SUtS: Henry Fonda

Carrie’s choice: Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Airing at 10:00PM EST

This movie is special in its casting as well as its structure. I love this movie. I love the play–really, I love the concept. I actually saw the remake (with George C. Scott) first, mostly in passing. Then I saw this version. To be honest, I love them both.

You’ll also see this one quoted all over the place. Pauly Shore uses the film directly in his parody Jury Duty. He stands, watching a Henry Fonda monologue, and quotes it to another juror within the context of a film already parodying this story. You’ll also see aspects of this deliberation in other courtroom dramas, such as My Cousin Vinny. The very popular gimmick of the witness who needs glasses but wasn’t wearing them at the moment of the crime (or an attempt at this, such as in My Cousin Vinny) all come from this plot.

The cast in the Fonda version is fantastic. The voice of Piglet, Barney Rubble, and other VIPs join Henry Fonda in this drama. There is something very special about this particular film, and that is the way it formats itself: almost the entire film takes place in a single room. The play is written this way. No scene changes. It just goes. This adds continuity to the action, adds to the feeling of being stuck in a hot jury room.

Not only is the story more continuous, but now the drama is, too. The actors can really let the tension and drama build and increase the natural flow of deliberative conversation that a more interrupted structure allows. Add this to the all-star cast and you have the makings of a really impressive drama.

Henry Fonda is the only juror not fully convinced that the young defendant in a murder trial is guilty.  He pulls the other eleven jurors into a long deliberation to determine whether or not the young boy is truly guilty. The other side of courtroom dramas, this is the drama behind the jury room doors. If you are a big fan of the criminal justice shows (like me–I’m a bit of a junkie), you’ll love this film. Mystery crime drama in the raw at it’s most human and dramatic.

Brandie’s choice: The Big Street (1942)

Airing at 3:30AM EST

I love me some Henry Fonda. My three favorite films of his are The Lady Eve (1941), in which he is so brilliant as the hapless straight man caught in Barbara Stanwyck’s storm (don’t let anybody tell you he had the easier role in that movie); Jezebel (1938), in which he plays Bette Davis’ long-suffering, society-controlled fiance; and Carrie’s recommendation above, the courtroom drama to beat all courtroom dramas.

Fonda’s strengths on screen lay in his ability to reflect the everyman. The strong, silent type, his stalwart presence was a comforting one to audiences of the 30s and 40s. In films like 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln and 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, Fonda produced heartfelt, indelible performances that lifted spirits and elicited empathy from audiences.

The movie I’m recommending to you today is not one of Fonda’s better-known roles, nor is it one of his most indelible performances. It’s a quiet little drama, and he’s a quiet, steadying force in the role. But the film really belongs to his costar, Lucille Ball, in what is likely the best dramatic screen performance of her career.

As anyone with a television and a lick of sense knows, Lucille Ball was–and still is, in many ways–the queen of comedy. There have been many to follow, but few (Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore) come within even a hairsbreadth of her talent. But the Lucy most of us know and remember is not the Lucy who first sought to make her name in films. Initially, Ball sought to make her name as a dramatic actress.

She met with varying success. Though it’s obvious to modern viewers where Lucy’s talents lay–almost squarely in the world of comedy–studio heads seemingly could not decide where she belonged, ultimately trying her in a wide number of roles, from musicals (DuBarry Was a Lady, in which her singing voice was dubbed), to light comedic drama (1937’s Stage Door), to screwball comedy (The Affairs of Annabel). Except in the roles in which her rubber-faced hilarity was allowed to shine through, Lucy virtually disappears on screen; she’s just another moon-eyed actress trying to feign distress or sympathy or heartbreak.

But as her career entered its second decade, and Lucy began to make a name for herself as the so-called “Queen of the Bs” (as in B-pictures), she began to develop her acting chops on her own. And under the tutelage of silent screen great Buster Keaton, Lucy’s comedic chops began to blossom. But judging by her filmography, there was obviously still some part of her that sought a credible dramatic role. She finally found it in The Big Street.

The film is based on Damon Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks.” Fonda plays the titular character of Little Pinks, a busboy who is in love with a selfish showgirl, Gloria (Ball). When Gloria is injured by her gangster boyfriend, Pinks stays by her side, helping to support her after she is crippled. Gloria’s vain inability to see beyond her own needs leads her to take advantage of Pinks’ devotion, and she demands that he help her snare a millionaire husband. The helpless Pinks agrees, taking Gloria to Miami and exhausting himself–and his goodwill toward the young woman–just to secure her happiness.

Though The Big Street marks a highlight of her career, Ball had some trouble on the set, mainly due to the fact that she and Fonda had previously dated (they’d made a film together in 1935, I Dream Too Much). The aloof Fonda was none too quick to help ease Ball’s nervousness, and to compound the trouble, her new husband, Desi Arnaz, reportedly refused to leave the set for fear that Fonda would try to cozy up to Lucy again. And beyond that, Lucy was in mourning for dear friend Carole Lombard, who had recently died and had recommended Lucy for the part. But there’s no shadow of conflict or sorrow on the screen. Fonda and Ball work well together, and in fact they would star together once more, after Lucy had arguably become the bigger star, in 1968’s Yours, Mine and Ours.

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