TBT: Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)


Ages ago, Sarah bugged me about reviewing Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) on the merits of this photo alone:

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Because it’s ostentatious and Old Hollywood and, hey, that’s Lucille Ball, what’s she doing in a 18th-century-ish gown anyway? Also, it’s pink and rather drag-queeny, both of which I’m fond of. And yeah, I’d seen the flick, but counted it out since only half (or less) of the movie was historical. Then I learned that the few historical costumes in it were recycled from Marie Antoinette (1938), starring Norma Shearer. Also, Lucille Ball never wears this gown, from Marie Antoinette, in Du Barry Was a Lady, it’s just a promo pic! But I rewatched Du Barry for the umpteenth time, and I really am a sucker for this kind of thing, so what the hell.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Here’s Shearer wearing that pink gown, but in black and white. So yay that the second movie’s promo at least shows it in color.

This movie is a musical, but only because it’s set in a 1940s nightclub and most of the characters are the club’s performers, thus the film is filled with set pieces. Ball plays the star singer/dancer May Daly, Gene Kelly is dancer/songwriter Alec Howe, and Red Skelton is the coat-check attendant Louis. May and Alec are in love, but she’s fighting it because he’s poor.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Not historical, but I’m including it because it’s awesome, and we often forget that Lucille Ball was a hottie before she was funny.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

May Daly’s big stage show as “Du Barry” has her wearing this pannier outfit.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Her tall 18th-c. style wig is made mostly of ostrich feathers, which looks pretty cool, IMO.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

I just like the crazy headdresses on these backup singers from a different song-and-dance number. They’re in the same theme as Daly/Du Barry’s.

Comedic-relief Louis pines for the hot redhead May but has no chance, until he wins a sweepstakes and asks her to marry him. But before the deed is done, he’s knocked unconscious, and the movie goes into a dream sequence where he imagines he’s King Louis XV, and May is actually Madame Du Barry. Cue fanfare…

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

This cracks me up every time. It’s a showgirl version of 18th-c. court wear. About 50 years later, Madonna’s male backup dancers wore similar outfits for her “Vogue” performance at the MTV Music Video Awards.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

There’s a lot of recycled costumes at Versailles today.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Tommy Dorsey! For reals! I’m literally LOLing!

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

You don’t need to be a musical historian to know this is not accurate for the 18th century.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

This singing group, the Pied Pipers, performed with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra often. If I can get a better screencap of the woman’s hair, I’d love for Kendra to do an in-depth analysis of how contemporary hairstyles affected period styles, because there’s a 1940s roll desperately trying to escape that supposedly 18th-c. wig.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Madame Du Barry’s hair, however, is likely borrowed from 1938’s Marie Antoinette, just with different decoration.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

This is just one of the 1938 wigs that look a lot like what Lucille Ball is wearing.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Du Barry is not super impressed by King Louis’ attentions.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Hijinks ensue!

Of course, the love triangle has to play out in the flashback. Alec shows up as a revolutionary called the Black Arrow, and Du Barry falls in love with him instead of the king.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

The Black Arrow is man enough to come out of the closet.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)


Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Du Barry sneaks a visit to see the Black Arrow, accompanied by an unnamed lady-in-waiting. Both outfits are recycled from the Norma Shearer movie, Du Barry’s with a larger fur collar added.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

This is the riding habit from the 1938 movie. It has a small fur collar and a lot of embroidery.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Here’s an auction catalog photo of the actual riding habit from 1938’s Marie Antoinette, for comparison.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

And a full promo image of Lucille Ball in the recycled riding habit.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

I’m going to bet the mens’ costumes are also recycled from Marie Antoinette, I just couldn’t find the screencaps after umpteen hours of searching through black and white photos. Sorry.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Du Barry pleads with the king not to execute the Black Arrow (while she wears a second riding habit). Louis’ wig isn’t terrible — it’s got that Macaroni bump shape in the front and buckles (rolls) on the side, and maybe even a bag in the back. Unlike the spit curled and marcel waved wigs the other men wear.

Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Promo pic of her last historical costume — this has got to be recycled from something, any clues?

After a little bit of historically improbable shenanigans, Louis wakes up, his sweepstakes is taken by the tax collector, and May and Alec declare their true feelings. Oh, and there were a bunch of songs in between, before, during, and after the flashback, and all are 1940s numbers, which is the best part of the whole movie to me. And, hey, at least these cool costumes got another airing!


Du Barry Was a Lady, pro or con?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

22 Responses

  1. Laura Boyes

    Her lady in waiting is Virginia O’ Brien, who sings “No matter how you slice it, boys, it’s still, Salome.”

  2. picasso Manu

    I LOVE old Hollywood. So glamour, so over the top… So bling!

    “May Daly’s big stage show as “Du Barry” has her wearing this pannier outfit.”
    Outfit? What outfit?

    That’s not our old friend the head necklace Lucille is sporting, it’s the head jeweler shop window!
    And the satin shorts trumpeters! And that pearl necklace! ROFL!

    One thing, though: The great hairpin shortage had not stricken yet, so neat dos and wigs. (out of period, but hey, let’s not be picky!)

  3. Statuesque seamstress

    This plot reminds me of the plot of the picture-within-a-picture device in Singin’ in the Rain. Except it’s missing Cyd Charisse flashing her crazy-long snaky legs.

      • Karen K.

        That was my first reaction — hey, that’s just like Singing in the Rain! Now I know where they got the idea. The fact that Gene Kelly is in both films is just too much of a coincidence for me.

  4. cold comfort

    The woman with the era-crossing hair in the Pied Pipers is Jo Stafford. She became a pretty major music star in her own right, and I can listen to her for hours.

    • MoHub

      Stafford had perfect pitch—to the point where she could deliberately sharp or flat a pitch by as close as an eighth off. She and her jazz-pianist husband used that talent to create Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, probably the worst entertainers in music. They originally performed as Jonathan and Darlene at friends’ parties, but they eventually made recordings and even won a Comedy Grammy.

      Here’s their version of “Stayin’ Alive”:

  5. Kelly

    Proof that Lucille Ball could actually handle a heavy headdress, despite the show girl falling down the stairs bit in I Love Lucy.

  6. Yosa Addiss

    Why, why didn’t this time period exist? I want to recreate and wear all of these old movie costumes! All of them!

    • MoHub

      As it’s meant to do. The deliberate badness of their work is genius personified.

  7. Susan Pola

    I forgot about Ms Ball in this. I’ll try to see it later. I remember watching her in Stage Door with the incomparable Katherine Hepburn and realized she could snark with the best of them.

  8. Frannie Germeshausen

    I adore Lucille Ball. Yes, she was beautiful, smart as a whip, and absolutely fearless in the pursuit of what was funny.

  9. Elisa

    I must have seen this movie very closely to Singin’ In the Rain because I grew up mixing them together. i was very surprise when I watched Singin In the Rain as an adult and realised it wasn’t set in the 18th century, as I remembered it. And then I spent 15 years wondering where all those extra scenes I remembered came from. it all fell into place when I stumbled over this one…

  10. Karen K.

    I’ve seen photos of Lucille glammed up and I was surprised at how smokin’ hot she was. But I think she was smart to focus on comedy which probably resulted in a much longer career.

    And these screen shots are pretty hilarious — those wigs! The jewelry! Tommy Dorsey in costume — I might have to watch this just for laughs. But I would pay good money for that fabulous blue hat with the pink and blue ostrich feathers.

  11. Natalie Johnson

    Fun article and website. I love the photograph of Lucille Ball in Du Barry Was A Lady in the 18th Century gown. Where did you get it? I’d love to get an 8×10 print of it made, but the image quality is too low. Do you have a higher resolution copy you could share, or refer me to your source? Thanks!