I LOVE LUCY
A pioneering television show, one might say foundational for any number of reasons. It was the flagship of a new independent production studio, Desilu, founded by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Both possessed talent and smarts as well as snorting-bull, titanic egos, and their creative marriage and on-air marriage were far more successful than their real-life one. I Love Lucy, their greatest offspring, survives in full health, immortal and young to this day, because of Desi Arnaz’s far-sightedness and shrewd business acumen. Having grown up in early 20th Century Cuba and made his way up in show business the hard way, he had met a few dangerous characters along the way, and probably didn’t find Hollywood bosses all that tough to deal with. He could throw his personality and great, stormy intellect around, with all the showmanship of a professional entertainer. He could see the worth in independence, in retaining ownership of one’s creative property, in using the highest quality film stock and hiring one of cinematography’s legends, Karl Freund A.S.C., to capture the action. To show off Lucy.
More can be said about what Desi Arnaz brought to the series as a supporting character, his musicianship giving him impeccable comic timing. In a way, he could conduct a scene while playing in it, giving Bill Frawley and Viv Vance and Lucy a rhythm to play to and play off of. Lucy, a trained showgirl dancer and, undiscovered by Hollywood, the last great screen comedian to come out of the tradition dating to Chaplin and Mack Sennett and Laurel & Hardy. The show had three main writers, who cranked out high quality half-hour plays week after unstinting week. As sometimes happens, the intensity of the creative effort expanded their imaginations, and they began to move the series along mini story-arcs. As a child, watching reruns four and five times, I learned to see how the show developed and evolved. Ricky and Lucy Ricardo start out in a modest apartment (the Mertzes are their best friends and landlords), then move to a much better one. They have a baby, who gets to meet Superman at his first big birthday party with his little friends. The four of them go on an extended trip to Europe while Ricky is on tour, and Lucy has a whole new set of obstacles to play with for six episodes: border crossings, roulette wheels, unflappable Royal Guards, and a famous, famous vat of grapes. Ricky’s career goes into high gear and he’s cast in a Hollywood movie, and the Ricardos and the Mertzes pack off to Beverly (Hills, that is). Lucy makes John Wayne have to redo his Grauman’s Chinese Theater cement prints over and over and over again. Lucy re-creates the famous mirror scene from Duck Soup with Harpo Marx himself. There is romantic intrigue with Charles Boyer.
And then, the magic stops. There is a final season, one that feels very tired, and bored of doing it. The Ricardos and the Mertzes move out to a luxury house in the country, away from city life. When this change in the series happens, you can feel that it’s about to retire. They’re putting this show out to pasture, literally. The marriage strain between Arnaz and Ball shows up in the writing, where their characters rarely have scenes together. Many of the episodes look like pilot versions for the later series, The Lucy Show, a 1960’s sitcom reuniting Ball and Vance as divorced (implied) single women, getting up to slapstick antics because they once again followed Lucy’s nutty ideas to their conclusion.
Then, after all these unhappy episodes, if you’re watching in syndication, ta-da! The series starts over, back in that tiny little windowless apartment, and the marriage is happy again, and Little Ricky is still a sparkle in Desi Arnaz’s seductive eyes, and all of Lucy’s misadventures lie ahead, to be enjoyed all over anew.
It’ll be a shame when there’s no more syndicated television and it’s all order-on-demand because I Love Lucy should always be a living document.