Monday, July 2, 2007

DU BARRY WAS A LADY (MGM 1943) Warner Home Video

On stage, Du Barry Was A Lady was a song and dance extravaganza; a veritable cavalcade for composer Cole Porter’s lyrical penchant for risqué double entendre. That Roy Del Ruth’s Du Barry Was A Lady (1943) failed to reach such meteoric heights for MGM on the screen remains something of a mystery. Despite having half its original score jettisoned in favor of a more antiseptic – if nevertheless melodic - series of musical offerings, the film remains an oddity; a would-be light-hearted confection trampled by a rather leaden screenplay and an utter waste of stellar talent.

The story is bizarre, but palpable within the confines of the musical genre. Hat check boy, Louis Blore (Red Skelton) has a colossal crush on nightclub vamp and chanteuse, May Daily (Lucille Ball). May is all about money – a commodity Louis lacks until he wins the Irish sweepstakes. Vying for May’s affection is Alec Howe (Gene Kelly, looking uncharacteristically elfin), a dancer at the club.

May’s heart is for Alec, but her conviction to be a lady of leisure results in a fleeting alliance with rich patron, Willie (Douglas Dumbrille). On the sidelines is Louis’ deadpan heartthrob, Ginny (Virginia O’Brien) – who patiently waits for the chips to predictably fall so that she can claim Louis for her own.

Now, here comes the wrinkle; Louis succumbs to the elixir of a spiked cocktail and dreams he is really King Louis XV with May predictably reincarnated as the infamous woman behind the throne, Madame Du Barry. This plot point allows MGM to utilize many of the sumptuous sets and costumes first designed for the lavish B&W melodrama, Marie Antoinette (1938). In that film, Du Barry (Gladys George) was an embittered hard-nosed shrew – indeed the ‘lady’ with feminine wiles and power lauded over her king.

But Ball’s Du Barry is a lazy fop in a wig; a flashy gal without much substance, who cavorts and primps; a superficial courtesan with her eye on the dashing rogue and libertarian, The Black Arrow (Gene Kelly). But this alliance is thwarted prematurely when Louis comes to his senses – awakens with May by his side only to recognize that Ginny is the only one for him: so much for plot.

Du Barry Was A Lady never comes to life. There are moments where one can see the old MGM charm spark to life, particularly during the many musical sequences that are gamely staged, bright and colorful. Red Skelton is delightfully wacky, maintaining a comedic presence even when the material he's been given is less on par with his talents. Lucille Ball, while undeniably ravishing in Technicolor, is uncharacteristically wooden. Her best number, the title track (obviously dubbed) is also regrettably truncated – the camera cutting to crowd inserts and conversations between Alec and his best friend, Rami (Zero Mostel) with only the briefest of moments to glimpse the elegant comedian in all her French finery.

On the whole, the musical sequences are statically staged – the camera remaining a safe distance from the actors, thus preserving the proscenium of the stage show. In fact, at varying intervals some of the principles address the camera directly – a device which further alienates the artificiality of the show. The most satisfying moment in the film remains Kelly’s bravado, Do I Love You – a tour de force in dance athleticism in which the soles of his shoes seem to be infused with hidden springs, as he effortlessly bounds, leaps and flies through the air, exercising his Terpsichorean grace.

Warner Home Video provides a rather impressive DVD transfer. With only slight and very brief minor mis-registration problems the vintage Technicolor is both lurid and blazing – capturing all the colors of the rainbow with delicious precision. When all three strips are in perfect alignment, the image is razor sharp with an incredible amount of fine detail and minimal film grain. Crop marks between actual sets and matte painted ceilings during the French court sequences are quite obvious and distracting. Contrast levels appear to be slightly bumped during several sequences and flesh tones – though utterly vibrant, are a tad too pink. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to two vintage short subjects and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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