Sunday, November 9, 2008

Discovering Virginia O'Brien in 'DuBarry Was A Lady'

(Reposted from 'Brief Window')

As much as I feel slightly ashamed of having lived this long without actress / singer
Virginia O'Brien on my radar, it's a genuine treat to be discovering her now and finding myself a brand-new 'retro crush'.

(Evidently, I'm not the first to have been affected by the late Ms. O'Brien this way.)

Recently I watched the 1943 film 'DuBarry Was a Lady', a very silly and garishly Technicolor musical comedy, very loosely adapted from the successful and ribald stage success - - except with most of the Cole Porter songs removed (along with the bawdiness), and the original cast replaced with stars Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly.

I'd sought it out primarily to see a young Zero Mostel in his first screen role, some twenty-five years prior to 'The Producers', and roughly ten years before he was blacklisted in Hollywood.

Zero's screen time as Gene Kelly's buddy, a crummy nightclub mentalist, is brief but wonderful.

I found that the garish color palette in the movie (Lucille Ball's first appearance as a redhead!) mixed well with the crazy lavish wardrobe, and the general and obvious 'half-assery' on the part of MGM studios' scuttling of the original play inadvertently contributed to it being successful as a a film that's great fun despite its many weaknesses.

I also enjoyed the appearances by Tommy Dorsey and his band (including catching glimpses of trumpeter Ziggy Elman and a very young Buddy Rich on drums), but the real surprise of 'DuBarry' was Virginia O'Brien, whose curious trademark 'deadpan' delivery lights up the screen the few times she appears in the film.

Virginia O'Brien (1919 - 2001) appeared in several MGM musicals made during the 1940's, having come from a stage background.

Her 'frozen face' deadpan schtick (which she didn't always use) reportedly had its origins in the late '30s, when a case of stagefright paralyzed her delivery during a musical number, which unexpectedly delighted the audience.

Her typical formula of impassively 'swinging' the vocals of a song strikes me as sort of a bizarro version of the explosive tendencies singer Betty Hutton used as a gimmick around the same period.

(Perhaps no coincidence that in the 1942 film version of 'Panama Hattie', O'Brien plays the role that Hutton had played two years prior in the Broadway stage production.)

- In the video clip below, ▼ Rags Ragland watches from the sidelines while Virginia O'Brien performs 'Salome' in a sequence from 'DuBarry Was a Lady'.

(NOTE: Beware of pop-ups when playing this video!)

By 1943, when 'DuBarry' was released, O'Brien had recently married stage and screen actor Kirk Alyn, an old friend of her co-star, Red Skelton. By the end of the '40s, Alyn would be the first actor to portray Superman onscreen, the role for which he is best remembered.

- You can read more about the life and career of Virginia O'Brien at Classic Images, and in her listing at The Internet Movie Database.

-YouTube has a few more
Virginia O'Brien video clips
, including her jazzed-up version of 'Rock-A-Bye Baby', from the middle of a long musical sequence in The Marx Brothers' movie 'The Big Store', from 1941.

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