A couple of Cole Porter standards, the comic genius of Lucille Ball and Red Skelton, Gene Kelly's tiptop tapping, and sumptuous Technicolor join forces for Du Barry Was a Lady, which may not rank as one of MGM's best Golden Age musicals, but delivers solid entertainment nonetheless. A bedazzling transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives and robust audio make this tuneful confection about a lovesick hatcheck boy's fascination with a nightclub singer a visual and aural delight for both musical mavens and classics fans. Recommended.
"If you're ever in a jam, here I am..."
That line instantly evokes the classic Cole Porter standard "Friendship," arguably the most famous tune to emerge from the composer's 1939 Broadway smash Du Barry Was a Lady. Four years later, MGM adapted the show for the screen, but in the process the studio - like it did to so many other hit Broadway musicals of the day - gutted Porter's sparkling score in favor of far more generic songs written by its in-house stable of composers. Blessedly, "Friendship" survived, along with the lilting ballad "Do I Love You?" and spritely "Katie Went to Haiti." (The delightfully arch "Well, Did You Evah?" was axed, but would turn up 13 years later in High Society, sung to perfection by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.) Though the new numbers written for Du Barry Was a Lady are generally cute and clever, they never rival Porter's catchy melodies and witty lyrics.
Despite such brutal cuts, the film version of Du Barry Was a Lady retains the show's charm (if not its risqué humor) and remains an engaging trifle that showcases the burgeoning talents of Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, and Gene Kelly. Forget the silly, wispy plot. Like most MGM musicals, Du Barry Was a Lady is all about the singing, dancing, clowning, color, and glamor that all add up to ethereal, escapist entertainment.
When hatcheck boy Louis Blore (Skelton) wins the Irish sweepstakes, he hopes the massive windfall will finally turn the head of statuesque showgirl May Daly (Ball), the main draw at the posh New York City nightclub where he works. Dancer Alec Howe (Kelly) also has eyes for May, but she rejects his advances despite harboring strong feelings for him. May, who grew up poor, claims the security of money is more important than love and hopes one of the club's millionaire patrons will someday whisk her away.
Louis and Alec continue to vie for May's affection, but when Louis downs a drugged drink meant for Alec, he passes out and dreams he is King Louis XV of France. May is his avaricious concubine Madame Du Barry (whom she portrayed in a nightclub number at the beginning of the movie) and Alec is the dashing outlaw and revolutionary The Black Arrow, who also covets Madame Du Barry despite his outward disdain for her. The madcap mayhem that ensues serves little purpose, but does give Skelton and Ball the chance to strut their considerable comic stuff.
Ball and a group of chorus girls get the film off to a good start performing the new, bouncy title tune, but a tedious nightclub sequence follows in which bits of random comedy are interspersed with lengthy, non-sequitur numbers by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra and the Oxford Boys, a beatboxing trio. It takes about 20 minutes to get the plot rolling and almost an hour transpires before the frenetic French fantasy. Director Roy Del Ruth and the energetic, up-and-coming cast try their best to keep us engaged and largely succeed, but the disjointed nature of Du Barry Was a Lady and its somewhat choppy cinematic presentation keep it from joining the ranks of MGM's finest musicals.
It's a treat to see Skelton and Ball, two of the greatest comedians of all time, frolic together, even if Skelton gets the lion's share of laughs. For Ball, Du Barry was most notable for showing off her new, soon-to-be trademark red tresses, which MGM hair guru Sydney Guilaroff fashioned for her. For those of us who only remember Ball stuffing chocolates in her mouth, stomping grapes, and swilling Vitameatavegamin in her iconic black-and-white sitcom I Love Lucy, her glamorous appearance here in Technicolor is revelatory. She's a bona fide knockout in Du Barry Was a Lady, and though her singing voice is dubbed throughout most of the movie, she thankfully gets to sing for herself in the "Friendship" finale.
Before Du Barry Was a Lady, audiences had seen Kelly in just one other movie, the far more entertaining and substantive For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. Du Barry gives him far less to do and just one dance number choreographed by future director Charles Walters, who ironically played Kelly's part in the original Broadway production. (After Du Barry, Kelly would grab the choreographic reins and devise all his own dances for the next 15 years.) He adequately croons "Do I Love You?" to Ball and as The Black Arrow provides a preview of his flamboyant swashbuckling that would enliven The Three Musketeers and The Pirate a few years later.
Deadpan singer Virginia O'Brien (a favorite of mine who sadly was destined to remain a gimmick throughout her brief career and unable to realize her potential) shines during her solo specialty song "Salome" ("no matter how you slice it, boys, it's still Salome!") and in his film debut Zero Mostel performs a spot-on impression of Charles Boyer. Such established character actors as Rags Ragland, Donald Meek, Douglas Dumbrille, and Louise Beavers provide stellar support, Lana Turner makes her first appearance in Technicolor in a cameo, and eagle eyes will spot future stars Marilyn Maxwell and Dick Haymes and singer Jo Stafford. To top it all off, Auntie Em herself, Clara Blandick, portrays a feisty old lady who offers Skelton and Ball some sage advice in a subway scene. You might not recognize her at first (I didn't), but her distinctive voice instantly gives her away.
In the save-the-best-for-last category, the "Friendship" number caps off the film and helps it end on a high note. Skelton, Ball, Kelly, O'Brien, Ragland, Mostel, and even Tommy Dorsey shuffle and clown to Porter's lively salute to bosom pals, and though the song doesn't quite make up for all of the film's weak spots, it certainly accentuates the positive elements of this lavish comic musical that has MGM written all over it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Du Barry Was a Lady arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Warner Archive's Technicolor restoration team hits another home run with this delectable 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor camera negatives. WAC remains in a class by itself when it comes to remastering Technicolor films, producing vibrant, lush, perfectly timed hues that never look garish or artificial. Both primaries and pastels dazzle the senses. (Who knew there were so many shades of blue, green, and purple?) Ball's auburn hair gleams, her bold red gown makes a statement, and she's a vision in a pale pink ensemble. You want lavender, powder blue, fuchsia, cyan, and periwinkle? They're all here...and they're gloriously rendered. Inky blacks lend the men's dinner jackets a lovely sheen, the crisp whites never bloom, and flesh tones remain remarkably true and stable throughout.
The breathtaking clarity (the image is so sharp, you can even see Kelly's stunt double clearly in a long shot), top-notch contrast, and pristine print that's free of even the tiniest speck shave decades off the film's age. (If only 80-year-old humans could look this good!) Grain is faint, but evident, lending the image an authentic film-like feel that showcases the impeccable cinematography of Karl Freund, who won an Oscar for The Good Earth and would later photograph 152 episodes of I Love Lucy. It's no wonder Ball hand-picked Freund for the DP job on her ground-breaking sitcom; her close-ups here are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
Du Barry Was a Lady may not go down in history as one of the Arthur Freed Unit's best musicals, but this transfer ranks up there with Warner Archive's finest.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies robust sound that features a nice boost in fidelity and tonal depth during the musical numbers. A wide dynamic scale handles the screaming brass and rumbling drum solos of Tommy Dorsey's big band, as well as the lush MGM orchestrations, without a hint of distortion and all the dialogue and song lyrics are easy to comprehend. Kelly's taps are crisp, various sound effects come through cleanly, and any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been erased.
Just a couple of supplements adorn the disc.
Vintage Cartoon: Bah Wilderness (SD, 7 minutes) - Barney Bear goes camping and must deal with annoying woodland creatures, nasty weather, and painful mishaps in this charming Rudolf Ising cartoon.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes Du Barry Was a Lady as the "greatest show since Great Ziegfeld!"
Though its thin, silly plot is barely tolerable, the talent in front of and behind the camera makes Du Barry Was a Lady well worth a spin. Ball, Skelton, Kelly, and the rest of the gang give the material their all, while the lavish production values, lush Technicolor photography, and a trio of Cole Porter tunes excite the eyes and ears. Warner Archive's jaw-dropping transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives and remastered audio turn this second-rate musical into a first-rate Blu-ray experience. Recommended.