Synopsis: Hopelessly romantic busboy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton (Henry Fonda) is head-over-heels for Gloria Lyons (Lucille Ball), a gruff-and-glamorous NYC nightclub singer with big dreams and an even bigger ego. Despite how well-connected Gloria believes herself to be, when her jealous boyfriend Case Ables (Barton MacLane) pushes her down a flight of stairs, Little Pinks is the only one who comes to her rescue. Gloria’s fall leaves her partially paralyzed, and Pinks allows her to believe that her recovery is being funded by millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr) when in actuality the bill is being paid out of Pinks’ own shallow pocket. When there’s no money left to give and no hope left for Gloria to regain the use of her legs, Pinks moves Gloria into his meager basement apartment, despite her ungrateful protestations. Upon hearing that Pinks’ neighbor Violette (Agnes Moorehead) and her beau, competitive eater Nicely Nicely (Eugene Pallette), are moving away from the frigid winters of New York to the sunny coast of Florida, Gloria begs Pinks to take her there, despite their lack of money. Seeing no other alternative and desperate for Gloria’s approval, Pinks pushes Gloria in her wheelchair through the Holland Tunnel, and the unlikely pair alternately walks and hitchhikes their way down to Miami. Upon hearing that Decatur Reed is in town, Gloria is desperate to catch up with her old flame, but terrified that he will find out about her condition. How far is Little Pinks willing to go for the woman he loves – and who hates his guts?
Yes, I know, I’m late to the party as usual, but let’s skip the excuses and get straight to the point, also as usual. Directed by Irving Reis for RKO Pictures in 1942, The Big Street was scripted by Leonard Spigelgass from a short story by Damon Runyon. Despite some tension on the set – husband Desi Arnaz was concerned about Lucy starting up again with ex-boyfriend Henry Fonda, so he spent a lot of time prowling around during filming – Lucy would later name The Big Street as her favorite of her film performances. Given this fact and given what a unique – and good! – movie it is, I’m consistently surprised that The Big Street isn’t more well known or remembered. It’s definitely my favorite of Lucy’s films, as well, which is why I jumped at the chance to review it for this blogathon celebrating the Queen of Comedy’s 100th birthday.
What I like best about Lucy’s performance in The Big Street is that it’s not a comedy, and even though her character can be quite abrasively funny, Gloria Lyons is certainly no Lucy Ricardo. She treats Fonda’s character worse than something she just found on the bottom of her shoe, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him take it. It’s not because Little Pinks enjoys the abuse; that’s not their dynamic. Rather, Pinks earnestly believes that, if he continues to worship at Gloria’s feet and move mountains to cater to her every whim, eventually she’ll notice and fall in love with him. But pride and an unwavering sense of superiority over the likes of a lowly busboy such as Pinks prevent Gloria from ever treating him as anything more than a servant.
(Why yes, that is Louise Beavers in an uncredited [though somewhat major] role. Good eye!)
While there are plenty of other capable actresses who could’ve taken this part, there’s something extraordinary about watching Lucy do it. Of course if we grew up watching “I Love Lucy” we have certain expectations about how Lucy behaves and what she is and isn’t capable of; to many of us, Lucille Ball is Lucy Ricardo. Watching her play such an extraordinarily selfish, loathsome, deluded, mean-spirited character is really an eye-opener, and a testament to her skills as an actress. Even though Gloria Lyons is abhorrent, Lucy as Gloria Lyons is positively captivating. It’s a movie I believe every Lucy fan should see, and should want to see. Because, even though Gloria is a terrible person, Lucy still manages to play up her few sympathetic and pitiable traits and make her into an engrossing character. You don’t necessarily root for Gloria to succeed, but you do want to keep watching her, and despite every horrible thing she says and does to Little Pinks, you still root for them to end up together in the end.
While this blogathon is of course about Lucy and her wonderfulness, believe it or not, The Big Street has more going for it than just Ms. Ball. First of all, if you couldn’t tell from the synopsis, the plot is off the wall. Whenever I try to describe this movie to friends their initial reaction is, “That can’t be real, you just made that up.” I promise, a movie about Henry Fonda pushing Lucille Ball in a wheelchair from New York to Florida really happened! And that’s not even the best/weirdest part. The comic relief in this film (because it can be quite hard to stomach all the abuse Gloria hurls at Pinks) comes from Agnes Moorehead and Eugene Pallette, an unlikely couple who fall in love over their mutual skill at competitive eating. Really! Moorehead is, as we all should be aware by now, spectacular in everything she does, but it’s Pallette who really steals the show. He’s just an adorable, wonderful guy who gives you the warm fuzzies every time he’s on screen. They’re a sweet-if-unexpected pairing, and their subplot is really darling and fun to watch.
In summation, The Big Street is one of my absolute favorite films, one of those undiscovered (or underdiscovered) gems that is just so quirky and unusual that you can’t help but fall in love. It’s also one of those rare instances where both the plot and the characters drive the picture equally (though I can’t say anything for it being a believable story). It’s strange, sure, but not in a way that renders it incomprehensible, and no element is present without a reason. It’s not zany for the sake of being zany; it’s an excellent dramatic film that just happens to have a highly-surreal plot. Those are the kinds of films that I love the most: ones that tell a familiar story in a wholly unique and original way. The Big Street‘s got everything: glamor, crime, comedy, pathos, competitive eating – what more could you ask for in a film? See it for Lucy; see it for Eugene Pallette or Agnes Moorehead; whatever you do, just see it! I promise you won’t be sorry.
The Big Street (1942) – 4.5/5 stars