Launching Lucy: S. Sylvan Simon and Lucille Ball:

October 19, 2011

I am so excited to share with you Lou Lumenick’s  column about my father and Lucille Ball from The New York Post. As I mentioned in Bringing Back The Old Hollywood, Lucille Ball was a family friend from the time I was a young child. After reading Lou’s column (excerpted below), I now really understand why!!

“In last week’s column, I covered three recently released B pictures that Lucille Ball — whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this year — made during her busy 1935-42 stay at RKO. Today, I’m reviewing four films that premiered on DVD in August as part of Sony’s Screen Classics by Request program, which Lucy made at Columbia Pictures between 1947 and 1951. Apparently originally intended as a set for retail release, they are now available only individually through this manufacture-on-demand service — but will reportedly be offered as a set at the beginning of November.

Lucy had actually been under contract to Columbia, at $75 a week, in the early ’30s, after her stint as a Goldwyn Girls dancer. She did bits in films like “Broadway Bill,” before supporting the Three Stooges in “Three Little Pigkins” — and Lee Tracy in her first credited feature, “Carnival” (1935) before being dropped and going to RKO.

Her RKO tenure was followed by a star buildup at MGM, which blamed unfairly her for the failure of such lackluster films as “Meet the People” (1944) and let Lucy go after “Two Smart People” (1946), the only one of her MGM titles that’s not available on DVD.

After that, Lucy kept busy as a freelancer. Douglas Sirk’s independently produced and highly watchable thriller “Lured” (1947) and, at Universal, “Lover Come Back” opposite George Brent, were followed by her return to Columbia, where she was signed for a single film. This was apparently at  instigation of S. Sylvan Simon, who had just relocated to Gower Gulch as a director-producer after directing many films at MGM (including “Abbott and Costello in Hollywood” in which Lucy had played herself).

Simon directed the first of her films, “Her Husband’s Affairs,” whose script is credited to Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer of “His Girl Friday” fame. She’s cast as the wife of advertising executive Franchot Tone, who resists her efforts to help his market an embalming fluid that also serves as a hair restorer. While her character can be seen as a prototype for “I Love Lucy” and Lucy tries hard in her scatterbrained role, there’s a notable lack of chemistry with the former Mr. Joan Crawford. The cast includes Edward Everett Horton, who appeared in several episodes of her later TV series.

When her radio series “My Favorite Husband” became a hit, Ball was offered a three-picture, non-exclusive deal with Columbia at $85,000 per picture. This time she was provided a more simpatico co-star in the form of William Holden, another World War II veteran who was far more successful at relaunching his Hollywood career than Tone was. Holden was later probably the biggest star to make a guest appearance in “I Love Lucy.”

Directed by comedy veteran Lloyd Bacon for Simon’s production company, “Miss Grant Takes Richmond” (1949) stars Lucy as a naive secretary who takes a job in a real-estate office that’s a front for bookie Holden. Both of them are afforded ample comic opportunities in the bright script by Nat Perrin, Devery Freeman — and Frank Tashlin, a former cartoonist who would eventually turn director. The excellent supporting cast includes James Gleason, Frank McHugh — and Charles Lane, a character actor Lucy had worked with more than once at RKO and would work with her again on “I Love Lucy.”

Bacon again directed for Lucy’s funniest Columbia effort, “The Fuller Brush Girl” (1950). This was a spinoff from “The Fuller Brush Man” (1949), a popular comedy for which Simon had borrowed Red Skeleton — who he had directed many times at MGM. Skeleton wasn’t available for a sequel, though he does have an amusing cameo in “The Fuller Brush Girl.”

Lucy’s talents as a slapstick comedian are finally given free rein here in this wacky story about an unauthorized door-to-door saleswoman who gets up mixed up in murders and a smuggling plot involving the conniving boss of her boyfriend. The boyfriend is played by another future TV legend, Eddie Albert, and the boss by Jerome Cowan (between stints as Mr. Dithers in episodes of Columbia’s long-running “Blondie” series).

Solo credit for the script goes to Tashlin, and the film is full of his trademark surreal gags — especially in the lengthy climax set on a ship with a barrel full of dynamite. There is one costume that will be extremely familiar to fans of “I Love Lucy.”

Unfortunately for Lucy’s movie career, her champion at Columbia, S. Sylvan Simon, sadly died of a heart attack in May, 1951. Despite her sucess opposite Bob Hope in Paramount’s “Fancy Pants” (1950), studio chief Harry Cohn famous tried to get out of the third film on her contract by offering her top billing in a Sam Katzman cheapie, “The Magic Carpet.”

I am so grateful to Lou Lumenick for illuminating Dad’s role in Lucy’s career.

And I am so proud to be my father’s son.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lynne M. Harrington-Crick October 20, 2011 at 7:22 pm

This is very interesting because my current husband, Jonathan Crick, also has a story to tell about how his grandfather used to date Lucille Ball as he also had some close connections in the Hollywood scene.

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Lauren simon October 22, 2011 at 8:03 am

This is wonderful Stephen! I guess that is why you remember being in Sun Valley with Little Lucy playing at The Lodge.
Your father would be very proud of YOU.
XO

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Donna October 25, 2011 at 7:31 am

I love stories of old Hollywood and this is especially nice! How cool!
Sounds like S. Sylvan Simon was just as nice a guy as Stephen!

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