Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Fuller Brush Girl (Columbia, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Fuller Brush Girl, a 1950 comic romp for Lucille Ball that Turner Classic Movies had shown earlier yesterday as part of a tribute to Ball on what would have been her 100th birthday. Though Lucille Ball had actually played a wide variety of roles in her film career — including out-and-out bitches in Dance, Girl, Dance and The Big Street and quite capable noir heroines in The Dark Corner, Lured and the 1949 Easy Living — and when she had done comedy it had generally been romantic comedy rather than slapstick, when she signed a three-film contract with Columbia in 1948 Harry Cohn had the idea that she could be a great physical comedienne. The result was two films, Miss Grant Takes Richmond and this one, that are almost beta versions of I Love Lucy — they cast Ball as a ditzy comedienne whose madcap schemes to get ahead get her and her loved one in plenty of trouble, and they’re light-hearted films that make you roar with laughter.

Miss Grant Takes Richmond seems stuck on the cusp between romantic comedy and slapstick — it’s a meeting-of-opposites plot between aspiring secretary Ball and bookie William Holden, and its resolution is that Ball not only lands Holden but persuades him he can make more money as a real-estate developer (the “cover” business for his bookie joint) than he can as a crook. (No comment on the thin, to say the least, distinction between real-estate developers and crooks.) The Fuller Brush Girl is considerably more relentless, and for that I think we have to thank screenwriter Frank Tashlin, who had a quite remarkable career trajectory. As a kid he’d watched the Laurel and Hardy movies almost religiously, and his first important job in movies came as a gag man for the Warner Bros. cartoon series — for which he raided his childhood memories of Laurel and Hardy and the other great live-action comedians he’d seen. When he started working on live-action films himself he brought along the sensibility he’d honed in cartoons and delighted in creating “cartoony” gags that were relatively easy to do with pen and paper but in live-action required some elaborate special-effects work.

He made his reputation on the Marx Brothers’ film A Night in Casablanca, for which he wrote the opening sequence that’s still the biggest thing anyone remembers about that movie: a cop spots Harpo Marx leaning against a building and asks him, voice dripping with sarcasm, “What are you doing — holding up the building?” The cop drags Harpo away from the building — and it falls; he really was holding it up! I suspect Tashlin was responsible for the more spectacular slapstick gags in Miss Grant Takes Richmond — particularly Ball’s great battle with a power shovel — and here, instead of sharing the writing credits with brothers Everett and Devery Freeman and Nat Perrin (also an ex-Marx Brothers writer), Tashlin got to do the screenplay all by himself. His sensibility is apparent just from the opening credits, which are superimposed on the image of a door-to-door saleslady getting various adverse reactions that are reflected in the way the names appear: when someone slams the door on her heel, knocking it off, the next credit is wavy and unbalanced; when someone else pulls the “Welcome” mat out from under her and she pratfalls, the next credit is shaky; when a kid dumps a pail of water on her, the next credit wipes in as if it’s being swept in with the tide.

Tashlin’s fingerprints are all over this film — the director is hacky Lloyd Bacon again, so this is really a Schreiber movie — notably in a great gag sequence in which Lucy and the bad guys are having a fight scene on a rooftop of an apartment building. The gag is that the rooftop is filled with TV aerials, and as the fight participants bang into them the TV images get mashed up and programs cut from one channel to another — a model whose looks are being described by the announcer in glowing turns suddenly metamorphoses into a gorilla from a nature documentary, and just when the announcer is talking about what great legs she has the picture splits, so she’s a human female above the waist but the legs are those of the gorilla. The Fuller Brush Girl has a plot, of sorts: Lucy plays Sally Elliot, who works as a receptionist for the Maritime Steamship Company (as opposed to all those land-based steamships we’ve been seeing lately; one wonders if Tashlin intended the redundancy of the firm’s name as another deliberate gag). Her fiancé Humphrey Briggs (Eddie Albert) works there too, as a file clerk, and they have $500 saved up for the down payment on the last available home in a new suburban development but in this pre-securitization, pre-“liar’s loans” age they’re sincerely worried about whether they can cover the monthly payments.

Sally tells Humphrey to walk into the office of the company’s owner, Harvey Simpson (Jerome Cowan), and demand that he be hired to replace the head of shipping whom Harvey has just fired. Humphrey is scared shitless about asking for the job, but it turns out Simpson gives it to him anyway — it seems Simpson has an illegal shipment of something-or-other coming in the next night and he wants a shipping chief who’s too dumb to suspect something is going wrong (a recycling of a plot device from Miss Grant Takes Richmond, in which Ball’s character got the job as Holden’s secretary because he was sure she’d be too dumb to realize his realty office was just a front for a bookie joint) — only Sally gets herself fired when she receives a visit from her friend Jane Bixby (Jeff Donnell — we’ve seen the Girl Named Jeff before in at least one other Columbia movie from the period), who’s working as a Fuller brush girl. It seems that the Fuller brush girls sell, not brushes, but cosmetics, and when Sally tries out some of them she gets powder all over herself — and all over Mr. Simpson as well — provoking an allergic reaction and also reducing the level of visibility in the office so much that she inadvertently plugs a lipstick container into the switchboard, setting it on fire (it creates some quite lovely fireworks as it consumes itself).

Simpson’s wife Claire (Lee Patrick — given the arm’s-length relationship of her and Jerome Cowan’s characters in The Maltese Falcon it’s odd indeed that they’re cast here as a married couple!) gets suspicious when she smells Sally’s powder on her husband’s coat and decides the reason he’s hustling her out of town on a vacation is so he can see another woman. She’s both right and wrong — he is involved with another woman, stripper Ruby Rawlings (Gale Robbins), who does a routine to the song “Put the Blame on Mame” from the Rita Hayworth vehicle Gilda (and actually uses the same pre-recording of the song by jazz singer Anita Ellis that Hayworth mimed to in Gilda), but the reason he wanted his wife out of town just then was so she wouldn’t get in the way when his illegal shipment came in. Sally and Humphrey get further involved in the skullduggery when she goes to the Simpsons’ home and finds Mrs. Simpson dead — she gets cold-cocked with a gun by Ruby, who’s passed herself off as Mrs. Simpson, which fools Our Heroine for a reel or so until Humphrey shows her a photo of the real Mrs. Simpson — and later Simpson himself is murdered in his office by the crooks who were supposed to get the illegal shipment, which turns out to be a bomb concealed in a wine barrel.

The film ends aboard ship, with Sally and Humphrey trying to hold the crooks at bay until the harbor police can come and arrest them — only in yet another cartoony gag Tashlin worked up for his finish, the bomb goes off, the ship explodes and the only part that’s left standing is a teeny piece of the deck that has transformed into a makeshift raft on which Sally and Humphrey are standing, locked in a romantic embrace and oblivious to the fact that the rest of the ship they were on has disintegrated. The Fuller Brush Girl has its flaws — Eddie Albert is personable and right for the milquetoast character he’s playing, and he and Lucy work together well enough but one misses the almost subliminal rapport Lucy had with Desi Arnaz and one can’t help but wish Desi could have starred in this film with her (the reason Lucy’s later TV shows weren’t as good as I Love Lucy is not only that they lacked Desi’s behind-the-scenes production skills but they lacked his on-screen talents as a straight man — like Laurel and Hardy, or that other real-life TV couple Burns and Allen, Lucy and Desi weren’t just comic and straight person but could play off each other and each get laughs) — but it’s still a screamingly funny movie and anyone who likes Lucy’s TV character will find it hilarious.