Forgotten Classic: DuBarry was a Lady (1943)

Late one night, about five years ago, I couldn’t fall asleep. My stomach was making me feel nauseous and sleep just wasn’t happening. I walked into the living room where I knew my mom was and complained to her, hoping her magical mom powers would make it all better…and they actually did. She suggested that I lay on the couch and watch a movie until my stomach calmed down. So, at one o’clock in the morning, I bundled myself up and started DuBarry was a Lady, a musical comedy directed by Roy del Ruth (On Moonlight Bay, Broadway Melody of 1938, It Happened on Fifth Avenue) and starring—wait for it—Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, “Rags” Ragland, Zero Mostel, and Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra.


May Daly (Ball) is a nightclub singer who is adored by many a man, including hatcheck boy Louie (Skelton) and a fellow club performer named Alec (Kelly). May reciprocates Alec’s love, but she is determined to marry for money after seeing her parents struggle with finances all their lives. Alec promises May that once his songwriting career takes off, they’ll be set, but May believes she will only be in his way. Louie, meanwhile, is chased by cigarette girl Ginny (O’Brien). One day, Louie wins the Irish Grand Sweepstakes, prompting him to propose to May. She accepts, but makes it clear that she doesn’t love him and she is only doing it because he can provide for her. Annoyed that Alec disagrees with May’s choice to marry him, Louie’s friend Charlie (Ragland) convinces Louie to let him slip Alec a Mickey before the engagement party. Charlie, of course, mixes the drinks up and Louie downs the pill.


While unconscious, Louie dreams he is King Louis XV. He finds that people from his real life have become people from 1743—Charlie is his son, the Dauphin; an ex-suitor of May’s is the scheming Duc de Rigor; May is Madame DuBarry, the King’s mistress; and Alec is the dangerous Black Arrow, who blames DuBarry for the French people’s high taxes since the King keeps buying her expensive presents. Once DuBarry sees the revolutionary in action, though, she falls for him and pleads with Louie to cancel his execution after he’s captured by the Duc. However, before Louie can, he is stopped by the Duc and engages in a swordfight that ends with Louie about to be beheaded. At this point, the actual Louie wakes up and encourages May to be with Alec. The movie ends with the principals joining each other in a rendition of “Friendship,” and all is well.



I adore this film, despite many dismissing it as tired fluff. Early Lucille Ball films are always interesting, and since she’s one of my favorite people ever, it’s a given that I’ll watch anything she is in. This was the film where Ball first became a redhead, and a big point in DuBarry’s favor is that it is photographed in Technicolor by the great Karl Freund, showing Lucy off at her most gorgeous (Technicolor Tessie indeed!). As a fan of I Love Lucy, it’s funny to see her cast as a nightclub singer when you know that one of the show’s running gags is that Lucy definitely cannot carry a note. MGM obviously dubbed Ball, but that is her real voice in “Friendship.” That song is also connected to I Love Lucy; it is performed twice by Lucy and Ethel in the episode “Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress.”


 Virginia O’Brien is a girl after my own heart, I love her. She reminds me of a more calmed down Betty Garrett in this movie—she does the chasing; she can sing; and she has some pretty funny lines. I adore her number "Salome". Supposedly she didn’t hold DuBarry in very high regard, but I think she’s wonderful. Her chemistry with Red Skelton is great, and he always pokes fun at her infamous deadpan delivery: 

Ginny after Louie refuses her offer to drop him off at his home: “…give me my ring back!”
[Red looks down at the ring on his finger.]  Louie: “Okay, you can take me home. But remember: we say goodnight at the door! Does that make you happy?”
Ginny: “Does that make me happy?” [Virginia smiles for two seconds and then reverts to her frown.]
Louie: “Don’t overdo it!”

I must admit, I have a soft spot for Red. He is from my home state, Indiana, and my parents have watched him practically their whole lives, which of course got me started on him. He consistently comes across as so sweet and endearing—Red just doesn’t get enough love in my opinion. There is a great scene where Louie as the King is chasing Madame DuBarry around her bedroom and after a few laps, he quips “This ain’t a love affair, it’s a track meet!” Finally, they become exhausted and to keep Louie’s mind off of a certain quelquechose, she offers him food, leading into the cute “Madame, I Love Your Crepes Suzette.” The number ends with them on DuBarry’s bed, Louie noticing that each time he jumps it brings the Madame closer to him. However, before he can get his hands on her, the Black Arrow shoots an arrow through his hat and causes him to run away.


This was only Gene Kelly’s third film, following For Me and My Gal and Pilot #5 (on a different note, who has ever heard of Pilot #5?). He plays off very well against the other actors, and it is always fun to see him dance. His alter ego of the Black Arrow is a definite foreshadowing of Kelly’s future roles in The Three Musketeers and The Pirate. His best scene comes early in the film when he goes to May’s dressing room to sing the new song he has written for her, the Cole Porter-penned “Do I Love You?” Once he’s done, May lets it slip that she loves him before he has to go onstage for a number, seguing into a completely joyous dance by Alec as he taps his way to the stage to do his routine.

Skelton’s “I Love an Esquire Girl” isn’t exactly essential to the plot, but it is interesting for a couple of different reasons. With Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra as Red’s back-up, in the chorus you can spot Dick Haymes and Jo Stafford. A more notable cameo, though, is when Red sings a line about Lana Turner and the real Ms. Turner pops up oh so nonchalantly. (Gotta love MGM self-promotion.) This number is quite similar in style to the future “The Girl on the Magazine Cover” and “Beautiful Girls” sequences in Easter Parade and Singin’ in the Rain, respectively.


Now, I don’t want to give the impression that everything in this film is fantastic. Although I enjoy Zero Mostel (how great was he in The Producers?), he can be a little too much in DuBarry. Early in, he does a Charles Boyer impression that goes from “wow!” to “please stop” after a minute. There are also a few questions to be had about the plot. For one thing, why hasn’t Alec already been discovered when he works at the same club as Tommy Dorsey and Dorsey plays music that Alec has written? And why in the world does Charlie think slipping Alec a Mickey is a good idea? Is it to keep him from ruining the mood of the engagement party? Or is Louie too afraid that he’ll convince May to dump Louie and marry him instead? Much as I like the 1743 dream, it’s shoehorned in a little clumsily.

DuBarry was originally a 1939 stage musical by Cole Porter, starring Bert Lahr as Louie and Ethel Merman as May, with Betty Grable and Charles Walters in smaller roles. Fun fact: Years later when Walters was directing High Society, he knew he needed a great number for the pair of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, arguably one of the reasons audiences would go to see the flick. Music supervisor Saul Chaplin went through countless songs before he came across the perfect choice, “Well, Did You Ever?” Chaplin looked more closely at the sheet music and found that the number was from DuBarry was a Lady, performed by Grable and Walters himself. Walters served as the film's choreographer.

Anyway, much of the musical’s score and plot were dropped for the film. The Porter tunes “Friendship,” “Katie Went to Haiti,” and “Do I Love You?” were kept, but the rest of the songs are a grab-bag of different lyricists and composers, Roger Edens being the guy who wrote the most. While it is crazy to think of any Porter songs being let go, I do enjoy the songs that replaced them. I feel like I kind of rediscover the score every time I watch this movie.


Other mentionables include the magnificent costumes by Irene and Howard Shoup, and this great quote from an old lady sitting by May and Louie on the subway: “My dear, when I was your age, I could’ve married money. But instead I picked a very poor man whom I loved dearly. John and I have been married for 50 years and day by day, our love has bloomed into the most wonderful hatred. Next time I get hitched, it’s for dough!”

Any hesitations?

With love, 
Michaela

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