Moments of Movie Wisdom: An Unselfish Act in ‘Beauty for the Asking’ (1939)

Moments of Movie Wisdom: An Unselfish Act in ‘Beauty for the Asking’ (1939)

Actress Lucille Ball in 1944. (Public Domain)

Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

3/26/2024

Updated: 3/26/2024

Commentary
When someone mentions the name Lucille Ball, most people picture the red-headed comedienne of the “I Love Lucy” sitcom in the 1950s. However, that was just part of her long, illustrious Hollywood career. Long before she and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz became one of television’s most beloved couples, she starred in many RKO films. Although now obscure, many of these are entertaining movies which gave Lucy a chance to showcase her dramatic acting skills.
Today’s moment of movie wisdom is from “Beauty for the Asking” (1939). The scene in question takes place 47 minutes into this 68-minute film. Wealthy but plain socialite Flora Barton (Frieda Inescort) asks beauty salon owner Jean Russell (Lucille Ball) for advice on her marriage. Flora knows that she is older than her husband Denny and that he isn’t madly in love with her, but Jean bluntly tells her that she could make herself look better, offering to help transform Flora’s appearance before her husband returns in six weeks. Jean’s appraisal seems brutally honest, but it’s a very unselfish action because she is in love with Denny herself but believes he should stick with his wife.
Post card featuring actress Lucille Ball between 1930 and 1945. (Public Domain)

Post card featuring actress Lucille Ball between 1930 and 1945. (Public Domain)

The Story

Pretty young beautician Jean Russell is thrilled because she finally has perfected her formula for a multipurpose face cream. She can’t wait to tell her fiancé, Denny Williams (Patric Knowles), a cosmetic salesman. She is convinced that the cream will be their ticket to success and financial security. However, Denny has a surprise of his own when he returns from his business trip. He has met millionairess Flora Barton, and they are engaged. Flora, who is older than Denny and rather plain, is the only person who doesn’t seem to realize that Denny is just marrying her for her ten million dollars. Jean is devastated when Denny tells her, but her best friend, co-worker, and roommate, Gwen Morrison (Inez Courtney), tries to convince her that she’s well rid of Denny.
When a client at the beauty shop is gossiping about Denny’s marriage to the older woman, Jean grows so frustrated that she shoves cold cream in her mouth. Both she and Gwen are fired, so Gwen convinces Jean that it’s time for her to start trying to sell her face cream. Jean goes to a big advertising firm and, mistaken for a model, gets into Jeffrey Martin’s (Donald Woods) office. He doesn’t want to hear about her idea, but she follows him to a restaurant at lunchtime and insists on sitting with him. He gets excited about the cream and launches a huge advertising campaign to open a salon. He solicits some of the wealthiest women in town, and the one socialite who responds is Mrs. Denny Williams, since she thinks it will create a good career opportunity for her new husband. Despite her reluctance to see Denny again, Jean goes through with the deal. Meanwhile, Denny doesn’t take his marriage very seriously, and he is still interested in Jean.

The Scene

After Denny continues to make advances to Jean, despite her insistence that he must be faithful to his wife, the beauty business owner sends him out to the West Coast to open a new location. She hopes that he’ll cool off while he’s separated from her. Once he’s left, Flora comes to Jean to confide in her and ask for advice. She knows that Jean is an old friend of Denny’s, although she has no idea they were engaged when he met her.
It’s been hard for Jean to maintain the masquerade in front of Flora. Despite his bad treatment of Jean, she is still in love with Denny; seeing him almost every day at work has only made it worse. He has been increasingly frank with her about his dissatisfaction with his wife. He now openly admits to Jean that he only married Flora for her money, subtly trying to lure her into an extramarital romance behind Flora’s back. Jean firmly believes that Denny could still be a decent person, but only if he sticks with his wife.
Now, her rival addresses her as a friend, sweetly and sincerely confiding in her about her marital difficulties. Jean is conflicted, since she has heard Denny tell her plainly the sad truth about their marriage which the neglected wife has come to realize herself. His affections are straying. Unable to maintain the façade any longer, Jean honestly tells Flora that she can partly blame herself. Although Flora is in the beauty business, she has used none of the cosmetic magic to glamorize her own appearance. Jean says that she can give Flora the works during the six weeks that Denny will be gone. When he returns, he will find a glamorous, beautiful wife whom he will barely recognize!
British actress Frieda Inescort in the trailer for "Pride and Prejudice" in 1940. (Public Domain)

British actress Frieda Inescort in the trailer for "Pride and Prejudice" in 1940. (Public Domain)

Its Significance

It isn’t easy for one woman to tell another woman that she needs to do something with herself. Jean starts by giving Flora advice on playing hard to get to attract Denny, adding, “Any high school girl knows that you have to hold back a little.” Flora replies, “Unfortunately, I’m no longer a high school girl. Look at me.” Jean looks at her intensely and wordlessly, so Flora replies, “Is it that bad?” “It’s pretty bad,” Jean simply replies, adding, “considering that you’re in the beauty business, and you have every resource at your command. Women don’t have to look as you do anymore!”
Flora’s feelings are understandably hurt by this blunt assessment, but she knows that Jean is just being honest. Jean continues, “It takes a lot of effort to be beautiful, Flora. You can’t just relax and let someone else get a workout massaging you. You have to rest your stomach, exercise your willpower ... till you get so hungry you could scream and so tired you can’t. But, boy, are the results worth it. Especially with a fellow like Denny!” Excited by the prospect of attracting Denny, Flora realizes that her husband won’t be back for six weeks. Jean matches her excitement and promises to transform her.

A Selfless Act

This scene isn’t just about a woman who convinces another woman to make her appearance more glamorous. It’s about a woman who decides to help her rival be more attractive to the man she loves. Jean wishes that she had become Mrs. Williams, and she knows that Denny has more feelings for her than for the woman he married. However, she respects marriage, and she pities Flora as an innocent victim of Denny’s gold-digging.
As a younger and far more attractive woman, Jean doesn’t have to try very hard to look better than Flora, but she knows that it wouldn’t be right to humor Denny’s wandering eye. She loves Denny too much to want him to throw away his last chance at being a decent person, so Jean makes it her goal to help her rival win Denny away from her once and for all.
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Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

Author

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.

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