Big Street, The (1942)

US / 88 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Irving Reis Pr: Damon Runyon Scr: Leonard Spigelgass Story: “Little Pinks” (1940; Collier’s Magazine) by Damon Runyon Cine: Russell Metty Cast: Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball, Barton MacLane, Eugene Pallette, Agnes Moorehead, Sam Levene, Ray Collins, Marion Martin, William Orr, George Cleveland, Vera Gordon, Louise Beavers, Juan Varro, Art Hamburger, Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra.

Runyon’s tales are, of course, not noir, and yet they share noir’s milieu so knowingly that it can be hard to ignore their claims. In the case of MIDNIGHT ALIBI (1935) I was sufficiently persuaded of those claims to include an entry in the Encyclopedia; The Big Street might also have been a candidate, had I had the space.

The movie opens with scrolled text beginning:

Loser’s Lane—the sidewalk in front of Mindy’s Restaurant on Broadway—is not as high-toned a trading center as Wall Street, but the brokers are a lot more colorful.

 Generally they prefer to put their money on a prizefight or horserace, but when the action slows, anything can happen and it usually does. . . .

What’s happening today in Mindy’s is the Eating Championship of the World, organized by the merry lowlifes Professor B. (Collins) and Horsethief (Levene), the dueling trenchermen being Mr. Nicely Nicely Johnson (Pallette) and Mr. Joel Duffle (fittingly played by Hamburger); the hoodlum Case Ables (MacLane) has a hefty stake in Nicely Nicely winning. However, Nicely Nicely has fallen ill with dyspepsia, owing to unwise snacking. The Mindy’s busboy Little Pinks (Fonda)—more fully Augustus Pinkerton II—offers the services in Nicely Nicely’s place of his lodging-house co-boarder Violette Shumberger (Moorehead), but she proves inadequate to the task and the vicious Ables loses his stash.

Lucille Ball as a chanteuse facing an uncertain future.

The event’s the opportunity for Pinks to meet Ables’s chanteuse moll Gloria Lyons (Ball), whose yappy little dog Baby he saves from traffic. Pinks is much smitten by Gloria, whom he fails to recognize as a hardbitten, self-obsessed gold-digger. To be fair to her, she’s not entirely without a sense of decency: she fixes him up with a busboy job at the nighterie where she’s currently appearing, a step up from Mindy’s.

Gloria expresses her philosophy of love to her loyal maid Ruby (Beavers): “Love is something that gives you one room, two chins and three kids.” To that end, dissatisfied with what Ables has to offer, she sets her cap at one of the nightclub’s patrons, the eligible-bachelor heir Decatur Reed (Orr). Ables, displeased, backhands Gloria down a flight of stairs, and she has to be rushed to hospital.

With the exception of Ruby and Pinks, all Gloria’s friends evaporate—most especially the scabrous Decatur. Ruby trades all of Gloria’s jewelry for hospital expenses; the time comes when Ruby, with a family of her own to support, has reluctantly to drop out, leaving Pinks somehow trying to foot the hospital bills on his busboy’s wages—and to keep on sending Gloria, whom Pinks by now calls Your Highness, bunches of flowers under all sorts of names, including Decatur’s . . . but not his own. When the time comes for Gloria, her legs still paralyzed, to be discharged from hospital, Pinks takes her to his basement apartment and tends to her, even as she insults him and his friends constantly (she greets the skinny Violette with “How’s your tapeworm, sister?”), dreaming of when she’ll be “the old girl again” and married to the rich Decatur.

Louise Beavers and Henry Fonda as the friends who stick by Gloria (Lucille Ball).

It comes to Gloria that the only way she’ll ever recover the use of her legs is if she can go to Florida, where Nicely Nicely and Violette, now married, have opened a food stand. Since they have no money for transport, Pinks sets out to push her in her wheelchair all the way from NYC to Florida. (Their route is often assumed to be the Big Street of the title, but a fleeting reference within the movie suggests the Big Street is actually NYC’s Broadway.) In fact, sympathetic drivers give them lifts most of the way.

In Florida, Gloria hastens to the beach—Pinks carrying her—where she hopes to lure the playboy Decatur. The latter is initially attracted, as of old, but as soon as he discovers she’s still crippled he loses interest. Gloria lashes out bitterly at Pinks, telling him he’s a lousy busboy; for the first and only time, despite all her other viciousness towards him, he loses his temper with her: he is, he maintains, a very good busboy.

By now he’s busboying at a club being used as a front by Case Ables, the man who injured Gloria back in NYC. When Gloria goes into a decline and the doctor says she may die unless her hope is restored, Pinks sets out to “borrow” the evening dress of her dreams from unfaithful spouse Mimi Venus (Martin); while doing so, he learns that Ables is running a widespread scam, stealing socialites’ valuables in order to rip off the insurance companies. Using this information, Pinks blackmails Ables into lending his nightclub so that Gloria may have one last evening as a star . . .

The movie’s a very effective cocktail of comedy-laced tragedy, romantic drama, pathos, bathos and outright schmaltz, and the actors—even the ones in overtly comic roles, like Pallette, Levene and Collins—make it work by playing it straight: they’re characters whose personalities carry a cargo of humor rather than comedians sharing gags with the camera. Fonda and Ball (who’d not so very long before been romantically entangled) likewise play it straight, delivering highly committed performances, and in Ball’s case a quite exceptional one as the hardbitten shrew who can’t accept that her glory days are forever behind her, then transcending herself to become truly the romantic heroine of Pinks’s dreams only in her final minutes, notably while singing “her” song, “Who Knows?” (in fact dubbed by Martha Mears). Ironically, Ball was far from producer Runyon’s first choice for the role; she was recommended by her close friend Carole Lombard, whom he’d have preferred.

Various noir stalwarts have uncredited bit parts, among them Marie Windsor, seen fleetingly as a nightclub patron, and John Miljan, as Ables’s sidekick McWhirter. Pallette, whose Nazi sympathies and profound racism would lead to his progressive ostracization from Hollywood, by 1946 convinced himself that a nuclear conflagration was imminent and built a survivalist retreat—a “fortress”—near Imnaha, Oregon, where he confidently awaited the world’s end for a couple of years before sense (on that issue at least) finally percolated through his head. Despite the fact that he looked like a heart attack waiting to happen, it was in fact of cancer that he died, at age 65.


On The Big Street.

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