i love lucy - 12/14/17

Today's encore selection -- from Television: A Biography by David Thomson. Her movie career fading, Lucille Ball took the risk of crossing over to television, a medium shunned by established movie stars. She succeeded beyond her dreams and anyone's expectations, and she did it by reversing the paradigm so often present on radio sitcoms and so apparent in her own marriage to the philandering Desi Arnaz. Instead of a stable, reasonable wife bringing order to her husband's bumbling chaos, Ball presented a series about a crazy wife whose husband trieds to provide sanity and order:

"[By 1947, Lucille] Ball had been ten years in pictures, and she had done good work as both comedienne and straight actress, but she knew she hadn't quite made it. She'd been married six years by then to Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, the son of a wealthy Cuban, who had become a Latin bandleader and a wild and unreliable husband. People called him Desi. The couple had furious ups and downs but were about to become the first television model of enduring and endearing family life.

"By 1949, Ball had been driven into radio, and she was playing on air with Richard Denning in a series called My Favorite Husband. But Jess Oppenheimer, a writer and the producer on the radio show, won­dered if so agile a clown as Ball might flourish on this new medium, television. Lucy and Desi were excited by the prospect, and Desi began to function as a businessman -- though he wanted to play the husband, too. Eyebrows were raised: a Cuban and an American girl from James­town, New York? A couple as nearly out of control as Lucy and Desi? (She was six years older than Desi and was frantic over his appetite for younger women.) They had never been given this sort of chance in a movie, where mixed marriages were less common than mixed drinks.

"The genius of their show was in captur­ing yet reversing the desperation in the real couple; so it's a series about a crazy wife with a husband trying to keep control of her. Notice the subtle shift in titles from radio to television, and the way it places Desi (or Ricky Ricardo) as the figure of frus­trated control and reason. It's that situation (or 'sit') that lets Ball run riot, and the do­mestic upheaval needed some sense of Desi's fond keeper restoring order. But mayhem had a technological rationale that was of the utmost importance to the new business. ...

Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley

"Lucille Ball had been forty in 1951, and her realistic hopes as a movie star could not have lasted much longer. Bette Davis was forty­-three and she had just had one of her biggest successes in All About Eve, but she had reached a point where movies were more comfort­able with her as a villain, a spinster, or even a gargoyle than as a figure deserving romance or passion.
Should she be ready to do television? There were warnings current in the film business at a time when its attitude to the usurper was belligerent and dismissive. The small screen would never take over. Movies should not even show television screens in American interiors. ...

"I Love Lucy took immediately, from its debut on October 15, 1951: It started out at 9:00 P.M. (there were some fears), but then it was brought forward because children loved the couple. It went to number 3 in its first season, and then it was tops for three years in a row, with ratings of 67.3, 58.8, and 49.3. It won the best sitcom and best comedienne Emmys for 1953. In January 1953, when President Eisenhower was sworn in, he was watched by 29 million on television. The previous day, in an episode in which the pregnant Lucy went to the hospital to give birth, she had 44 million viewers. (Both Lucy and Lucille were pregnant -- it was a reality show.)

"Lucy and Desi would last longer on screen than in life. She filed for divorce in 1960, for the second time: She had made a move in 1944 and been talked out of it. But by 1957, Desilu [Productions] purchased outright, for $6 million, the RKO studio lot, one of several production companies that had once doubted Ball as a movie star. The new company went powering ahead with a wide range of shows: Our Miss Brooks, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Real McCoys, The Untouchables, The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hogan's Heroes, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and many others. There were sequels to I Love Lucy (without Desi), and many of them are still playing somewhere. Karl Freund shot 148 episodes and then he retired, a visionary of dread who had become a pillar of the Establishment."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


David Thomson


Television: A Biography


Thames & Hudson


Copyright 2016 by David Thomson


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment