Blog 12: Smart Talking Gals Two
Before Lucy became the daffy redhead of I Love Lucy fame in the ’50s, she was a sharp as a fox smart-talking gal in the late ’30s and ’40s. She had more than a few roles as a no-nonsense, sharp-witted, tart-tongued redhead, but the three that stand out the most for me came in the late 1940s: Easy Living (1949), Two Smart People (1946), and The Dark Corner (1946).
In Easy Living, Lucy’s Anne Lenehan is secretary to a football team owner/manager, played by Lloyd Nolan –– and she has it bad for good-guy-with-problems and star player, Victor Mature. But this gal in no moony pushover. She talks tough and keeps her guard up, deftly deflating Mature’s celebrity by dryly calling him “Miraculous” and warning him when a team mate gets cut, “You ride the gray train, too. Don’t wait until they shove you off.”
Why is she so acerbic? Another player comments sympathetically to Mature, “She was married to a heel” –– whom we later find out ran around on her and was so bad that even his pop, Lloyd Nolan, condemns him as, “No good.”
There’s a neat little scene in Mature’s train compartment that shows Ball at her fast-talking best, just letting her integrity shine through tiny cracks in her cynicism. Mature asks what she’s doing in there, and she quips, “Just for a change of pace, I want to be with someone who doesn’t like me.” When Mature turns that into a crack about her having dated most everyone else on the team, she sets him straight with a little anecdote about her being the subject of a story on “The New York Girl,” that ends with telling her date she had “a lovely evening” and “kissing him good night.” Then she lets him know how she feels, but that she’s no pushover, by kissing him before saying, she’s had a lovely evening and then leaving.
So, what’s really keeping then apart? His wife, whom he loves –– the dope! This time out, it’s the wife who’s greedy, superficial, and a two-timer, selling herself to a wealthy older man to get a boost for her decorating business. Now it’s the other woman who’s the loyal, sharp, wise one –– and Vic’s too much of melon-head to catch on. He almost does, but then decides to literally “slap some sense” into his wife –– leaving us relieved that Lucy’s Anne dodged that bullet, even if not everyone in 1949 figured that one out. You never know, though.
In Two Smart People, Ball plays Ricki Woodner, master con artist, who matches wits right off the bat with another primo scammer, Ace Connor (John Hodiak). Right at the picture’s start, they have a clever little exchange about ortolans (look it up or watch the movie!) and plums, before they each proceed to masterfully undo the other’s plot to take the same pigeon. Ricki follows Ace onto a train he’s taking for a roundabout gourmet lover’s trip back to New York where he’s cut a deal to take the rap for some bonds he stole, without actually having to return the $500,000 they’re worth. Ball’s character starts off with a plan to get even with Connor for scotching her swindle, but the two end up falling in love, without either getting too soft. When Ace cracks that she’s going soft, Ricki knowingly comments, “Pretty sure you can walk away from this? You might change, too.” In the end, Ricki outfoxes Elisha Cooke’s crooked hood, who’s been on their trail and tried to get her to help him cheat Connor. Lloyd Nolan (again!) is along for the ride, literally, as the detective bringing in Connor, but joining him in making the trip back one last fling before the con artist has to take on five years in the pokey, all while trying to dope out where Ace has hidden the bonds. Both guys have way too much class to even think of taking a poke at Ricki –– and if you see her in action, you’ll figure they made a smart choice.
The last movie, The Dark Corner, is probably one of the best parts for Lucille Ball –– and she gets top billing! Once again, Ball is an all-knowing secretary, deftly demonstrating her wit, loyalty, and authority by parrying the intrusive questioning about her P.I. boss from a police detective with, “I don’t know anything you couldn’t find out by asking Mr. Galt.” When the detective pushes his luck, she shuts him down with, “I sharpen pencils, do the typing, answer the phones, and mind my own business.”
Her earlier comment to the policeman about her boss, “I like him,” tips her hand that she might be sweet on him. However, when she tells Galt to put his detecting skills to work and find her a pair of nylons, her flirting is sharp and sexy; she’s nobody’s pushover and he’s got to impress her. Galt takes her out to dinner and then the arcade, and after a successful run in the batting cage, she quips, “What else can I beat you at?” when he tries to put the moves on her, she cracks, “I know when you’re pitching a curve at me.” Galt humorously defends himself with saying that you can’t blame a guy for trying “to score,” and she cracks back, honesty and authority wrapped in wit, “‘I don’t play for a score; I play for keeps,’ said she with a smile.” Kathleen gives him an equally clever check at the end of another date, when she stops him at the door and he “innocently” asks if he can’t even come up “for a drink of water.” Without skipping a beat, she smiles dryly, “Pitching low and outside.” She’s not turning him down out of virginal innocence or prudery; she knows she’s worth more than just a toss in the hay. No one’s going to take advantage of her. Galt’s grin and goodbye show he enjoys and respects her street smarts, humor, and independence.
And Kathleen shows herself a valuable ally in practical ways. She doesn’t lose her nerve following a thug type (William Bendix!), cleaning up a crime scene for a murder’s frame job of Galt, tracking down clues, stalling the cops, and figuring out the real genius behind the murders. So, when Kathleen tells Galt, “C’mon, open up the steel safe. I want to know. I want to help,” he knows she’s going to see him through his troubles with the cops, a former crooked partner who’d sent him inside on a bum rap, and a murder frame. He knows that she has the insight, the smarts, and the guts to be as good as her word. He’s got a primo smart-talking gal in his corner.
Images from The Dark Corner and Easy Living @1949 and 1946, respectively, RKO Picture; images from Two Smart People @ 1946 MGM. Color image of Lucille Ball from Google Public Domain Images of Lucille Ball.