Thursday, April 11, 2013

I Love Lucy: The Funniest American Comedy with the Saddest Ending

I Love Lucy was a masterpiece in comedy. With its ridiculous plots (and Lucy's ridiculous behavior) and hilariously funny one-liners, no other show could compete. Lucille Ball, a tall, stunningly beautiful ex-showgirl didn't hesitate to make herself look silly for a laugh, and that's what made her so charming--her ability to join the audience in laughing at herself. 

The Incomparable Lucile Ball

Lucille Ball dropped out of high school when she was 15 to become an actress. Unfortunately, she had a rough start--she flunked out of the John Murray Anderson School of Drama! (The star of the school at that time was 18 year old Bette Davis!) Lucille then tried modeling for a career. She modeled hats, which always looked lovely on her bright red hair; modeled for billboards, and briefly changed her name to Diane Belmont trying to appear more sophisticated, but she eventually realized that the public didn't want sophistication, they wanted Lucy! 

Lucy appeared with Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals and the Three Stooges in Three Little Pigskins. It's not often that Hollywood quickly recognizes star material in an actor, but they did in Lucille Ball. She was soon cast alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Gene Kelly, and Katherine Hepburn. 

A Match Made in the Commissary

In June of 1940, the lovely, leggy, red-haired model Lucille was at the commissary at RKO studios when a devastatingly handsome Cuban bandleader asked her if she knew how to rumba. Of course she said no, hoping he would teach her, which he did. The couple fell hopelessly in love, with the emphasis on hopeless as it was well-known that Desi Arnaz enjoyed spending time with women, something Lucille knew from the start, but chose to ignore. 

Desi Arnaz was actually the son of a Cuban senator and his mother was considered one of the most beautiful women in Latin America according to John Javna's Cult TV. He was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y Acha III into a wealthy family in Santiago. When the Batista revolution exploded in Cuba in 1933, Desi was 16 years old. He fled to America with his mother and they found a home in Miami, Florida. Desi quickly learned English, which enabled him to find employment quite easily. He was hired as a singer for the Xavier Cugat band. Critics found his singing tolerable, but raved about his looks and when he was 23 he was cast in the film Too Many Girls. Lucille Ball was also in the film. As a interesting bit of irony, when she met and fell in love with her husband, he really was a famous bandleader!  

A Failing Marriage Sparks a History-Making Sitcom

At the same time the audience is laughing at the antics of Lucille, there is always the very public knowledge hovering in their minds that she created the show to save her failing marriage. Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911-April 26-1989) and Desi Arnaz (March 2, 1917-December 2, 1986) eloped on November 29, 1940. The Marriage was problematic from the start due to the performance schedule of Desi Arnaz, who was always on the road, and constant rumors of his infidelity. 

Lucy was searching for a way to keep the two together and thought she'd found it when she was cast as Liz Cugat for the CBS radio program My Favorite Husband in 1948. The show was a great success and she was asked to develop it for television, but she insisted on having Desi Arnaz on the show. CBS was reluctant due to the Cuban background of Arnaz, so Lucille Ball created the Desilu Productions company hoping to convince sponsors to buy the show if she created it herself. They promoted the show as a vaudeville act with Lucille Ball playing the role she made famous in I Love Lucy, the zany housewife constantly trying to appear on her husband's show. 

Lucille Ball was a clever woman, always. She realized early on in her marriage that she was dealing with an insecure man who was apparently jealous of his wife's success, so she created a show that made him the hero. The vaudeville act was a hit, and CBS bought the television show. The show temporarily brought them closer together as Desi Arnaz cancelled his performance tour to appear on television in I Love Lucy

Friends, Neighbors, and Landlords 

Lucy was undoubtedly the star of the show, which starred Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo, and their neighbors/landlords, William Frawley as Fred Mertz and Vivian Vance as Fred's wife, Ethel. Desi and Fred were like two peas in a pod, constantly grumbling about their zany wives. Ricky's trademark shout was "Loooocy," which he used when he was angry with his wife and when he was seeking the love of his life, either way, but with a different tone of voice. Lucy's trademark was a bawling "Waaahh" whenever she knew she was in trouble, which was often. Ethel was the voice of reason in her friendship with Lucy. She would shake her head, express her doubt, but eventually go along with Lucy's plans. 

The cast of I Love Lucy: William Frawley, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball. 

William Frawley (1887-1966) played Fred Mertz on the show. He didn't audition for the role, he called Lucille Ball and asked for the part. The two met ten years earlier, but Lucille remembered him and cast him in the role, even though he was quite a bit older than his on-screen wife, which sometimes created tension when they were off the set. Frawley was a professional, though, always. He was a veteran vaudevillian who also appeared in over 100 films. He was an accomplished singer who introduced the song "My Mammy" to vaudeville. Unfortunately, he also suffered from the disease of alcoholism. Lucille made it clear to Frawley that he would be fired with no second chances if he ever appeared drunk on the set of the show, and he never did.

The cast of I Love Lucy from the 1955 episode "Face to Face." 

Vivian Vance (1909-1979) played Ethel Mertz, Fred's wife. When she was hired for the show, Vance had only appeared in two other films, which obviously made Lucille and Desi uncomfortable until they watched her act on stage and she won their hearts. She was cast as a frumpy housewife, which unfortunately became less and less appealing to her as time wore on, particularly considering the great difference in age between Vance and her co-star, William Frawley, who she often complained was old enough to be her father--Vance was 39 and Frawley was 64. Vance, however, was loyal, and when I Love Lucy ended and Lucille Ball started The Lucy Show in 1965, Vance stayed with Lucy as a regular cast member.  

And Baby Makes Three

Lucille Ball always wanted to have children and tragically suffered through numerous miscarriages. The first child of Lucy and Desi Arnaz, Luci Desiree Arnaz, was born on July 17, 1941, one month before Lucy's 40th birthday. A year later, when I Love Lucy was on the air, Lucille Ball became pregnant again. The producers decided to write the pregnancy into the script, which was groundbreaking television. They insisted, however, that no one use the word "pregnant." They could only say Lucy was "expecting!" Lol! Oh how times have changed. 

Luci Desiree Arnaz, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz Jr. in Here's Lucy, 1967.

Little Ricky's appearance on the show was made in the episode "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," which aired on January 20, 1953, the same day as the inauguration of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Little Ricky was clearly more popular than Ike! Eisenhower's inauguration attracted 29 million viewers while Little Ricky's birth drew 44 million viewers. 

Lucille Ball with Richard and Ronald Simmons, the twins who played Little Ricky. 

The day Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz IV, a record 44 million viewers tuned in to the show. Little Ricky, as he was called, was presented on the show as a doll and a child named Jerry Hausner provided the real life newborn baby cries. Later in the show, six-month-old twins Richard and Ronald Simmons played the role of Little Ricky. Then three-year-old twins Michael and Joseph Mayer were cast in the role. Richard Keith was the final actor to play Little Ricky. 

Most Popular Episodes (in my Little World!) 

In addition to "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," there were many other popular episodes that attracted a wide audience. In the 1956 episode "Lucy's Italian Move," for instance, Lucy is considered for a role in a film called Bitter Grapes. She mistakenly believes the show is about wine making and prepares for the film by flying to Rome. I will never forget the wonderful scene when Lucille Ball climbs into the grape-stomping vat with Teresa Terelli and ends up covered in grapes! One of Lucille Ball's best performances on this show, in my opinion.  

Another one of my favorites is the 1952 episode "Job Switching" when Lucy and Ethel decide to leave their jobs as housewives and are hired at a local candy making factory. They are failures in dipping and boxing and end up in the wrapping department, but cannot keep up with the conveyor belt and end up stuffing candy in their aprons, hats, and mouths. This show was often imitated by Laverne & Shirley, a spin-off of the comedy Happy Days. Laverne and Shirley work at the conveyor belt at Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee and are often shown making hilarious mistakes at work.  

The End, in so Many Painful Ways

I Love Lucy first aired on October 15, 1951. The finale aired on June 24, 1957. The show ranked in the Top 25 television shows every year it was on the air, and it was the number one show in America for five of those seven years. It was the first show filmed for broadcast. It was the first show seen by 10 million viewers. The show won five Emmies, including two for Best Comedy Series. It was the highest rated show in the 1950s.

Following Season Six, Lucy and Desi decided to cut down on the episodes and extend the show to 60 minutes, featuring a special guest star in each episode. The show was also renamed The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, then The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and ran from 1957 to 1960 with the same cast as I Love Lucy

On March 2, 1960, Desi Arnaz's birthday, Lucille Ball filed for divorce after they completed filming the show. At the end of the episode, "Lucy Meets the Moustache," the couple kiss, and for many years this was the most famous kiss in Hollywood when the audience understood that Lucy was kissing her husband goodbye forever. The show ended with a song, "That's All." 

  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Leibman, Nina. "Lucille Ball." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

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