Best Foot Forward (1943)
There's no reason on earth why I should like this picture. It has so many elements I normally can't stand: overlong Big Band numbers; skinny white girls singing the blues; boy-crazy "homely" girls; girl-crazy teenage mashers; and June Allyson. But I have always liked Best Foot Forward, the war-time movie musical adapted from the Broadway play of the same name. It's not a good picture, nor is it particularly original, but it has two of my favorite features: Virginia Weidler and sarcasm.
In the film, Lucille Ball plays movie star, Lucille Ball, a B-movie actress who needs a publicity gimmick to jumpstart her flagging career. This was a terrific conceit for Miss Ball, who was a B+-movie actress in real life who couldn't quite reach A-level stardom. She and her manager, Jack O'Riley (William Gaxton), are on their way to Winsocki Military Academy where the actress has been invited by graduating cadet, Bud Hooper (Tommy Dix), to be his prom date. O'Riley sees this as a great publicity stunt: movie star makes fan and future soldier's dream come true, so he convinces Lucy to traipse across the country and go to the damn dance.
But when Bud wrote the fan letter inviting Miss Ball, he never really expected her to show up and had naturally invited his girl, Helen Schlesinger (my best friend, Ginny), to go for real. More importantly (sort of) he had submitted Helen's name to the prom committee for whatever background checks and moral probing needed to be done in those days, and hers is the official name on the official list to be his companion. Once he realizes that Miss Ball is actually coming, he tells Helen he has the grippe and has to cancel. THAT problem solved. But how's he ever going to get away with bringing an unvetted movie star using Helen Schlesinger's name?!
Miss Ball and Mr. O'Riley arrive at the train station expecting to be mobbed by fans, but are instead met with metaphorical tumbleweeds. At their hotel, however, they are told that a reporter from The Bugle wants an interview and O'Riley, thinking Philadelphia (daily) Bugle, is delighted. When Lucy meets Chester, the reporter and budding screenwriter of the Winsocki (weekly) Bugle, it's clear that this trip is not shaping up to be the publicity bonanza it promised to be.
Meanwhile, all the girls arrive on buses for the big dance and everybody sings about it. Among these girls are June Allyson (meh) and the sweet Gloria DeHaven, the dates of Bud's two best friends, quite hunky Hunk and future date-rapist, Dutch. These two have decided to "help" Bud with his predicament by keeping Lucille Ball busy when she arrives and out of the sight of the chaperones (and the stag line). More singing. Also, a twenty-one-year-old Nancy Walker shows up to reprise her Broadway role as the hilariously brash and not particularly pretty blind date of one of the cadets.
Bud and his two creepy friends go to Lucy's hotel and lay out the scheme. She is to be Helen Schlesinger for the evening. Why not, she decides, let's just get this over with. While the boys are thus engaged, who should show up at the Academy, but Helen, thinking she will keep Bud company while all his friends are at the dance.
Hilarity ensues. And singing. Oh, and Harry James is there with his orchestra, so there's that.
Obviously, everyone recognizes Lucille freaking Ball, and the boys are no longer able to keep her presence a secret. The two creeps have basically abandoned their own dates to do this, so they're furious. Helen is furious because Bud lied to her. Lucille Ball is furious because that awful Dutch keeps pawing her and these idiot boys keep making her dance outside and in bushes and stuff. Nancy Walker just wants some boy to dance with her. All this pent up frustration reaches its peak at the end of the dance, when all the couples perform this terrifying ritual of waltzing through floral arches and exchanging rings. As Bud begins to guide Miss Ball through the arch, Helen can't take it anymore and calls Lucy a man stealer or something, and rips off her sash corsage. All hell breaks loose, and the girls (for some reason*) start grabbing pieces of Lucy's dress as a souvenir, and she is left on the dance floor in her attractive one-piece step-in.
Scandal! Outrage! Singing.
Bud is threatened with expulsion (there goes his dream of West Point), Lucy would really just like to go home, but O'Riley, at least, has got his front page Philadelphia Bugle story. But Lucy feels bad for Bud, whom she likes a great deal in spite of it all, and helps makes things right with the administration. Bud graduates, Winsocki buckles down, Helen has forgiven him, and he gets to go to war, I suppose.
I've never taken to Miss Ball on the big screen (apart from Stage Door, that is, but hers was a small, perfect role): as a film star, she's a great radio actor. In this picture, however, she gets to be funny and arch and the scenes with her and Virginia Weidler -- also funny and arch and adorable -- are worth all the times you have to see June Allyson. What can I say? It just makes me happy to see these two at work. Best Foot Forward was Ginny's last picture, a sad fact for a gifted comedic actress who came of age in an era unappreciative of her talents.
Lucy did all right for herself, though.
* I know the reason: it would be spectacularly unsettling if the boys started ripping off Lucille Ball's clothes
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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