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Why We Still Love Lucy

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Today, Lucille Ball is best known as a comedienne, but her career didn’t start out that way. After working as a model in New York City, Ball came to Hollywood as a showgirl. She went on to act in a number of films, but didn’t become a household named until 1951, when she captured the nation’s heart as a flame-haired housewife named Lucy Ricardo. American Experience spoke with Kathleen Brady, author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball, about the actress’s comic genius, and the revolutionary show that still has us laughing.

Kathleen Brady

Why did it take so long for Lucille Ball’s comic gifts to be recognized, and what was the turning point?
Lucille Ball could have been a great star of the silent era if she’d been born earlier. Women were able to do funny stunts on screen in silent films, but after sound came in the late 1920s, studio heads insisted that actresses be beautiful and glamorous. Stars like Carole Lombard could say witty things, but they could not take pratfalls.

Lucille Ball appeared in films with some of the greatest people in comedy — including the Marx Brothers — but none of them recognized her talent. The exception was Buster Keaton, who by then was past his box office prime. Keaton and a director named Ed Sedgwick had a comedy unit at Columbia Pictures, and they decided to bring Ball over. They made some films where she did all these crazy, funny things like get caught in a mudslide, jackhammer a foundation, and hang from a clothesline. These films didn’t take the country by storm, but they showed what she could do physically.

Ball herself had no idea of her great gift for a long time. What she really cared about was that she was an actress — that was a real calling to her. When I interviewed her, she said, “I am an actress who has learned to execute in a comedic way what my writers write for me.”

Ball’s popularity as a comedienne really took off with the radio show My Favorite Husband. What did she learn from her radio experience?
My Favorite Husband was about a banker with an eccentric wife, who always tried to help him, but usually ended up undermining him instead. The show was recorded in front of a live audience, and Lucille discovered that their approval helped her shine. I think she can seem a little wooden in films, and what she needed was the energy of an audience to help her be all that she could be.

For example, she had to do the commercials for the show. She hated doing them, so her producer told her to try performing them as characters from nursery rhymes. She did Little Miss Muffet and her encounter with the spider. And when she did that, she made all these funny facial contortions of shock and horror. And the audience roared with laughter. She learned then what she could do with her face, and we see that in her close-ups on TV.

My Favorite Husband was really the beginning of I Love Lucy; it was there that she met the producer Jess Oppenheimer, and the writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, who would work on I Love Lucy. Little did they know they were in the process of becoming great.

Bill Paley, an executive at CBS, wanted to bring My Favorite Husband from radio to television. But Lucy had an important condition. What was that?
Lucille Ball said she would do it if she could work with her husband Desi Arnaz. Well, there he was and he was Cuban. And very handsome. Women loved him; the executives at CBS liked him a lot less. They said no one would believe that a red-blooded American girl could be married to a Cuban. Of course, by that time, Lucille and Desi had been married for about a decade.

So, before the show even started, when it was still being talked about, Lucy and Desi went out on the road. They would appear in person in movie theaters before the films began and put on an act. They were wonderfully well-received by the public, which softened the resistance of the executives to Desi. And once the show aired, to my knowledge, no letter was ever received complaining that this man was not American-born.

How was I Love Lucy received when it premiered?
Some critics did not like it very much and said that the plot was inane, but the audience at home loved it. Within a month, it was clear that this was quite a phenomenon.

Aside from Lucille Ball’s great comedic talents, what made the show so appealing?
Added to the fact that the show was enormously funny, I Love Lucy had enormous heart. The Ricardos and their friends the Mertzes really did love each other and that came across. It was something that people wanted in their living rooms.

Lucy Ricardo was a housewife — but not exactly a traditional one. How did that character conform to and depart from conventional notions of the American housewife?
Lucy Ricardo did not conform to the mold of the American housewife at all. There were some serious people who thought that Lucy demeaned women because she was a dingbat housewife constantly being thwarted by her sensible husband. But if we are going to be serious, to me, the underlying theme of that show is the eternal power struggle between the trickster and the powers-that-be. Lucy Ricardo was one of the first female tricksters. Before, going all the way back to Commedia dell’arte, a trickster was usually a man. Trouble-making women were sirens like Delilah, of Samson and Delilah.

So Lucy depicted women doing ordinary things like baking bread, but when she baked bread, her loaf erupted and became as big as the kitchen and knocked her into the living room. And yet, no matter how much mayhem she caused, Lucy Ricardo remained a wonderful mother and a committed homemaker, who put her vacuum cleaner away neatly in the closet before she went out to impersonate a Martian.

I think the truth is that crazy, funny things happen when you’re at home and raising kids. But television at the time did not depict that. The Ricardo household was not a monument to the sanctity of the home — rather, it was quite a laboratory of excitement. There was a lot that was revolutionary about the show. The portrayal of a ditsy woman today might offend people if Lucille Ball weren’t so funny and the show wasn’t so much fun.

A small sampling of Lucille’s Ball’s many facial expressions. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collectio/Library of Congress

One of the more “revolutionary” moments on the show was the episode where Lucy has a baby — which didn’t typically happen on television in the 1950s. How did that episode come to be and how was it received?
When Lucille Ball became pregnant for the second time, they thought that might be the end of the show. Pregnancy indicated sexual activity, which wasn’t supposed to be shown on television at the time — even if the father was her husband in real life as well as in the show. So, in fear and trembling, Lucille and Desi went to tell the producer, Jess Oppenheimer. But he was delighted. He said, “This is great!”

The writers worked her pregnancy into the show. Of course, they had to have a priest, a rabbi and a Protestant minister on the set to make sure that nothing seemed improper or immoral in the shooting of Lucy Ricardo’s pregnancy. Oh, and they weren’t allowed to use the word “pregnant” either. The name of the episode where Lucy tells Ricky she’s pregnant was “Lucy Is Enceinte” enceinte being the French word for pregnant.

The episode where she has the baby aired on the same night that Lucille was actually scheduled to give birth by cesarean. Forty-four million people watched that episode. The next day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the hero of World War II, was inaugurated as president — only 29 million people tuned in.

Clearly, the show had a huge impact in its own time and beyond. What do you think has been its most enduring influence?
Culturally, I think the major influence that I Love Lucy had on television and possibly on American entertainment as a whole is that it celebrated the fun and the depth of female friendship. Lucy and Ethel are one of the great partnerships in our cultural history. They are the Sherlock and Watson of sitcoms. From that model came Laverne & Shirley, and Kate & Allie. I think Lucille Ball’s partnership with Vivian Vance paved the way for the great friendships on Sex in the City. As for the power of one physical stunt they did together: In the revived Will & Grace, which has just returned to television, Grace and Karen copy the shower scene from The Lucy Show, Ball’s later show that continued the theme of female friendships.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz actually created their own company to produce I Love Lucy. Desilu Studios, as it was called, became a major player in Hollywood, and made Lucille and Desi rich. What was Lucille like as a businesswoman?
She told me that I Love Lucy was the product of her demands and Desi’s ability to make them happen. She wanted to do the show in Los Angeles, which was then unheard of because television was done in New York. She wanted it taped in front of a live audience because she knew that was when she was at her best. And she wanted it on film so that they could show it to their kids in the future. Desi managed to make all that happen.

Lucille herself did not want to be seen as a lady executive. Even Lucille Ball was formed by the culture that she lived in; being seen as a businesswoman was something that seemed un-feminine, and she was very uncomfortable with that. In her first interview as the head of Desilu Studios, she dusted her office as she talked about the company’s plans for the future.

But you know, I give her credit for being a great businesswoman because she empowered and trusted the people she hired after Desi left the studio. She was decisive, and she made great decisions. Her new hires presented several pilots, including Star Trek. She thought Star Trek was about the USO in World War II. Herb Solow, the vice president of production, had to explain to her that it was U-F-O and science fiction. She just knew nothing about it. But she gave it the okay. As she did with Mission Impossible. And those two programs, together with her Lucy Show, really saved Desilu and made it an attractive property that she could sell. 

In your book, you also talk about how important family was to her — her own blood relations, but also her work family.
She really did care that there be a family feeling at her company. She was trying to recreate some of the happiest times of her own childhood, so she had company picnics for the staff and their families.

But she was a very strong personality. One of her childhood friends said to me, “Lucille was the first person to help a blind man across the street, whether he wanted to go or not.” So that was part of Lucille Ball. She knew what was right for you and, by heaven, she was going to help you do what she thought was best. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. She wanted her two writers to marry each other, and when they didn’t, she didn’t speak to them for a long time. She could be difficult — but who can’t? She was very human.

How do you think I Love Lucy holds up today?
Well, I think it holds up perfectly. Of course, I’m biased, but it’s true. You can even turn off the sound and you keep laughing because it becomes a silent movie and Lucille Ball is still hysterically funny.

Now it’s so accessible that we don’t appreciate her artistry and the genius of the show as much as we might if we couldn’t see it one way or another every day. But I do think it will endure. New people are being born every day who will become a new audience and it will continue to make all of us laugh.

Kathleen Brady is the author of Lucille, The Life of Lucille Ball, and Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker, for which she was named a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. She is a past co-director of the Biography Seminar at New York University and a former reporter for Time Magazine.

Published October 2017.

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