I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, is perhaps the most popular and influential television comedy of all time.
Since its debut on CBS on October 15, 1951, the show has been translated into almost every language in the world and has run continuously in international syndication in U.S. markets and virtually every country in the world for more than a half century. When the show first began to rerun episodes in 1959, its ratings outperformed most of CBS's new programming that year. Such is the continuing popularity of the show that each episode is available in Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, and French. The program also has become a popular cultural phenomenon, inspiring worldwide fan clubs, websites, retrospective screenings, and memorabilia for avid collectors. Postcards featuring classic scenes from the show, CDs of music from the series, dolls, lunch boxes, T-shirts, pajamas, aprons, and DVDs of episodes continue to sell at a phenomenal rate.
In 1983 a Los Angeles television station honored Ball on her seventy-second birthday by airing a thirteen-hour I Love Lucy marathon running from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. The station vaulted to number one in the ratings and stayed there for the entire day, with each half hour winning its time period. The show also has been honored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and by the Museum of Television and Radio.
The secret of the show's continuing popularity beyond the fact that it was incredibly funny and unceasingly creative is that it held up a mirror to every married couple in the United States. Although the mirror was more of the fun house than the cosmetic type, it was still unstintingly honest in its depiction. “We just took ordinary situations and exaggerated them,” Ball admitted.
Additionally, the unpretentious family-oriented situation comedy virtually revolutionized the production and distribution of television shows, setting the standard for all the TV series to follow. The show was one of the first comedies performed before a live audience. It also originated the concept of producing a program on film instead of broadcasting it live. Shot with three cameras, the show could be fully edited before it was shown. Using film permitted the rebroadcast of high-quality prints of the show at a time when most of its competitors were rerunning their programming on poor-quality kinescopes of live shows photographed off the TV screen. The use of film hastened the move of the television industry from New York to Los Angeles, which, during the 1950s, became the hub of filmed programming. It also popularized the concept of reruns and proved that recycled programming could have renewed life on local stations once its network prime-time days had ended.
Despite the later success of I Love Lucy, the show was viewed by many as a long shot when it began. In the late 1940s Ball had been playing opposite actor Richard Denning on a popular radio show My Favorite Husband. CBS-TV became impressed with the program and wanted to bring it to television, but Ball would agree only if her real husband, Desi Arnaz, could play opposite her in the Denning role. According to a number of sources, this demand was a ploy on her part to save her marriage, which had been gradually deteriorating. Although Ball and Arnaz had been married since 1940, they had been separated by the demands of their work, with him touring with his band while she was confined to Hollywood making films. According to Ball, if they both stayed in one place and did a television show, the process of working together would help their relationship. Unfortunately, CBS executives and the program's potential advertisers did not agree with the idea, feeling that casting a thick-accented Latino as the husband of a typical American wife would not sit well with U.S. viewers.
To convince them otherwise, the two performers formed Desilu Productions, put together a twenty-minute skit, and took it on a cross-country barnstorming tour. When the TV show did not immediately materialize, however, Ball went back to radio and Arnaz returned to his band. By the end of 1950, CBS relented somewhat, agreeing to let them do a pilot of the proposed show but declining to finance its production or the air time. Undeterred, Ball and Arnaz raised the money themselves and came up with a script about a successful bandleader and his movie-star wife. Yet, they could not find a sponsor willing to put the show on the air. The basic problem was that the pilot relied too much on vaudeville traits with an overemphasis on rapid repartee and one-liners.
At this point, composer Oscar Hammerstein Jr., who had toured with Arnaz, stepped in and suggested that the show be rewritten. He lobbied to keep the comedic sense of the show but to shed the movie-star trappings and to make the characters appear more like an ordinary couple. Arnaz remained a bandleader but would be a struggling one; like many people in the United States, he would occupy his time trying to get his big break. When the show began, his character was leading the house band at New York's Tropicana nightclub. Ball's character would be an ordinary housewife harboring visions of breaking into show business that she would act upon almost weekly with inevitably comic results.
Another stumbling point for the show was the title. Arnaz was an unknown quantity, while Ball had a popular following from her motion pictures and radio work, so CBS wanted to call the program The Lucille Ball Show. Ball objected because Arnaz's name was not in the title, so an advertising agency executive working on the show suggested the “off-the-wall” title I Love Lucy. Since the I stood for Arnaz, Ball quickly agreed, feeling that the almost equal billing would help her marriage: not only was her husband's name in the title, but also with this format he was actually listed first.
FILMING THE SHOW
The show's production location became yet another source of contention. CBS wanted to broadcast from New York City, the center of the fledgling television industry in 1950, but Ball and Arnaz were reluctant to leave Los Angeles and their show business connections in case the show failed. CBS objected because broadcasting from Los Angeles would mean that the rest of the country would be able to view the show only through the use of kinescopes. Arnaz suggested that if the show were shot on 35-millimeter film, as motion pictures were, CBS could distribute high-quality prints to network affiliates throughout the country in a manner similar to the distribution systems employed by most movie studios. The production costs would be higher, but the overall product would be much better.
The network agreed but was still faced with the never-before-attempted problem of actually filming a thirty-minute TV show. To overcome this hurdle, CBS hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Freund (The Good Earth, 1937), who collaborated with Ball and Arnaz on treating the show like a stage play and filming it before a live audience, a rare occurrence in 1950. It also was decided to film with three cameras, each shooting from a different angle, and then edit the best shots into the finished product. Director Marc Daniels, one of the few directors
to have experience with three cameras, was hired to direct the show. He also had a background in the theater working with live audiences.
To provide a counterpoint for the married Ball and Arnaz characters, another couple who lived upstairs joined the cast. After a number of actors and actresses were considered, the parts went to Vivian Vance and William Frawley. However, both were considered risky choices at the time. Vance was coming off a string of stage successes but was not nationally known (in fact, Ball and Arnaz had never heard of her when her name was proposed); Frawley was rumored to be an alcoholic and unreliable.
The show's four lead characters of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Fred and Ethel Mertz (Frawley and Vance) relate to each other amazingly well. The combination of the younger, more affluent Ricardos and the older, fixed-income Mertzes gave the writers a number of opportunities to take the show in different directions without covering the same themes week after week. One episode might find Lucy and Ethel involving themselves in a crazy scheme, with Ricky and Fred attempting to teach them a lesson. The next might feature the two men planning a secret outing, while the women try to crash the party. The Mertzes provided a mainstream older couple to offset the always volatile mixed marriage of the Ricardos.
The Ricardos portray a recognizable American family. Together, they explored the dynamics of their relationship in a manner that was new to television sitcoms. They are able to convey the fact that while they are adversaries in many of Lucy's “break into show business” shenanigans, they are also deeply in love with each other at the same time. Though bonded as a couple, each character maintains his or her own unique individuality.
Lucy, with her natural clownlike features, reflects a combination of Yankee bravura and touching vulnerability. Although, true to the times, she was cast as a housewife, she displays a striking independence and is unafraid to speak her mind to her macho Latin husband. For his part, Ricky represents a spectrum of familiar characters. Beginning with the macho hubris of a Latin lover, his expressive face and brown eyes run the gamut from childlike vulnerability to fiery Latin anger that expresses itself through a hilarious accent that mangles the English language beyond repair.
Lucy is a stage-struck schemer, possessed with a hyperactive imagination. The character relies on an arsenal of visual and vocal tricks in her effort to execute her wild schemes to crash the world of show business or to outsmart her husband when she gets caught. The first is her tendency to drop her jaw in an open-mouthed stance to express her disbelief at what is occurring. When this does not work, she holds both arms straight out in front of her and then drops her forearms to indicate that something has gone wrong. Vocally, she adopts a high-pitched voice that erupts in a shriek when she is caught in an embarrassing moment. Then comes the cry, monumental in nature, which rises from her gut and then slowly wails its way up the register to the pitch of a police siren. This is followed by a blubbering whimper that constitutes her final plea for sympathy and understanding. If her adversary happens to be Ricky, as was most often the case, she then throws his mangled English language back at him as he attempts to scold her.
The writers used the characters' differing ethnic backgrounds to great comedic effect. Ricky's accent and nationality formed the nucleus of some of the show's more popular running gags. In addition to his mispronunciation of words, which was a real occurrence for Arnaz as well as Ricky, the Cuban actor also erupts in a string of Latin epithets whenever he gets mad. As Arnaz admitted in an interview, he had to walk a fine line in his use of the language to make sure that it came across as humor instead of rage. “It was the most difficult problem I faced while playing Ricky,” he said. “It helped when I overemphasized the acceptable Latin use of hands and arms when I was excited. Most of all, the rat-tat-tat-tat parade of Spanish words helped me tread that thin line between funny mad and mad mad.” He augmented this with an ability to pop out his eyes in an inimitable expression of incredulity in reaction to Lucy's antics.
The Mertzes, on the other hand, provide a calmer counterpart to the fiery Ricardos. Ethel and Fred are, first and foremost, older than their downstairs neighbors and somewhat more passive. The Vance character provides a “girlfriend” for Lucy and a partner in crime. Fred is a pal of Ricky's and someone who helps him in his schemes to thwart Lucy. He also provides one of the series' recurring gags, with many jokes and episodes being built on his miserly actions. He simply does not like to spend money—a fact that sends the other three characters into a tizzy.
The show premiere won unanimous critical approval. It achieved the sixteenth position in the ratings within eight weeks and climbed to number three by the end of the season with an average of twenty-nine million viewers watching the show each week. The premise is established in the pilot show when Lucy disguises herself as a clown to sneak into Ricky's nightclub act. Throughout the rest of the season, she continues to rebel against the confines of her life as a housewife and the unfair restrictions of a male-dominated society that seemingly conspire to thwart her dreams of breaking into show business. Each of her attempts to enter into the entertainment world ends in a spectacular mess, and she is inevitably forced to backtrack into the shackles of home and hearth.
The show was so popular that department stores, doctors, and dentists canceled their Monday night hours because viewers would not leave their TV sets. During the presidential elections, candidate Adlai Stevenson's office was flooded with hate mail when he cut in on I Love Lucy for a five-minute campaign spiel. This mistake was not repeated a decade later when CBS was tempted to preempt morning reruns of the show to televise the Senate Vietnam War hearings but backed away because of fears that viewers would be outraged.
In succeeding seasons the show continued to build on the basic premise as Lucy and Ricky's on-screen married life evolved. In the second and third seasons the show centers on the birth of Little Ricky, which was the most popular episode in television history for many years (interestingly, more people watched the birth of Little Ricky than watched the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as thirty-fourth president of the United States and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England, all in 1953). Predictably, the biggest adjustment for Lucy lay in the impact of motherhood on her dreams of crashing into show
business. The fourth season finds Ricky landing a screen test with a Hollywood studio and devotes a number of episodes to a cross-country trip from New York to Hollywood, where Lucy becomes involved in adventures with celebrity guest stars, including a now famous encounter with William Holden in a comedy of mistaken identities.
The fifth season has the family returning to New York but quickly taking off on a laugh-filled adventure tour of Europe. The final season revolves around the exploits of now five-year-old Little Ricky and the couple's move to the suburbs. Ricky purchases the Tropicana and renames it the Club Babalu, and the family grows in affluence and begins to tackle a variety of family issues.
One of the prime secrets of the show's success in addition to the chemistry among the four regulars was that the production team stayed relatively intact over the full run of the show. The writer/producer Jess Oppenheimer and the two regular writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. came over with Ball from the My Favorite Husband radio show, and only three directors were employed during the show's original production: Marc Daniels (1951–1952), William Asher (1952–1956), and James V. Kern (1955–1956).
THE SHOW ENDS
By 1957, however, Ball and Arnaz had grown tired of the weekly grind of series TV and ceased production of the program. But that was not the end of the characters. They were featured over the next three years in a series of thirteen one-hour episodes airing as specials and as episodes of the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse, which ran from 1958 to 1960. Their production company, Desilu, which was started primarily to produce I Love Lucy, grew from twelve employees in 1951 to 800 in 1957 and branched out into producing a number of well-regarded programs, including The Danny Thomas Show, for other networks and producers. In 1957 the company purchased the old RKO Studios and continued to be one of the most influential producers of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Arnazes divorced in 1960, and Ball went to New York to appear in the Broadway show Wildcat. She married comedian Gary Morton and returned to network TV in 1962 with The Lucy Show, which also featured Vance and Gale Gordon. The show ran until 1968, when it was retitled Here's Lucy and featured Ball's real-life children, Lucie and Desi Jr. Vance made only sporadic appearances between 1968 and 1971, but the show continued until 1974 as part of the CBS Monday night comedy bloc that dominated the ratings for the entire period that Ball's show ran.
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