The early 1940s saw Hollywood embrace fanciful musicals as perfect escapism from the anxieties of World War II. And few films brought more bubbly farcical fun than 1943’s Du Barry Was a Lady, starring legendary comedians Red Skelton and Lucille Ball. Their only big-screen pairing remains a treasured showcase for their complimentary talents. Now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, Du Barry’s madcap delights reveal new layers beneath the screwball antics.
Big Stars Align For MGM
By 1943, Red Skelton reigned supreme as radio’s hottest comedian. MGM took notice and brought their explosive new talent to Hollywood, casting him opposite Lucille Ball in a lavish Technicolor musical. Ball was already a recognizable face from B-comedies, but Du Barry would provide her breakout opportunity. Their instant kindred chemistry helped make the film a huge success upon release.
Serving up the shenanigans was an all-star team of filmmaking talent. Director Roy Del Ruth was an old pro known for speedy pacing and sight gags, ideal for the project. Del Ruth ensured the organized chaos centered on Skelton and Ball’s inspired clowning. Support came from silver screen icons like Gene Kelly, Virginia O’Brien and “Rags” Ragland, all clearly having a ball.
The film’s notorious script also bears mentioning. Originally penned by politically-minded humorist Arthur Kober, Du Barry took satirical potshots at subjects like war profiteering and censorship hypocrisy. MGM naturally scrubbed Kober’s barbs to create frothy family fare. But traces of subversion remain in the film’s anything-goes absurdity.
Skelton and Ball: Comedic Dynamite
Yet the script’s twists and turns are merely excuses for Skelton and Ball to work their magic. Red Skelton plays hapless hat-check boy Louis Blore, who dreams of being a dancer. But a knock on the head transports him back to the days of King Louis XV, with Ball appearing as Madame Du Barry herself. Alongside Louis, she gets swept up in the French Revolution’s surrounding chaos.
It’s hard to imagine a better comedic pairing than Skelton and Ball. She plays the bubbly straight woman to his gleeful man-child anarchist. Their contrasting energies sync harmoniously thanks to genuine chemistry. Ball’s verbose interplay with the mostly-mute Skelton conjures up classic vaudeville duos like Abbott and Costello.
But both excel equally during solo moments. Ball reveals hitherto untapped talents for slapstick, more than holding her own with veteran clowns. And Skelton’s rubber-faced pantomime during two extended musical numbers stopped the show in theaters. Their tag-team skills helped cement Du Barry as a breakthrough for both legends.
Dazzling Song and Dance Spectacle
Around its stars’ antics, Du Barry Was a Lady assembles song and dance spectacle befitting MGM’s status. Choreographer was none other than the great Gene Kelly, who also appears performing balletic moves. The film’s two standout sequences both involve Skelton transcending his goofy persona to engage in graceful dancing. His hypnotic routines with Kelly and later Virginia O’Brien cemented Skelton’s surprising dexterity.
But the film’s musical numbers dazzle even during non-dancing stretches. Most famous is Lucille Ball’s deliciously kitschy rendition of “Friendship”. Her off-key warbling works better than any polished vocals could, winning big laughs from the audience. And ragtime specialist Ethel Waters brings showstopping vocals with “Great Day”, energizing the second half.
These musical segments shine anew on Warner Archive’s Blu-ray thanks to sparkling picture and sound. The remaster reveals striking clarity within layers of background dancers, while still preserving a pleasing filmic texture. The mono soundtrack sounds full and robust, with ample fidelity for the lush orchestrations. Du Barry Was a Lady dazzles as total sensory delight from start to finish.
Escapist Romp with Modern Resonance
While pure entertainment for its day, Du Barry Was A Lady gains added dimension viewed now through a modern lens. The film’s cross-dressing hijinks carry subtly subversive undertones that slip by censors. And Lucille Ball’s confident comedic chops take on new meaning, given her subsequent career frustrations. Ball resented being typecast later as a ditzy housewife in TV’s I Love Lucy. Du Barry showcases the true well-rounded performer so often stifled by Hollywood conventions.
So too with Red Skelton, who tried walking away from film soon after feeling creatively neutered. Du Barry captures him at the height of powers Hollywood rarely recognized properly. His inspired clowning and dancing betray the potential of an innovator too often dismissed as lowbrow slapstick. Skelton and Ball both deserved greater opportunities to stretch themselves.
As fluffy farce, Du Barry Was a Lady still succeeds smashingly. But beneath the fizzy exterior lie two great talents hinting at untapped greatness. Now on Blu-ray, new audiences can enjoy this giddy musical, while recognizing the gifted pioneers at its heart.