Thursday, May 10, 2012

B4 They Were Stars - Lucille Ball

It has been two years since I first posted about Bit Actors. What have we learned? I know that I have a long way to go before I use up subjects for my posts. There are a lot of great Bit Actors out there, and new ones come along all the time. Also, many big stars began in Bit Parts, so they can be included in my blog.

Take, for example, Lucille Ball (1911 - 1989). She was one of the most talented and influential people in television. But she was once known as the Queen of the B Movie. She had a very small part in Stage Door (1937), a great movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, but that movie was well into her acting career.

Lucy started out as a Ziegfeld Girl on the stage and then progressed to being one of the Goldwyn Girls in film. You can usually find her in the chorus or as an extra in her first coupla dozen films. She was a fashion model in Roberta (1935) and a flower clerk in Top Hat (1935), both with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. By 1936 she had a character name in the Fred and Ginger movie Follow the Fleet. Long after Stage Door, she would have Ginger Rogers to tea on "The Lucy Show" in an episode appropriately called "Ginger Rogers Comes to Tea" (1971).

Her very first big screen appearance was as an extra in The Bowery (1933) starring Wallace Beery, George Raft, Jackie Cooper and Fay Wray. Lucy, more recently known for her red hair, played 'The Blonde.'

It is interesting to note how things were done in the early 1930s, with contract players working for the major studios. You will see Lucille Ball working with the same bigger names over and over. She made several movies with Constance Bennett, Eddie Cantor, and Fay Wray, etc.

I doubt that it was her big break, but in 1934 we see Lucy in Three Little Pigskins with The Three Stooges. During the 1930s she also made quite a few two-reelers with Edgar Kennedy, Leon Errol, Billy Gilbert, Betty Grable, and others. It was a great introduction to comedy.

In 1935 she appeared in Henry Fonda's third film, I Dream Too Much, starring Fonda and Lily Pons, and featuring another wonderful Bit Actor Eric Blore. By 1936 Lucy is starting to receive major roles in some two-reelers, such as One Live Ghost and So and Sew.

In her only movie with The Marx Brothers, Lucy can be found in Room Service (1938). By that time, Lucy is starring in movies, but they are B movies. B movies were shown as an extra attraction along with a bigger budget feature film, plus a cartoon or two, and maybe a two-reeler or a newsreel. The feature always came last. Generally speaking, feature films were about 90 minutes, B movies were 60 minutes, and two-reelers were 20 minutes.

Some of her films during this time were Panama Lady (1939) with Allan Lane. Five Came Back (1939) starring Chester Morris and Wendy Barrie.  Barrie's godfather was Sir J.M. Barrie who wrote Peter Pan that included a character named Wendy. Wendy Barrie went on to become engaged to Bugsy Siegel which created problems for her career.

More Lucy films - Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) with Maureen O'Hara. Look Who's Laughing (1941) with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The Big Street (1942) with Henry Fonda. Du Barry was a Lady (1943) with Red Skelton and Gene Kelly.

There was even some film-noir mixed in. Look for Lucy in The Dark Corner (1946) with Clifton Webb, and Lured (1947) with George Sanders and Boris Karloff.

She did make some features, such as Without Love (1945) starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and Sorrowful Jones (1949) and Fancy Pants (1950) both with Bob Hope.

All of this was before "I Love Lucy" which would rocket her to full stardom. starting around 1950, she would create and co-own the new Desilu Studio with her husband Desi Arnaz. She was instrumental in creating many of the television innovations needed to efficiently produce a series filmed in front of a live audience. And she always remained loyal to her friends in show business. But that's were my post must end.

We all love Lucy, but try to catch her B4 she became a star, as a great Bit Actress.


  1. Hard to believe that Lucy languished in small roles for so many years.

  2. Yes, Kim, I had the same thought. But she made up for it on TV with 19 awards including five Emmys. Not a single nomination came before 1952.

  3. This is so interesting, I feel like a terrible Lucille Ball fan when I had no idea this was her history before her becoming big name. I'd like to think all actors have a humble and diverse history like this.

    1. I think a great many actors had a slow start to their career. Lucy was able to work out her character, like so many other actors did, and create something really memorable.

      Even John Wayne went uncredited in his first 18 or 20 roles. I just saw Wayne in a 1933 Barbara Stanwyck film called Baby Face, but he was no where near top billing.


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