Too Smart Lucy

Once upon a time (1946), there was a movie (Two Smart People).  It was a modest, unassuming thing.  It was made on the cheap, and had no major stars (Lucille Ball and John Hodiak, supported by Elisha Cook Jr. and Lloyd Nolan).  It was greeted by dismissive critical drubbing (The New York Times called it a “dreadfully boring hodgepodge about love and the confidence racket” that “suffers from lack of competent direction.”  Ouch).  It dutifully sank into the purgatory reserved for forgotten cinema.  Subsequent surveys of film noir usually overlooked it, and even biographies of Lucy Ball felt no urge to linger over it.

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And then, many decades later, the Warner Archive Collection hit upon a movie distribution business model that encouraged the commercial release of absolutely everything without regard to any expected sales figures.  And so in 2013 it’s easy to sit down with a lovely DVD of Two Smart People and assess it with clear unjaundiced eyes—whereupon you will discover that OMG this thing rocks.  Why, yes, yes it does.

I’ve written before about the curious phenomenon of stars like Lucy, or Jack Benny or Raymond Burr, whose TV careers were so towering they completely overshadowed the actors’ earlier cinema work.  In Lucy’s case, she had some reason to dismiss her pre-Lucy days: they were very frustrating for her.  Anytime we find an early Lucille Ball film that demonstrates what a talented actress she was, that only stings more—no matter how good she was in movies like this, she couldn’t break out to being a big star.

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Ball had been typecast early on as the low-calorie Ginger Rogers substitute, and in that slot she was permanently mired in B-movie land.  Producers, critics, and audiences alike all assumed her presence in a movie signaled a lack of ambition.  Take Two Smart People as an example: as I quoted above, the NY Times sniffed that it “suffered from lack of competent direction.”  Well, it was directed by Jules Dassin and photographed by Karl Freund, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it is one of the best directed films of 1946.  It’s got a couple of flaws, sure, but the direction isn’t one of them.

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Let’s imagine an alternate universe where the film was cast with marquee names—instead of John Hodiak let’s say Clark Gable and Ginger Rogers.  There’s no way a film starring the two of them would be so forgotten, regardless of its direction.  Even a lackluster programmer with two stars of that magnitude would manage to linger in the film historical consciousness to some degree, and probably rotate through the TCM schedule from time to time.

Replacing John Hodiak with Clark Gable could be an upgrade—there are no flies on Hodiak, and he’s certainly doing everything the script asks of him, but that’s it.  He does what the script asks, and no more.  What made the top stars the top stars was the extra oomph they brought—the way they imbued each performance with some extra element of charisma.

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And this is what makes Lucille Ball such a revelation here—she is bringing so many additional inflections and undertones into her role beyond what the script needs on a literal level.  Replacing her with Ginger Rogers would not have been an upgrade—Ginger might certainly have brought some special magic of her own, but we’d have lost Lucy’s magic in the bargain.

To appreciate what Lucy is doing with this role, let me step back and lay out the premise: Lucille Ball and John Hodiak play professional con-artists who unwittingly try to swindle each other in the opening sequence.  It’s vaguely reminiscent of the opening scene of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, where two crooks fall in love trying to rob each other.  Ball and Hodiak are instantly smitten with the cleverness, quick-witted improvisation, and utter amorality of the other.  As Lucy says, “We’ll always have larceny.”

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The one thing standing in the way of this legendary love affair is that Hodiak is a wanted man.  He stole a fortune in bonds, and has been pursued cross-country by a dogged lawman (Lloyd Nolan).  Nolan finally catches up with him—only to have Hodiak reveal that he’s struck a plea bargain with the prosecutors and is on his way to deliver himself into their custody to begin a five year prison term.  There’s no point chasing him any more, he’s done gone caught himself.

(It’s crucial to note here that the terms of Hodiak’s deal is that he’s surrendered himself and pled guilty, not that he’s returned the money.  The money remains at large—and Hodiak is banking on the idea that if he can keep it hidden he can serve his five year sentence and then be released, a free man, to enjoy his wealth without fear of further prosecution).

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But just because he has a date with the NY prosecutor doesn’t mean he can’t have fun along the way.  Hodiak plans to take the longest possible route to New York, to see the sights and soak up his last few days of freedom.  Sort of a Bachelor’s Party for a man who isn’t getting married but is literally donning a ball and chain.

And here’s where Two Smart People throws its first unexpected curveball: Hodiak invites the cop to join him, as his friend, and offers to pay his way.   Hodiak has developed a respect for and friendship with Nolan during their long chase, and genuinely wants his companionship on his final journey.   Well, either that or it’s one of those “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” kind of strategies.

And Nolan accepts, because he’s come to admire Hodiak and enjoy his company too.  That, or Nolan is still hoping to figure out where the bonds are hidden.

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And this is the key to how the movie functions, and why it’s film noir.  There is a surface of emotional connections, honesty, and integrity that hold these characters together—but it is layered over an understructure of deceit and self-interest.  The events leading up to the finale make the same amount of sense if we assume that these two are actually friends as if we assume each one is playing the other.  In fact, the movie makes the most sense if we accept that both are true.  The question as we head into the finale is, which set of motivations is the stronger?  When push comes to shove, which will win out—the friendship or the game?  And will both men choose the same way?

It’s time to bring Lucille Ball back into this, because the same dynamic is at work with her.  She is also after the bonds, and getting close to Hodiak is the best way to figure out where they are hidden.  She is a professional crook, whose livelihood depends on being a convincing liar.  So her love affair with Hodiak is also inflected with that is it?/isn’t it? ambiguity.

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For the storytelling to work, she needs to be minimally convincing as a love interest, and with just a hint of icy femme fatale distance, to keep that ambiguity present in the audience’s mind.  Except, of course, while that would almost certainly be the way anyone else would paly the role, it’s not entirely realistic—because every hint of deception that would appear in the performance would presumably be a red flag to Hodiak.

So Ball plays it for real: in her scenes with Hodiak she is fully committed to being moon-eyed in love.  But in scenes with other characters, she switches modes to be what they expect her to be.  She just keeps changing the tone of her performance based on the co-stars of any given scene—which is exactly how a person like her character would have to be.  She shows a different mask in every scene, and there’s no way to know (until the end) which one is her real face.

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This is much more interesting—instead of a love interest who isn’t entirely convincing and may be a threat, we have a person who is at once completely convincing as a love interest and as a threat, but at different times.

There are numerous moments where Ball invokes some of the tics and mannerisms  that would come to be familiar stock-in-trade material from I Love Lucy, but used here in a dramatic context.  Those comedy moments are so humanizing, so endearing—and it just upstages her more robotic costar John Hodiak all the more.

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For most of its running time, the film is a road movie of sorts—the three main characters make their serpentine journey towards New York (by way of Mexico, and New Orleans, because, you know, why go in a straight line when prison’s at the other end?).  This enables the film to have a slightly more epic feel, as it reinvents itself repeatedly every time the setting changes.

They arrive in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, partly because every day is Mardi Gras in movieland’s view of New Orleans, and partly because Jules Dassin and Karl Freund have an absolute field day turning the opulent excess of Mardi Gras into a nightmare landscape for the finale to play out.  The celebrations turn from merely weird to chillingly alien, as the situation is forced into a resolution.

There is no good reason for a film this lively and inventive to stay forgotten.  That it was overlooked in 1946 was a mistake—but it’s in our power to correct that mistake.

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9 Responses Too Smart Lucy
Posted By Jeffrey Ford : November 9, 2013 4:43 pm

All right, you convinced me. I’ll have to see this when I get the chance. Thanks for the re-discovery!

Posted By terje rypdal : November 9, 2013 6:48 pm

Me, too … If it’s half as good as “The Dark Corner” with Ball from the same year, I’ll certainly be quite impressed … That’s an excellent noir, I think — & she’s really superb in it … You can really “see between the lines” of her performance that you’re encountering someone with vast reservoirs of talent …

Posted By LD : November 9, 2013 9:18 pm

Having just finished Halloween and the classic monster movies, my list of yet to see noirs just gets longer with RUTHLESS and now TWO SMART PEOPLE. Thank you for bringing this movie to my attention. I grew up with “I Love Lucy” and it is always a revelation to see Lucille Ball in anything else.

Posted By Tom S : November 10, 2013 3:10 am

Wow, this sounds like a delight. I never cared for I Love Lucy- I think it’s got that issue of having been imitated so often that the original looks like a retread- but I’ve seen Ball in a couple of earlier roles, including Stage Door where she’s playing against the actual Ginger Rogers, and she’s a delight. I wonder if this connection with Freund had anything to do with him shooting I Love Lucy?

Posted By Susan Doll : November 10, 2013 3:48 am

This sounds great. Lucy and Karl Freund — I’m in. Good note by Tom S. regarding Freund as the cameraman for I LOVE LUCY. I had always heard it was Desi who was responsible for Freund, but this certainly raises an interesting question.

Posted By vp19 : November 10, 2013 7:52 pm

Ball had been typecast early on as the low-calorie Ginger Rogers substitute, and in that slot she was permanently mired in B-movie land. Producers, critics, and audiences alike all assumed her presence in a movie signaled a lack of ambition.

The term “B-movie” implies “second feature,” and in the mid-’40s, the only thing Lucille Ball and Lynn Bari had in common were initials. Ball was a second-tier star, not one in second features, which is a big difference. She wouldn’t headline a top-tier film, and only occasionally was its leading lady, but the Lucy of the ’40s regularly starred in top-of-the-bill programmers at MGM and elsewhere — they simply weren’t the studios’ premier productions that year. Why couldn’t she crack that cinematic glass ceiling? Your guess is as good as mine.

Posted By Doug : November 10, 2013 10:38 pm

vp19 asked:
“Why couldn’t she crack that cinematic glass ceiling?”
My guess, my opinion, which I doubt is shared by many:
Lucy always seemed kind of cold to me, calculating, thinking
through her roles rather than radiating feelings.
There’s the difference between Lucy and Ginger-
Ginger seemed to radiate warmth, emotion. She was more endearing, less remote, however you want to say it.
I liked Lucy, but I never loved Lucy.

Posted By robbushblog : November 12, 2013 8:26 pm

Here’s another that I wish I could see without dishing out $15-$20 to order it from the Warner Archives. Dagnabbit.

Posted By Paula : November 13, 2013 5:52 pm

I’ll be adding this to my list of “must see.” It doesn’t bother me that the critics panned it; they had so many wonderful movies back then to choose from, this one probably just slipped through the cracks. Besides, I don’t always like critic’s choices now.

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