"Be brave, my friend. You are dying for your country!" says The Black Arrow (Gene Kelly) to his pal, the grubby Taliostra (Zero Mostel), as the tumbrel bears them to the guillotine.
"Yeah," says Taliostra, "but I was born in the city." Expect much more of the same with Du Barry Was a Lady.
The 1939 Broadway smash starred two powerful performers, Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman, a first rate, innuendo-filled set of songs by Cole Porter, and lots of girls and gags. So what did MGM do when the studio bought the rights? Ditched Merman and Lahr and almost all of the Porter songs. (To be fair, a good many of Porter's lyrics would not have gotten past Hollywood's Code of Decency). MGM kept the girls.
MGM bought the rights for three reasons...to have a vehicle to showcase its up-and-coming comic lead, Red Skelton; the same with their newest knockout beauty coming to them from RKO, Lucille Ball; and to use Gene Kelly until they could figure out what to do with him. Skelton plays Louis Blore, a hatcheck boy at a posh New York nightclub who has a crush on May Daly (Ball), the club's headliner. But she wants security, not love. Still, we know she likes Alec Howe (Kelly), the nightclub's MC, dancer and songwriter, who loves her. When Louis wins the lottery, May decides to marry him. But then a mistaken mickey knocks Louis out and he wakes up as Louis XV, with May as Madame Du Barry and Alec as Black Arrow, the dashing fighter for freedom. All those comic relief employees of the nightclub, the likes of Mostel, Rags Ragland and Virginia O'Brien, show up as peasants or nobles, along with just about everyone else Louis had met in the nightclub, including Donald Meek. Things finally are resolved, with happiness all around, when Louis comes to and finds himself back in the nightclub with May, Alec and all his pals.
The movie has that smooth, unreal MGM Technicolor gloss that can make even genuine talent seem artificial. The best thing that can be said is that the movie has a few highlights and a great deal of barely imaginative but skilled professionalism. To substitute for the songs by Porter that were pitched, there is, in my view, a hodge-podge of mostly second-rate and facile Hollywood music and lyric writing. In place of Porter's clever, sophisticated and amusing songs, including the inventive and salacious "But in the Morning, No" where he comes up with some startling metaphors for sex in the a.m., we're stuck with "Madame, I Love Your Crepes Suzettes" and "I Love an Esquire Girl." Even Lahr wouldn't be able to make these lyrics funny. All Skelton does is mug and prance while he performs them.
If you like Red Skelton, you might enjoy Du Barry Was a Lady. He's in almost every scene, doing all of his usual shtick. For me, Skelton was at his most appealing when he wasn't doing all the grab-`em-by-the-throat clowning, Give me the Skelton who was Wally "The Fox" Benton, master sleuth on radio, inept in real life, in Whistling in the Dark (1941), Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943).
Lucille Ball is a knock out, strikingly gorgeous and with that skeptical, smart look about her that, I think, perpetually flummoxed studio heads. Those arched eyebrows of hers made her a challenge to cast. One of her most sympathetic and amusing roles, I think, was in Lured (1947), but it didn't do her career much good.
More than anything else, I think it's Gene Kelly's singing and dancing to Porter's great song, "Do I Love You, Do I" that establishes how out of sync this movie is with any sense of style or respect for excellent material. The song is one of the few from the Broadway show that was kept. To do it justice (even knowing that Merman introduced it) it needs the languid sophistication of a Lee Wiley or even the driving treatment Peggy Lee gave Lover. Instead, we have a typically Kelly interpretation, all on the surface, singing and tapping, and then a fast, athletic performance with chorus girls set to a blaring, flashy orchestration. Whoever was responsible for the grotesque treatment this great song received should have had their taps stapled to their lips. Here are the words. Perhaps you'll recall the melody.
Do I love you, do I?
Doesn't one and one make two?
Do I love you, do I?
Does July need a sky of blue?
Would I miss you, would I?
If you ever should go away?
If the sun should desert the day,
What would life be?
Will I leave you, never?
Could the ocean leave the shore?
Will I worship you forever?
Isn't heaven forever more?
Do I love you, do I?
Oh, my dear, it's so easy to see,
Don't you know I do?
Don't I show you I do,
Just as you love me.
For good measure, the movie also gives us Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, an unbilled Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers (with Dick Haymes), and a curious trio called The Three Oxford Boys who imitate various dance bands by humming through their noses. The movie is glossy and bright, and if you can tolerate Red Skelton's continuous mugging and pratfalls, it might be worth a look. The DVD transfer is first rate.