Film Title: Beauty for the Asking
Studio: RKO Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Lucille Ball
- Patric Knowles
- Donald Woods
- Frieda Inescort
The year was 1939, one year before Lucille Ball would meet Desiderio Alberto Arnaz ye de Acha III, more publicly known as Desi Arnaz. She was more than 10 years away from a successful sitcom, and her only focus was to prove herself as a legitimate force in Hollywood. Amazingly, she had already been in almost 50 movies, but none had set her apart from the countless girls looking for that big break. What she needed was something to show her independence. Beauty For The Asking was a chance for Lucy to stand on her own, literally, with no major stars playing opposite her, and in a role that showcased her strong femininity.
Lucille Ball is Jean Russell, an everyday girl working in a small beauty salon. Her only refuge from mediocrity is the relationship she has with Denny Williams (played by Patric Knowles) and a dream to market her own skin cream. She has ambition, so getting the cream from the drawing board to the shelves doesn’t seem like a large hurdle. However, her love life isn’t as simple. Denny suddenly comes to Jean to break it off. He has another girl, and even more, they’re engaged. Denny’s new fiancée is Flora Barton (Frieda Inescort), an upper class society girl worth ten million dollars. Jean’s friend Gwen (Inez Courtney) naturally suspects Denny’s monetary motives for the abrupt change, but consoles her with thoughts of starting the skin cream business. Jean quickly bounces back, her head swirling with ideas. She knows she has the product, but not the start-up capital. She decides to barge into the office of Jeffrey Martin (Donald Woods), a well-known advertising executive with the right connections. Jeff assumes she has responded to a casting call for an ad model, and hires her upon noticing her obvious desperation. When he learns of her real reason for visiting, he storms out uninterested and goes to lunch. Jean, not one to give up easily, meets him at the restaurant and sits down to continue her pitch. Before Jeff can stop himself, he joins her in brainstorming. He concludes that the only way to get the skin cream off the ground is to find an interested investor to finance it. Jean is hesitant, but Jeff’s insistence leaves her with little room for argument. The process begins by designing an attractive presentation and then by sending a limited number of them to society’s top rich women.
A total of twelve affluent women receive the skin cream in a decadent package. Each package includes a card with a business proposition. This essentially kills the thrill of receiving the free gift, for all except one woman who expresses interest in financing the new cream. Jeff rushes to Jean to tell her the good news. Jean is speechless but excited all the same, until she learns that the interested party is none other than Flora Barton, the woman Denny left her to be with. Jean toys with the idea of rejecting the offer, but at the urging of her friend Gwen, she accepts it hesitantly. This makes Jean and Flora partners, and with Denny hanging around the office, the air is full of thick tension. Meanwhile, Jeff begins to fall for Jean. He holds his feelings back for the sake of keeping it professional, but as time goes on, it becomes more difficult for him. By now, the skin cream business is taking off. Jean took her modest idea and transformed it into a multi-million dollar company. Realizing this, Denny comes to Jean proclaiming that he’s still in love with her, and that he’d only married Flora for the money. She pretends to be unimpressed, but inside she still loves him. To get him out of her mind, she sends him to oversee the launch of a new company branch on the other side of the country. She believes that she will be over him by the time he comes home, so she pulls Flora aside and gives her a complete beauty makeover. When Denny comes home and sees Flora as a knockout, he will fall for her and be out of Jean’s love life – or so Jean assumes. The plan goes awry and some painful truths surface. Someone has to lose in this situation…so who’s it going to be?
Even in a B-movie such as this, there is something beautifully entertaining about Lucille Ball. Beauty For The Asking is loosely based on the story of cosmetics giant Helena Rubenstein. According to Wikipedia, Rubenstein was the founder and eponym of Helena Rubinstein, Incorporated, which made her one of the world’s richest women. At the age of 18, she moved to Australia, where she mixed medical formulas and ointments. In 1902, she opened the world’s first beauty salon in Melbourne. In 1908, she opened a beauty salon in London, another in Paris in 1912 and a third in New York City in 1914. Starting in 1917, Rubinstein took on the manufacturing and wholesale distribution of her products. There really isn’t much to compare between the film and Rubenstein, aside from the idea of a woman launching a successful cosmetics company. It took the concept and built a drama around it, and choosing Ball for the lead provided the much needed jolt to hold the audience. Patric Knowles, who played Denny, had nothing but a trail of B-movies to his credit. Studios are sometimes aware that they are shooting a “B-movie” simply to use a script they own the rights to. In those cases, it’s not too much of a gamble to let their relative unknowns headline. Lucille Ball used these films as experience and resume-builders, but she didn’t treat them as such. She gave 100% no matter how large the cast or how big the budget. This film was a block in the foundation that would become her staircase to superstardom. Again, a year later she met Desi and her films would begin to improve, publicity-wise and overall.
Beauty For The Asking had no release aside from an old VHS edition, which became difficult to find and expensive when it was found. Every so often, TCM added a showing to their schedule and that usually satisfied the Lucy aficionados who waited in earnest to lap up the explosion of art deco and vanity. But for the most part, this 1939 gem looked like it was going to fade quietly into obscurity, eclipsed by blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Thankfully, that didn’t happen; Warner Archive released it on September 26, 2017. The version aired by TCM pales a bit to Warner’s offering. The new DVD has a slightly sharper image and better sound, but the source material can only be so workable and I don’t expect Warner to spend anything on restoration given that this was basically a run-of-the-mill drama for RKO. Still, we have it now in a tangible form, and that’s more than we can say about a lot of films.
Though a lesser known film, Beauty For The Asking is not to be overlooked. If nothing else, it shows the humble beginnings of a future heavyweight in Hollywood. That said, the plot itself is believable. We’ve all bounced back from hardships, emotional or otherwise. In 1939, the business world was still predominantly run by men. For all the women who have ever had a dream and a will to succeed despite the odds, this is a blueprint for progress. Moreover, Lucille Ball is an inspiration. After reading her autobiography, Love, Lucy, it’s very conceivable that she could’ve quit in the face of everything she endured. She hit roadblock after roadblock, and pressed on because she refused to take no for an answer. The entertainment world owes her a million times over for her persistence.
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