The Big Street

The Big Street is a 1942 American drama film starring Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball, based on the short story "Little Pinks" by Damon Runyon, who also produced the movie. The film was directed by Irving Reis.[2][3] The screenplay was written by Leonard Spigelgass from Runyon's story.

The Big Street
Original poster
Directed byIrving Reis
Produced byDamon Runyon
Screenplay byLeonard Spigelgass
Based onLittle Pinks
Collier's Weekly (1940)
by Damon Runyon
StarringHenry Fonda
Lucille Ball
Music byRoy Webb
CinematographyRussell Metty
Edited byWilliam Hamilton
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures (US)
Release date
  • September 4, 1942 (1942-09-04) (U.S.)
  • August 13, 1942 (1942-08-13) (Premiere-New York City)[1]
Running time
88 minutes
CountryUnited States

Name's source

The Big Street was a nickname for Broadway,[4] where this movie's plot starts, and where all Runyon's stories take place.


The film focuses on busboy Augustus Pinkerton II (Henry Fonda), known as Little Pinks, and his relationship with a pretty but cold-hearted singer, Gloria Lyons (Lucille Ball), who is crippled in a fall after her boyfriend, New York City nightclub owner Case Ables (Barton MacLane), pushes her down a flight of stairs in a fit of jealousy. Left penniless by the expenses she incurs during a long convalescence, Gloria is forced to rely on the kindness of Pinks, who invites her to stay with him in his apartment.

When Pinks' friend Violette Shumberg (Agnes Moorehead) marries Nicely Nicely Johnson (Eugene Pallette) and the couple moves to Florida, Gloria orders Pinks to take her there to recuperate, and he pushes her to Miami in her wheelchair. There she reunites with an old lover, Decatur (William T. Orr), who loses interest in her when he discovers she is an invalid. Angry, she lashes out at Pinks, who leaves her and finds work as a busboy in a club owned by Case, only to return when Violette tells him Gloria is ill.

Despondent, Gloria confesses she longs to spend one last night in a gown bedecked with jewels. When Pinks sees socialite Mimi Venus (Marion Martin) wearing one, he breaks into her home, where he overhears her being blackmailed by one of Case's thugs, who is threatening to publicize her infidelity unless she gives him her jewelry. Pinks disguises himself and retrieves the gems from the thief, then tells Case he will report him to the police unless he agrees to host a party with Gloria as the guest of honor.

On the night of the party, the police arrest Pinks, whose Social Security card was found in Mimi's closet. When her husband Samuel learns why the busboy had broken into their home, he takes pity on him and drops the charges. Gloria finally realizes the sacrifices Pinks made for her, and he lifts her in his arms so they can dance. Gloria tells Pinks she wants to see the ocean, then dies. Undaunted, he carries her up the stairs to fulfill her final request.



Damon Runyon originally wanted to cast Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard in the lead roles, but neither one was interested in the project. Lombard suggested the producer consider her friend Lucille Ball and, despite pressure to hire a better-known actress, such as Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur, from RKO executives, Runyon offered her the role. Ball later recalled that at the time she was cast, "nothing much seemed to be happening for me at the studio. My $1000 weekly paycheck came regularly, but I was still a regular among the Bs." [5]

Filming did not go smoothly for the actress. Director Irving Reis was a novice, and co-star Henry Fonda, a former boyfriend on loan from 20th Century Fox, did not offer her much guidance. Fearing his wife might rekindle her relationship with Fonda, Desi Arnaz frequently lingered on the set. Despite these obstacles, Ball considered the film her favorite.[5]

The vocals for "Who Knows?" by Harry Revel and Mort Greene, performed by Gloria in Case's Manhattan club, were provided by Martha Mears. The character later reprises the song with Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra in the Miami nightspot.

The character of Nicely Nicely Johnson appears in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, as well as the film. Sam Levene hits the bulls-eye of comic relief in the role of Horsethief, an erudite gambler, a pre-cursor to Levene's legendary Broadway performance as the "craps-shooter extraordinaire" Nathan Detroit in the 1950 original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls (1950), which ran for 1,200 performances on Broadway.

Critical reception

The film critic for the New York Times called the film "smartly paced and colorful" and "crisply directed" but thought "in deviating occasionally from the plot's general comedy lines, the film over-dramatizes some none too plausible situations with an effect which is sometimes maudlin." He noted Henry Fonda "makes an acutely sympathetic hero opposite Miss Ball's able portrayal of the singer."[6]

Variety wrote that screenwriter Leonard Spigelgass did "a neat job of transferring the spirit of the piece to the screen, studding it with typical Runyon humor," and felt Lucille Ball "comes through with high laurels" and Henry Fonda "is at his best."[7]

Time Out London wrote that the film "captures much of [Runyon's] low-life spirit and colorful vernacular, but occasionally spoils it all by wallowing in unnecessary sentimentality" and added "Ball, in a rare straight role, is stunning."[8]

DVD release

Turner Home Entertainment released the film on Region 1 DVD on June 19, 2007. It has an audio track in English with subtitles in English and French. Bonus features included the animated short The Hep Cat and the musical short Calling All Girls.


  1. "The Big Street: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  2. Variety film review; August 5, 1942, page 27.
  3. Harrison's Reports film review; August 8, 1942, page 128.
  4. 1920s Fashion & Music, The Lurid History of Broadway in the 1920s; The term 'The Big Street' is used twice in this reference; In both of them it refers to 'The Broadway'.
  5. The Big Street at Turner Classic Movies
  6. New York Times review
  7. Variety review
  8. Time Out London review Archived February 21, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
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