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Lucille Ball
The first lady of comedy brought us laughter as well as emotional truth. No wonder everybody loved Lucy
By RICHARD ZOGLIN for Time Magazine
 


It happened somewhere between the clunky premier episode (Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her) and her first classic routine, the Vitameatavegamin commercial, in which Lucy gets steadily soused as she keeps downing spoonfuls of the alcohol-laced potion she's trying to hawk on TV. (Watch the spasm that jolts her face when she gets her first taste of the foul brew; it could serve as a textbook for comics well into the next millennium.) I Love Lucy debuted on CBS in October 1951, but at first it looked little different from other domestic comedies that were starting to make the move from radio to TV, like My Favorite Husband, the radio show Ball had co-starred in for three years. Lucy Ricardo was, in those early I Love Lucy episodes, just a generic daffy housewife. Ethel (Vivian Vance), her neighbor and landlady, was a stock busybody. Desi Arnaz, as bandleader Ricky Ricardo, hadn't yet become one of the finest straight men in TV history. William Frawley, as Fred Mertz, seemed a Hollywood has-been in search of work, which he was.

Then magic struck. Guided by Ball's comic brilliance, the show developed the shape and depth of great comedy. Lucy's quirks and foibles — her craving to be in show biz, her crazy schemes that always backfired, the constant fights with the Mertzes — became as particularized and familiar as the face across the dinner table. For four out of its six seasons (only six!), I Love Lucy was the No. 1-rated show on television; at its peak, in 1952-53, it averaged an incredible 67.3 rating, meaning that on a typical Monday night, more than two-thirds of all homes with TV sets were tuned to Lucy.

Ball's dizzy redhead with the elastic face and saucer eyes was the model for scores of comic TV females to follow. She and her show, moreover, helped define a still nascent medium. Before I Love Lucy, TV was feeling its way, adapting forms from other media. Live TV drama was an outgrowth of Broadway theater; game shows were transplanted from radio; variety shows and early comedy stars like Milton Berle came out of vaudeville. I Love Lucy was unmistakably a television show, and Ball the perfect star for the small screen. "I look like everybody's idea of an actress," she once said, "but I feel like a housewife." Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason were big men with larger-than-life personas; Lucy was one of us.

She grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., where her father, an electrician, died when she was just three. At 15 she began making forays to New York City to try to break into show business. She had little luck as an actress but worked as a model before moving to Hollywood in 1933 for a part in the chorus of Roman Scandals. Strikingly pretty, with chestnut hair dyed blond (until MGM hairdressers, seeking a more distinctive look, turned it red in 1942), she landed bit parts in B movies and moved up to classy fare like Stage Door, in which she held her own with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.

Buster Keaton, the great silent clown working as a consultant at MGM, recognized her comic gifts and worked with her on stunts. She got a few chances to show off her talent in films like DuBarry Was a Lady (with Red Skelton) and Fancy Pants (with Bob Hope) but never broke through to the top. By the end of the 1940s, with Ball approaching 40, her movie career was all but finished.

It was her husband Desi — a Cuban bandleader she married shortly after they met on the set of Too Many Girls in 1940 — who urged her to try television. CBS was interested in Ball, but not in the fellow with the pronounced Spanish accent she wanted to play her husband. To prove that the audience would accept them as a couple, Lucy and Desi cooked up a vaudeville act and took it on tour. It got rave reviews ("a sock new act," said Variety), and CBS relented.

But there were other haggles. Lucy and Desi wanted to shoot the show in Hollywood, rather than in New York City, where most TV was then being done. And for better quality, they insisted on shooting on film, rather than doing it live and recording on kinescope. CBS balked at the extra cost; the couple agreed to take a salary cut in return for full ownership of the program. It was a shrewd business decision: I Love Lucy was the launching pad for Desilu Productions, which (with other shows, like Our Miss Brooks and The Untouchables) became one of TV's most successful independent producers, before Paramount bought it in 1967.

Today I Love Lucy, with its farcical plots, broad physical humor and unliberated picture of marriage, is sometimes dismissed as a relic. Yet the show has the timeless perfection of a crystal goblet. For all its comic hyperbole, Lucy explored universal themes: the tensions of married life, the clash between career and home, the meaning of loyalty and friendship. The series also reflected most of the decade's important social trends. The Ricardos made their contribution to the baby boom in January 1953 — TV's Little Ricky was born on the same day that Ball gave birth, by caesarean, to her second child, Desi Jr. (A daughter, Lucie, had been born in 1951.) They traveled to California just as the nation was turning west, in a hilarious series of shows that epitomized our conception of — and obsession with — Hollywood glamour. And when the nation began moving to the suburbs, so too, in their last season, did the Ricardos.

Ball was a lithe and inventive physical comedian, and her famous slapstick bits — trying to keep up with a candy assembly line, stomping grapes in an Italian wine vat — were justly celebrated. But she was far more than a clown. Her mobile face could register a whole dictionary of emotions; her comic timing was unmatched; her devotion to the truth of her character never flagged. She was a tireless perfectionist. For one scene in which she needed to pop a paper bag, she spent three hours testing bags to make sure she got the right size and sound.

Most of all, I Love Lucy was grounded in emotional honesty. Though the couple had a tempestuous marriage off-screen (Desi was an unrepentant philanderer), the Ricardos' kisses showed the spark of real attraction. In the episode where Lucy finds out she is pregnant, she can't break the news to Ricky because he is too busy. Finally, she takes a table at his nightclub show and passes him an anonymous note asking that he sing a song, We're Having a Baby, to the father-to-be. As Ricky roams the room looking for the happy couple, he spies Lucy and moves on. Then he does a heartrending double take, glides to his knees and asks, voice cracking, whether it's true. Finishing the scene together onstage, the couple are overcome by the real emotion of their own impending baby. Director William Asher, dismayed by the unrehearsed tears, even shot a second, more upbeat take. Luckily he used the first one; it's the most touching moment in sitcom history.

Tired of the grind of a weekly series, Lucy and Desi ended I Love Lucy in 1957, when it was still No. 1. For three more years, they did hourlong specials, then broke up the act for good when they divorced in 1960. Ball returned to TV with two other popular (if less satisfying) TV series, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy; made a few more movies (starring in Mame in 1974); and attempted a final comeback in the 1986 ABC sitcom Life with Lucy, which lasted an ignominious eight weeks. But I Love Lucy lives on in reruns around the world, an endless loop of laughter and a reminder of the woman who helped make TV a habit, and an art.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008