THE BIG STREET (Irving Reis, 1942)

The same year that Henry Fonda sparkled in The Male Animal, he gave perhaps his worst performance, as a shy, bumbling busboy, in The Big Street, an adaptation of Damon Runyan’s story “Little Pinks” that Runyon himself produced. Pinks is in love with Gloria, a self-centered nightclub singer who becomes a wheelchair-bound cripple after a dumped boyfriend, cashed in for someone richer, slaps her down a flight of stairs. Pinks, poor, attends to his beloved slavishly, and she abuses him verbally at every turn. As bad as Fonda is here, Lucille Ball as Gloria is far worse. Her ham-fisted emoting does not even qualify as bad acting; it’s closer to vomit. But neither performer is entirely at fault. They are, after all, dealing with maudlin and bathetic material. None too soon Gloria is dead in Pinks’s arms and the sentimental music swells. This is a revolting movie from start to finish.
     Why bother addressing it at all? The same year that Agnes Moorehead gave one of cinema’s greatest performances, as Aunt Fanny in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, she is wonderful here as well in the film’s one realistic role: Violette, who marries Nicely Nicely Johnson. Besides being one of Moorehead’s warmest, most likeable, most captivating characterizations, there is this: surely, surely Moorehead’s Violette provided the model from which Audrey Meadows drew a good deal of her performance as Alice Kramden in fifties television’s The Honeymooners. This earns The Big Street at least a footnote in the history of American entertainment.
     Ball and Fonda paired off much better a quarter-century later in the decent comedy Yours, Mine and Ours (Melville Shavelson, 1968).

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