Before becoming TV’s devilish madcap, Lucille Ball was an auburn-haired glamor girl, dubbed Technicolor Tessie; more famous for her gams, gloss and sex appeal in A-list musicals and B-budgeted noir thrillers than for her comedic timing. This would be later mined for its untapped richness on everybody’s favorite sitcom, I Love Lucy (1951-57). That this sultry/savvy screen persona was lost in translation from movie to television screen is indeed a shame, since Ball could dish the dirt with the best of them, and often portrayed a hard-knock, clear-eyed sex bomb better than most. In the shadow of I Love Lucy, it occasionally takes a moment or two to warm to the ‘other’ Lucille Ball; the evolution made more palpable in Edward Buzell’s Best Foot Forward (1943); a rambunctious college musical, casting Lucy as herself – or rather, a variation on the public image as concocted by MGM. In hindsight, Best Foot Forward is Ball in transition; given the full glamor treatment, immaculately quaffed and sheathed in some of Irene Sharaff’s most elegant gowns. Lucy’s yen for razor-sharp comedy shines through however. But it’s her impeccable timing that caps off some fairly bitter barbs, elevated each to good clean humor, even if the sentiment behind them could incinerate. Yet, Lucy isn’t the star of our show.
That honor belongs to Tommy Dix, the unlikely pint-sized baritone powerhouse, imported for the film by producer, Arthur Freed (along with a sizable chunk of the Broadway cast). Extraordinarily gifted, Dix’s reputation, unjustly, has been allowed to fade into obscurity for far too long. At the age of twelve, he already possessed the singing pipes of a full grown man thrice his age. He became a regular on a religious radio program eventually built around his formidable talent that aired in New York throughout the 1930s. As luck would have it, the network was owned by Loew’s, the parent company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Dix, who had begun his career as Bobby Brittain, scored a minor coup in Broadway’s The Corn is Green (1940), while quietly trying out for George Abbott’s new musical, Best Foot Forward (1941); a light-hearted, revue-styled show about a Pennsylvania boy’s prep school. Broadway folklore has it the show was shaping up to be a dud until the curtain rose on the second act and Dix opened his mouth to belt out the school’s fight song, ‘Buckle Down Winsocki’. In good ole fashion terms, he stopped the show.
As the Broadway run neared its end, Arthur Freed, who generally made two trips to New York per annum scouting new properties, caught a matinee performance. He was immediately enchanted. At $150,000, Freed outbid Columbia Studio president, Harry Cohn for the rights to produce it. For that money, he also acquired the services of songwriters, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, actors Gil Stratton (who had actually played the male lead on Broadway), June Allyson, Nancy Walker, Kenny Bowers, Tommy Dix and, an as yet unknown quantity; contract dancer, Stanley Donen who, by the late 1940s would prove his worth as Gene Kelly’s mainstay choreographer/collaborator, and eventually, would go on to become one of the industry’s most respected directors. Donen is barely glimpsed in several of Best Foot Forward’s lavishly appointed production numbers, hoisting June Allyson up by the ankles for ‘Wish I May, Wish I Might’ and accompanying Allyson again in the spritely and athletic Barrel Hop segment from ‘The Three B’s’. Freed padded out the cast with some homegrown talent: Virginia Weidler – all grown up, as the long-suffering, gawky love interest, Helen Schlesinger; Chill Wills, as the thoroughly obtuse photog, Chester Short; William Gaxton, Ball’s misguided press agent, Jack O’Riley, and finally, Harry James and His Music Makers to jazz up the Martin/Blane megahits.
Best Foot Forward continues to resonate with fresh-faced innocence, meticulously mapped out by Arthur Freed, employing his usual gift for assembling top tier talent behind the scenes. The show is given all the gloss and gigantism Metro usually afforded its musicals, tricked out in sumptuous 3-strip Technicolor, slickly rewritten by scenarists, Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe to iron out some of the stage’s minor narrative kinks. The boy’s prep school – Winsocki - was remade as a military academy preparing young men for West Point; timely fluff, considering there was a war on. From the outset, Freed’s faith in the project was unabated, enough to convince L.B. Mayer to green-light Best Foot Forward in color (always expensive). To illustrate this point, of the 289 features produced in Hollywood in 1943, only ten were photographed in Technicolor, four for MGM alone. As it turned out, Freed made a fortuitous decision early on when he elected to star Tommy Dix. On Broadway, Dix had played second fiddle to Gil Stratton. Ultimately, Stratton would not appear in the movie at all. Although he arrived with the rest of the company as per Freed’s lock, stock and barrel purchase of the show, Stratton would instead be spirited away in support of Mickey Rooney in another Freed musical simultaneously shooting, Girl Crazy (also made in 1943), after original costar, Ray MacDonald was drafted into the army.
L.B. Mayer loved musicals almost as much as Arthur Freed, primarily because they fit his idea of wholesome ‘family’ entertainment. Moreover, he implicitly trusted Freed’s judgment and impeccable good taste. And Best Foot Forward did not disappoint on that score, even if the film was out-grossed at the box office by the aforementioned Girl Crazy. In retrospect, Best Foot Forward remains one of the studio’s most magical offspring with an academic theme; the entire production shot on soundstages and the back lot. The central location would take full advantage of the Williamsburg-styled ‘Girl’s Dormitory’ set, subbing in for Winsocki, but originally built for 1940’s Forty Little Mothers at a respectable cost of $10,000.
One of the most extraordinary aspects about Best Foot Forward is the longevity of its cast. Many went on to have very lucrative careers. June Allyson, as example, became Metro’s most popular musical sweetheart throughout the 1940s and 50s, attaining the height of her screen popularity a few years later, opposite Peter Lawford in another college-bound musical, Good News (1949). Originally told her voice would never record, Allyson was informed her ‘laryngitis’ could be fixed by MGM’s resident doctor. Overhearing the conversation, heartthrob, Van Johnson is rumored to have replied, “Oh no, boys. That’s a million dollar case of laryngitis!” Like Allyson, Gloria DeHaven and Nancy Walker received studio contracts, memorably featured, usually as campy seductress and comic relief respectively. Kenny Bowers, whose distinct upturned nose and ragamuffin charm made him a beloved, almost elfin-like personality as Dutch Miller, infrequently made movies thereafter, turning his attentions instead to a singing and stage career. In Best Foot Forward however, he is, quite simply, the most joyous of comic foils for Tommy Dix and Lucille Ball.
The film crackles with rapid fire delivery of witty dialogue. An ongoing gag about Helen – whose last name no one can seem to recall at a moment’s notice, is invariably referred to as ‘Miss Slassenger’, ‘Smack-in-puss’, and ‘Schlesin-heimer’ is cute without ever becoming strained. The repartee between cadets, Bud Hooper (Dix) and his roommates, Dutch Miller and Hunk Hoyt (Jack Jordan) is genial and competitive; the threesome vying for time with Lucille Ball on the dance floor at their senior prom; the even bigger gag – no one at the prom seems to realize who she is until her dress is torn off in the climactic catfight of fans struggling to own a souvenir. “Miss Ball, you really send me,” Hunk suggests, “Only I’m too smart to go.” A short while later, Bud inadvertently adds insult to injury when he suggests, “It’s not their fault they didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”
The premise behind Best Foot Forward is simplistic to a fault; a college-bound cadet writes a famous movie star a mash letter, inviting her to be his date at the senior prom. No self-respecting glamor queen would think to reply. Except that Lucy’s last few pictures haven’t exactly been smash hits, and in a last ditch effort to resurrect for sagging career, her agent, Jack O’Riley has misguidedly accepted Bud’s invitation on his client’s behalf, hiring ‘one-bulb’ Chester Short to capture the tabloid-worthy stunt for posterity. Almost immediately, things go awry; Chester pitching a screenplay he has written to Lucy and Jack, reenacting its pivotal love scene by taking her in his arms and declaring, “Oh, my darling. You are the quintessence of feminine loveliness. I long to gaze into your sapphire eyes and sip from your ruby lips the sweet nectar of the gods…” before tossing her aside to inquire from O’Riley, “Have you got an aspirin? This scene always gets me!”
Meanwhile, Bud is in a dilemma. He’s received a telegram from O’Riley, reportedly touting Lucy’s overwhelming enthusiasm to be his date for the prom. However, at the same instance, Bud learns his mainstay, Helen Schlesinger, is arriving on the noonday bus; having received a letter from Bud, claiming he is ill with the grip, and come to nurse him back to health. Hunk and Dutch promise to keep Helen at bay. But what they are really planning is a three-way split of Lucy’s time on the dance floor, with the more prominent portions going to themselves. Helen quickly figures out the ruse. She’s no fool, though very much the jealous type. The situation is complicated too by arrival of Hunk and Dutch’s dates; Minerva (Gloria Grahame) and Ethel (June Allyson). The pair has arrived with their school’s chaperone, Miss Talbert (Sarah Haden). Also on the bus is Nancy (Nancy Walker); a butchy wallflower with precious little opportunity to land herself an escort for the prom. Eventually, she settles for ‘Killer’ (Darwood ‘Waldo’ Kaye); Ethel objectionably declaring, “But he’s thirteen” to which Nancy replies, “By eighteen he’ll get used to me.”
In hindsight, Walker is given a very plum comedic role in the picture. Her one-liners are all self-deprecating zingers. When Minerva suggests ‘beauty is only skin deep, Nancy comes back with “Maybe I should get skinned.” When Miss Talbert sternly observes, “Do you think it very ladylike to be dropping handkerchiefs in front of the stag line?”, Nancy glibly swats back with piss elegance, “No…that’s why I use Kleenex!” Walker is also given a plum solo in ‘The Three B’s’ and her own specialty number, ‘Alive n’ Kickin’ – in which she attempts to woo band leader, Harry James with a buck n’ wing, but winds up toppling over and smashing his big bass drum. The mileage she gets from these moments is impressive, yet, oddly enough, never entirely distracts from the central narrative, despite the fact she has very little – if anything – to do with it.
But back to Bud and Lucy, and particularly, Helen, who is so shocked, wounded and disappointed in Bud she vows to never speak to him again. Lucy would like to help, but actually she has bigger fish to fry. Ushered around the dance floor by her trio of escorts, her presence is eventually exposed to the graduating class (both figuratively and literally) when Helen – in a last ditch effort to prove her love for Bud – confronts him and Lucy on the dance floor during The Ring Waltz, preceded by the eloquent prom ballad, ‘My First Promise’, sung to perfection by Beverly Tyler. Revealing Lucy to be the interloper, Helen tears at her dress, declaring, “Look, I’ve got a souvenir!” This incites a riot, the graduating class ripping Lucy’s ball gown to shreds and leaving her in her petticoats. A short while later, Bud is contemplating his future; confronted by Hunk and Dutch who inevitably drag Ethel, Nancy and Minerva into his dormitory bedroom. Big no-no, here. No coed rooms at Winsocki, you see. In a scene directly ripped from the Marx Bros. classic, A Night At The Opera (1932), the modest room begins to fill with all manner of students, attempting to hide out from Winsocki’s formidable disciplinarian, Capt. Bradd (Donald McBride). In the penultimate reveal, Bradd winds up locked in the closet with Nancy, who escapes detection by covering her head with James’ punctured bass drum.
The next day, Bud apologizes to Lucy in her hotel suite. She’s empathetic. After all, Bud’s a good kid. She asks if everything has been squared away at Winsocki and Bud lies to her to keep the peace. Lucy sends him off with a song; another poignant Martin/Blane ballad, ‘You’re Lucky’ (her vocals dubbed by Gloria Grafton). But only moments later, Lucy and Jack learn from Helen, who has been hiding in the wings, Bud will not be graduating. It seems Capt. Bradd is holding him personally responsible for the disgraceful display at the prom. Taking matters into her own hands, Lucy confronts Bradd, also his superior officer, Major Reeber (Henry O’Neill). Smoothing the situation, by pretending the entire incident was deliberately staged by she and Mr. O’Riley, purely as a publicity stunt, Lucy ingratiates herself to both men, who easily become enamored of her beauty. They agree to allow Bud to graduate. Everyone rushes off to observe the commencement exercises; Bud closing the show with a rousing reprise of the stage’s megahit, ‘Buckle Down Winsocki’.
On the surface, Best Foot Forward seems so effortlessly charming and unassumingly good-natured it’s easy to forget the well-oiled Metro machinery hard at work behind the scenes to pull together this extraordinarily effervescent entertainment. All the pistons are firing as only MGM in its heyday could manage. Yes, we’ve all seen these sets before; the whole picture concocted to take full advantage of the studio’s formidable free-standing assets. The gymnasium, as example, would be used over and over again in films like A Date With Judy (1948) and Good News (1949); the campus, a veritable mainstay for any picture set in academia; Bathing Beauty (1944), Cynthia (1947), The Cobweb (1955) and Tea and Sympathy (1956) among them. It is a hallmark from this period, all MGM movies have a consistent look of quality about them; the grounds impeccably manicured, the extras and stars set before them afforded no less consideration. Lenny Hayton’s orchestrations augment the Martin/Blane score with tenderness and bombast when and where propriety demands. Leonard Smith’s cinematography reveals a varied, bright and breezy richness in glorious Technicolor.
It all looks utterly gorgeous, radiating equally portions of luminosity and cleanliness for which Metro was justly well known and regarded. The musical truly lost its most ardent in-house stylist when MGM ceased its operations in the mid-1970s; arguably, even early with the enforced disbanding of its galvanic star system in the late 1950s. At a final cost of $1,125,502, the picture’s gross of $2,704,000 – while putting its receipts in the black – was a tad disappointing, considering Girl Crazy (shot more efficiently in B&W, and, on a similar budget of $1,410,850) made a tidy profit of $3,771,000. In retrospect, Best Foot Forward is a painful reminder of that creative loss in Hollywood; also, a fond daydream remembered from a more innocent time in picture-making when chic good taste and pictorial quality prevailed above all else. It’s a memorable romp too, and a joyous spree, delicately balanced and moving with considerable agility through Metro’s storied past. In 1974, in praise of the theatrical release of the musical anthology film, That’s Entertainment!, Variety had suggested “while many may ponder the future of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, certainly no one can deny it’s had one hell of a past!” Best Foot Forward is a glorious addendum to this historical record. It’s bouncy, plush and tune-filled sure fire box office dynamite. “Buckle down, Winsocki, buckle down!”
Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer of this engaging musical is reason enough to stand up and cheer, although I would suggest it’s about time the studio came around to remastering Best Foot Forward for a Blu-ray release via the Warner Archive. Until then, what we have here is a near pristine image harvest from original 3-strip Technicolor negatives that bely the source material is well over 60 years old. Colors are beautifully rendered. Reds are blood red. Whites are vibrant. Lucy’s henna hair simply glows off the screen. Harry James’ powder-puff tux and navy blue ensemble of his Music Makers are strikingly rendered. Flesh tones are bang on perfect. Contrast is exceptional with rich, solid black levels. Fine detail is exemplarily reproduced.
Of note: there is one very brief instance, as Lucy first meets Bud in her hotel room, where the image suddenly becomes inexplicably soft and several glaring age-related artifacts come into view. But this brief instance is hardly worth quibbling over. The audio has been remixed to stereo and is very well represented, particularly the musical sequences. Only three brief short subjects accompany the main feature, none actually directly related to it – a genuine shame – but one easily overlooked, considering what treasures are on tap herein. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)