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1950's The Fuller Brush Girl is an unusually frantic slapstick comedy that appealed to anxious Americans trying to get a leg up in the post-war economic boom. Its appeal for today's viewers will be seeing their television favorite Lucille Ball in an even wilder comedy mode. The sight gags and comic stunts are not only extreme, they frequently defy the laws of physics. Ms. Ball is obviously having a fine time demolishing whatever remained of her glamorous screen persona -- her looks didn't make her a first-rank star, but the evidence of her earlier RKO and MGM movies shows that Lucy was one of the most photogenic women in Hollywood.
The farcical fun begins with office boy Humphrey Briggs (Eddie Albert) and switchboard operator Sally Elliot (Lucille Ball) visiting the model home they so dearly covet. If only they earned more money they could marry and move in. The maladroit Humphrey is swept off his feet when his devious boss Harvey Simpson (Jerome Cowan) unaccountably gives him a big promotion. The sweethearts put their money down on the house, but Sally loses her job when the office switchboard goes haywire. She immediately grabs the samples bag of her friend Jane (Jeff Donnell), a door-to-door Fuller Brush saleswoman. Sally's plan is to so impress Jane's boss, that she'll be made a saleswoman as well. Sally's sincere attempts to make good turn into a total disaster, and a complex chain of events sees her being set up as the fall guy (gal) in a murder. Humphrey does his best to help his fiancée evade the law, only to discover the awful truth: he was promoted to serve similar patsy duty in his boss'es smuggling scheme. Avoiding both crooks and cops steers the young couple into ridiculous situations -- as when Sally finds herself on stage in a burlesque club, forced to perform an impromptu striptease.
In the picture business since 1914, experienced director Lloyd Bacon signed his name to a number of 1930s classics including several Busby Berkeley musicals. The Fuller Brush Girl is now admired for the input of its writer, Frank Tashlin. The notoriously wild and creative Tashlin began as a cartoonist, graduated to writing and directing animated cartoons and by the late 1940s was writing comedies for The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Red Skelton. He spent most of 1949 working on a string of pictures for Columbia: Miss Grant Takes Richmond, The Good Humor Man, Kill the Umpire, A Woman of Distinction and The Fuller Brush Girl, a spin-off of his earlier hit for Red Skelton, The Fuller Brush Man. Tashlin's feature directing career began in earnest two years later. On this show he knocks himself out inventing wild action jokes that would fit perfectly well in a Daffy Duck cartoon. Sally doesn't fry the telephone switchboard and smash the office door just once, but several times. Her attempt to hawk toiletries door-to-door goes awry when a potential customer sells her magazines instead. At another address she is mistaken for a babysitter and ends up tied to a bedpost while the delinquent kids set fire to the carpet. All of these gags are presented as if they were cartoon panels in a comic strip: Tashlin doesn't care if they're believable or not. The writer's keen sense of visual organization is evident right in the main titles, which play over a sequence of door-to-door insanity, showing only Miss Ball's sore feet.
Handled differently, the basic story points could easily be re-purposed as a fatalistic film noir. A shady businessman promotes the least experienced employee in his company to secure a fall guy for his smuggling scheme. The businessman's wife is silenced when she learns too much, and the only person who knows the truth is the businessman's mistress, a burlesque dancer. The final showdown takes place on the freighter with the illegal contraband. Of course, Tashlin's script has Ball and Albert play for broad belly laughs. The young couple deserves to be happy; it's not their fault that they can't cross a room without causing a major mishap. The frustration of their nesting impulse is a strong factor as well. This is 1950, and respectable men and women can't just cohabit whenever the urge strikes. The promise of the American Dream -- getting married, getting that house, "starting out in life" -- is totally dependent on material success. That means doing well in a highly competitive work environment. Five years after the victory, plenty of deserving veterans still can't seem to get ahead.
"Lucy" spends the entire movie running, struggling and screaming for help. A lot of dashing in and out of rooms, wild coincidences and mix-ups convince everyone that her Sally is a murderess. But she is also persistent and resourceful. After mining laughs from her naïve idea of how a burly-que queen might dress, Sally performs an equally awkward, gangly imitation of a strip act. It's a fine example of Ms. Ball's judgment -- she knows well just how far she can push a potentially vulgar comedy situation.
Columbia's elaborate production matches the example set by the competing Red Skelton comedies that utilized customized sets and stunt work. Skelton appears in a brief cameo as well. Trapped on the steamship, Sally and Humphrey flee the villains through a string of absurd visual gags. They climb out a porthole onto some springs, which vault them up to a cable high in the ship's rigging. Sally then becomes tangled in two life preservers, and rolls around the rim of the ship like a pinball. Just about the only cartoon effect Tashlin doesn't call for is distorting the human body. Sally's arms don't stretch out to six feet, as Jerry Lewis's do in a later Tashlin farce. The Fuller Brush Girl is in the spirit of the idiotic but liberating broad comedies championed by Preston Sturges in his Sullivan's Travels: good for a laugh when you badly need one.
The very real Fuller Brush Company was of course consulted about the use of their name. In today's films we sometimes can't decide what's a legitimate plot point and what's an advertising tie-in, but in the past large companies could be unusually lax about the use of their names and logos. Billy Wilder's political satire One, Two, Three makes fun of a philandering Coca-Cola executive right in the middle of the closing of the Berlin Wall. No corporate officer today would dream of granting similar permission. The Fuller Brush Girl interrupts its jokes to show a Fuller representative accompanying the police investigation, just so he can explain that Sally is not a real Fuller Brush saleswoman, and insist that none of the crazy behavior (and murders) have anything to do with that respected company. Today, the Fuller rep's tail-covering maneuver is almost as funny as the rest of the film.
Like many writers, Frank Tashlin didn't like the way his scripts were filmed and looked forward to becoming a director. One of his early directing efforts, in fact, presented the odd problems of a veteran screenwriter that has many screen credits but can't always find his actual contributions to the final product. Although The Fuller Brush Girl plays as pure Tashlin, the writer was typically outspoken on the subject: "Believe me originally these were bright scripts -- but when the butchers, right down to cutting, get through, you're ready to step in front of a fast freight. Then it's too late -- your name is up there -- and as you know, in Hollywood the writer is always the fall guy."
Sony Screen Classics By Request's DVD-R of The Fuller Brush Girl looks perfect, like most of this studio's Burn-On-Demand product. The sharp, rich image betters many older Columbia B&W DVD releases. For the record, the company has an admirable policy of maintaining and restoring all of the films in its library. Fans of Lucille Ball and Frank Tashlin will not be disappointed.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fuller Brush Girl rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.