't do too much comedy and her gift for it would not be tapped again until she was Endora in Bewitched.
Lady for a Day and Guys and Dolls enjoyed much greater success because they were done in a comic vein. My guess is that is what people expect when they see Damon Runyon on a theater program credit.
Still The Big Street is nicely-nicely done as Eugene Palette and Stubby Kaye would say.
The comments about the Fonda character having 'no reason' to take the
abusive and selfishness of the Ball character makes me wonder if this
person ever loved anyone unconditionally. There are many people in this
world that take worse than the verbal abuse from the person they love
and stay with them their whole lives.
The Ball character was very well done and I don't think I remember Ball being a character like that after this movie. I don't like Lucille Ball as a comedienne, its too bad that she wasn't able to continue as a dramatic actress she would have done well.
But the movie is all about love conquering the selfish...wish it was that way all the time.
I have always been thrilled to see Lucille Ball in the old Hollywood movies in which she starred many years before her stardom in the sitcom "I Love Lucy". She held the grace of the top stars at the time and I can certainly understand why Desi Arnaz fell madly in love with her after seeing this film. I sincerely believe that if you have never seen "The Big Street" then you have not seen Lucille Ball at her best. She was an incredibly talented Hollywood movie actress and I only regret that I hadn't discovered that sooner. This movie made me want to collect all of Lucy's old movies because this one was a real surprise for me! I loved Lucy before, but now I respect and appreciate her even more for being a survivor and holding her own among the likes of Grace Kelly and Greta Garbo. Lucy certainly was a bombshell in her day! See this movie and you will understand why. It will win over even the toughest critic.
"The Big Street" was not a major hit when first released but the critics at the time all noted Lucille Ball's superb star-making performance as one of the all-time nastiest women ever to reach the big screen. Lucy was already a minor star thanks to a string of popular B-grade comedies and dramas but this film cemented her stardom and brought her to MGM where she reached an early peak the next year. The film is sentimental and does have some plot points that have to be swallowed but Ball's great acting and chemistry with a splendid Fonda makes this tale of unrequited love work. Fonda plays a kind innocent busboy who falls madly in-love with a crippled chanteuse(Ball). The last scene on the dance floor is unforgettable. Why RKO did not get Lucy an Oscar nomination for this performance is a crime. All the critics at the time hailed her work in this but it just slipped under the rug when the film posted only small profits. This was the kind of role Bette Davis made her own but Ball does it without Davis' habit of falling into mannerisms. Agnes Moorehead is also excellent as Fonda's concerned friend. Beautiful cinematography makes Ball look incredible in her close-ups. Worth a look but overlook the occasional mawkish elements. Lucy makes it a must.
This is a Must See Movie with stellar acting from Ball, Fonda and all others, however; this is one of the most depressing movies that I have ever watched and I will never watch it again. So, if you are on the sensitive side you might want to brace yourself with a box of tissues as Meg Ryan said in You've Got Mail and be prepared to endure a really difficult movie to watch. Do not think that because Lucille Ball stars in this movie that there will be any comedic and/or light moments. This movie is almost dark from beginning to end and Lucille's character is the most extreme opposite of anything that you have ever seen her in. I adore all of Lucille's early comedies and mysteries. She was right to be upset for her snub at the academy as her performance is startling brilliant, so much so as I stated before, to be seen, but for me...nevermore.
Broadway busboy Henry Fonda (as Agustus "Little Pinks" Pinkerton)
idolizes self-centered lounge singer Lucille Ball (as Gloria "Your
Highness" Lyons). When Ms. Ball falls on hard times, Mr. Fonda gets to
lend a helping hand. The pair move to Florida, but tragedy follows
Although "Guys and Dolls" (1955) remains most representative, "The Big
Street" captures the spirit of writer Damon Runyon's characters better
than most Hollywood efforts, probably because Mr. Runyon produced.
They weren't the author's first choice for the leads, but Fonda's innocent charmer and Ball's selfish tragedienne are exemplary characterizations. Ball is especially noteworthy, as she did not receive many opportunities to play against type, and places herself squarely on par with the more successful "Golden Age:" actresses of the 1930s and 1940s; she is startling. Director Irving Reis coordinates his fine cast and crew very well, making camera angles and movement seem uncommonly fresh.
******** The Big Street (8/13/42) Damon Runyon : Irving Reis ~ Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda, Agnes Moorehead, Eugene Palette
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