Watching 1939: Beauty for the Asking (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Beauty for the Asking (1939)

Release date: 
Feb. 10, 1939

Cast: 
Lucille Ball, Patric Knowles, Donald Woods, Frieda Inescort, Inez Courtney, Leona Maricle, Frances Mercer, Whitney Bourne, Kay Sutton, Ann Evers, Charles Coleman (uncredited), Leon Belasco (uncredited)

Studio: 
RKO Radio Pictures

Director: 
Glenn Tryon

Plot:
Jean Russell (Ball) is jilted by her fiancée Denny Williams (Knowles), when he marries $10 million heiress Flora Barton-Williams (Inescort). After also losing her job, Jean tries to focus on marketing a cold cream that she has been developing in her kitchen. Jean becomes a successful cosmetic entrepreneur with a cold cream and beauty salon with Denny and his wife as an investor in the business, with Denny trying to get back in Jean’s good favors.

1939 Notes:
• Last film of Whitney Bourne.
By the numbers:
• Lucille Ball was in five films released in 1939.
• Frieda Inescort was in five films released in 1939.
• Donald Woods was in three films released in 1939.
• Patric Knowles was in six films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• It is speculated that the film is about Helena Rubinstein, who emigrated to America after refusing an arranged marriage and became the world’s richest woman when she created a cosmetic entrepreneur.
• Costumes and jewelry by Eugene Joseff.

Lucille Ball and Inez Courtney working as beauticians at the start of “Beauty for the Asking” (1939).

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
I have to blurt this out before I even get into the review — I LOVE this film.

In “Beauty for the Asking” (1939), Lucille Ball plays Jean Russell, a beautician who has been working on perfecting a face-firming cold cream in her kitchen. Her boyfriend is Denny Williams (played by Patric Knowles), a beauty salesman, who jilts her after returning from a business trip. Denny has his eyes set on higher stakes – marrying Flora Barton-Williams (Frieda Inescort) who is plain and older than Denny, but has $10 million behind her name.

To ease a broken heart and reinvent herself, Jean decides to market her cold cream. With the help of her roommate Gwen Morrison (Inez Courtney) and advertising executive Jeffrey Martin (Donald Woods), Jean becomes a success with the cream and opens her own salon. Jeffrey secures wealthy investors, who include Flora and Denny Williams. Now that Jean is financially successful, Denny tries to get back in her good favor.

For those who aren’t familiar with Lucille Ball’s film career, this is not the same Lucy you saw on “I Love Lucy.” By 1939, Ball had acted in nearly 50 films since 1933 and was mainly landing supporting characters or leading lady B-movie roles, like this one.

Ball didn’t transform into “Lucy,” until the 1948 comedy radio show “My Favorite Husband,” which paved the way for the “I Love Lucy” television show, which premiered in 1951.

Here, Ball plays a dramatic but glamorous role. She’s bitter from being jilted and eager for success.

But though “Beauty for the Asking” is a B-movie, it is still excellent.

RKO Radio Studios originally advertised that the film was going to be an “exposé of the beauty racket.” The film does show some of the tricks that are played, but it’s not exposé. It more shows the frivolity of consumers.

For example, one of Jean’s salon customers is having a fit, because the beauty salon doesn’t have face cream with turtle oil, because “That’s the most expensive.” Jean smooths things over with the customer saying that her cream has petroleum, which is even more luxurious and expensive. When the beautician privately asks Jean what petroleum is, she says “another word for Vaseline.”

When Jean is creating her brand, they know that the jar is almost more important than its contents. A sculptor creates the bust of a woman, which will top the jar, and advises that the jar should be made out of iridescent crystal that will make it look like a cloud. Jean and Jeffrey like this idea (though I didn’t feel this is how the jar looked).

Also, while Jean is trying to build her salon and find financial backers, exclusive first-look samples of her face cream are delivered to the wealthiest women in Manhattan. It’s almost like an earlier “influencer” program of 1939!

If you love beauty and beauty products, you will love this movie. The way everything is described, and the montages and seeing the various beauty treatments in the film are so luxurious and fabulous.

We even get the added treat of a makeover montage with Frieda Inescort. Inescort’s character is made to look very plain; it appears that the actress isn’t wearing any make-up at the start of the film. In her makeover, Inescort exercises, is massaged, and her hair is redone.

I love one line that Ball’s character says – that now she has made Inescort healthy, saying that beauty first comes with health.

There is some cattiness that comes with this film, which may remind you of The Women (1939), but this film isn’t like “The Women.” The wealthy so-called friends of Inescort’s character frequently badmouth her behind her back; frequently discussing how young her husband is and each has designs for him. The leader of the pack is played by Leona Maricle.

Ball’s character of Jean has every reason to hate Inescort’s character of Flora since she (unknowingly) stole Denny away from Jean.

But hearing the cattiness, Jean decides to help Flora become glamorous.

Unlike The Women (1939), this film shows women helping other women. In the end, there is no getting back with the old flame (like Mary in The Women going back to Stephen), and our heroines triumph in business, independence and new romance. Audiences of today could even see this to be a bit feminist.

“Beauty for the Asking” is also a brisk 68 minutes. And in that hour and eight minutes, it packs a punch with a gripping story and deliciously satisfactory ending.

The film is also visually beautiful with the art deco beauty salon, and why not? The art direction is by Van Nest Polglase, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Citzen Kane (1941).

Is this the best film of 1939? No, but it is one of the most enjoyable.

Patric Knowles, Lucille Ball and Donald Woods in “Beauty for the Asking” (1939).

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