I Love Lucy
Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz
William Frawley as Fred Mertz
Housewife Lucy wants to get into showbiz à la her husband, Ricky, who’s a semi-famous bandleader. She is aided in her schemes by neighbors/landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz.
I Love Lucy took off right from the start and was the Number 3 prime-time TV show in its first season. After that it held on to the Number 1 spot every year it was on except for the 1955-56 season, when The $64,000 Question pushed it to Number 2.
The familiar animated heart that opens the show was actually created for the syndicated reruns of the series. The original openings featured animated stick figures of Lucy and Desi, occasionally scrambling around a cigarette pack that was one of their sponsor’s (Phillip Morris) products.
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball invented the concept of syndicating TV shows when they insisted the series be filmed out in L.A. and distributed across the country. Formerly, stations outside the area where a show was produced got an inferior (visually) kinescoped copy, or one that was taped from a TV monitor. Film lasted forever, and the Arnazes had brokered a deal whereby they owned the filmed episodes of I Love Lucy. Thus, it was a landmark $5 million sale to CBS (in the late 1950s) that marked the beginning of syndication profits for off-network reruns of hit TV shows.
Vance was hired on the recommendation of first-year I Love Lucy director Marc Daniels; he took Desi to San Diego, where Vance was appearing in The Voice of the Turtle. Desi was hooked, and hired his Ethel without Lucy having met her. The first rehearsals were a bit tense, but once Lucy realized what a fine actress Vance was (she’d honed her talents on and off Broadway during the 1930s and 1940s), Lucy warmed up to her co-star.
The rumors that Vance was required by contract to be heavier than Lucy, so as to appear frumpier, were probably fueled by a fake “gag” contract given to Vance by Lucy in the 1950s, which Vance read to her in the 1970s on the Dinah talk show. In it, Vance was admonished to stay overweight, among other things.
Frawley and Vance were not fond of each other in real life; the feud began when he overheard Vance moan about playing a woman that was married to someone “old enough to be her father.” From then on, it was war. It didn’t help when Vance refused to do a spin-off featuring the Mertzes after I Love Lucy ended its run, dreading the prospect of being stuck acting opposite Frawley for years to come.
Desi matured into a real business genius, building Desilu Studios into the premier producing facility of its day; its filmed output at one point rivaled many of the major Hollywood (movie) studios. Desilu eventually bought and absrobed RKO Studios, where both Lucy and Desi had worked in films in the 1930s and 1940s.
Arnaz also perfected the three-camera shooting technique with I Love Lucy’s Oscar-winning cinematographer, Karl Freund, that captured close-ups, medium shots, and long shots, which were then edited together to create the show.
When Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky on the air, and Desi Jr. in real life, on the same day, the event overshadowed President Eisenhower’s inauguration in the newspapers the next day, and got one of TV’s biggest viewing audiences and a record 71.7 rating (meaning more than two-thirds of the total viewing audience was tuned in). That record was finally broken several years later when a country singer named Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I Love Lucy was the first major TV series to incorporate the pregnancy of its star into the plots of the show.
Much was made about Lucy’s red hair, which, of course, couldn’t be seen in back-and-white. The color was given to her when she worked at MGM studios in the 1940s, by famed movie hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff. Lucy photographed so beautifully in the Technicolor process that she got the nickname Tessie Technicolor. She wore the trademark red-orange hue ever after (though longtime hairstylist Irma Kusely preferred to call the color apricot).
On the show, Lucy was the only character allowed to make fun of Desi’s fractured English, because the love between them was obvious. When any other person did it, it just seemed mean.
I Love Lucy was more than loosely based on Lucy’s radio hit, My Favorite Husband, which had run on CBS for three years (1948-'51). Head writer and producer Jess Oppenheimer and writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh wrote the radio program as a battle between two couples, one younger and less established, the other older and more conservative, and adapted many of the same scripts for the TV show that followed.
In My Favorite Husband, the older couple was voiced by Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet, both of whom Lucy wanted for the TV series. But Gordon was already comitted to Our Miss Brooks, and Benaderet was playing neighbor Blanche Morton on The Burns & Allen Show.
I Love Lucy was still Number One in the ratings when Lucy and Desi decided to call it quits. They wanted to go out on top, as opposed to running the concept into the ground. It remains one of the few shows to exit network TV at No. 1 (others included All in the Family and Seinfeld).
Lucy and Desi were not done with the characters of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, however. They resurrected them (and the Mertzes) for 13 hour-long episodes of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (see below), broadcast as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse from 1957-1960.
The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour
(a.k.a. The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show)
(Note: This series ran as specials in the 1957-58 season and was shown as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse from 1958-1960.)
Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz
William Frawley as Fred Mertz
The further adventures of the Ricardos and the Mertzes, this time anchored on their life in suburban Connecticut (though at least half of the 13 episodes shows the fab foursome in flashback — i.e., how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo met — or in an exotic locale other than Connecticut (Alaska, Japan, Las Vegas).
Desi Arnaz decided on an hour length for the series so that they could explore concepts that didn’t fit into the half-hour sitcom format. Sprinkled liberally with guest stars, à la I Love Lucy’s successful Hollywood shows, these longer shows were a mixed bag. Some were fabulous, some good, and some fell flat.
The very first episode, which aired November 6, 1957, ran overtime, a full 15 minutes longer than it should have been. Such was Desi’s clout at the time that he persuaded the sponsor of the show that followed it, U.S. Steel, to let the Comedy Hour run its extra 15 minutes into U.S. Steel’s show. Desi promised the big Comedy Hour audience would stay for The U.S. Steel Hour, and he was right.
The additional 15 minutes of footage from the first episode was never broadcast again, and was cut by CBS for syndication so the show would fit into an hour time slot. Most of the cut footage, which has recently surfaced, revolved around Lucy and Desi’s pal, Hedda Hopper, interviewing Lucy and Desi about how they first met. The story itself, involving a cruise to Havana, took place in flashbacks.
Lucy wanted Bette Davis to guest star in the second of the hour-long shows, but her price was too expensive and she wouldn’t come down. She was replaced by Tallulah Bankhead, who, though unnerving during the rehearsal period due to her fondness for alcohol, rose to the occasion and made her episode, “The Celebrity Next Door,” one of the series’ best. In this episode, Lucy enlists Fred and Ethel as maid and butler to impress Tallulah at dinner, but Tallulah is more impressed by maid "Ethel Mae's" adoration of Bankhead (right).
The funniest episode featured Danny Thomas and his TV family, from the Desilu sitcom Make Room for Daddy. In it, the Ricardos rent their house for the summer to the Williamses (Thomas, Marjorie Lord, Rusty Hamer, and Angela Cartwright), but end up staying in the cramped Mertz guest cottage when their trip is cancelled. Naturally, Lucy can’t help but interfere in the Williams household, and tries to get them to leave so she can have her house back. The result is a snowball fight/free-for-all which ends in a hilarious courtroom sequence, featuring Gale Gordon as the judge. The writing, performances (watch for the Mertzes in court), and plot all come together for a true hour of classic comedy.
“Lucy Wants a Career,” the ninth episode of the series, aired on February 9, 1959, and was the one most like the original half-hour sitcom. Lucy, desperate to be in show-biz as always, finagles her way to becoming guest-star Paul Douglas’ assistant on his new morning show, and becomes a big success, but the extra hours and the long commute make Lucy realize she’s happier at home. Well acted and truly poignant at times, this was the series’ peak. The final four episodes, with the exception of “Lucy Goes to Japan,” thanks to guest-star Bob Cummings, are steadily downhill in quality.
The last episode of the series, “Lucy Meets the Moustache,” guest-starred Ernie Kovacs and his wife Edie Adams. By all reports, the Arnazes had already decided to divorce and were both emotional messes during the filming. Not one of the couple’s finer hours, there were still bits and pieces of the old Lucy and Desi magic, but by then the marriage could not be saved. Lucy filed for divorce the day after it aired (April 1, 1960), ending an era.
The Lucy Show
Lucille Ball as Lucy Carmichael
Vivian Vance as Vivian Bagley
Candy Moore as Chris Carmichael
Jimmy Garrett as Jerry Carmichael
Ralph Hart as Sherman Bagley
Gale Gordon as Theodore J. Mooney
In order to make ends meet, widow Lucy Carmichael and divorced Vivian Bagley share a house together with their kids in Danfield, Connecticut. Wackiness ensues.
Lucy returned to TV after a Broadway break (she starred in the musical Wildcat in 1960-1961, until exhaustion forced her out of the show). Her show was a hit out of the box, proving that audiences still loved her, even without a Ricky/Desi figure to rein her in. The situation was helped by having Lucy’s friend and comedy pal (and the erstwhile Ethel Mertz), the inestimable Vivian Vance, playing opposite Lucy.
Vivian (who’d had plastic surgery in between I Love Lucy and this series) looked dynamite, and insisted in her contract that her character be called “Vivian,” to help the audience forget her as Ethel. She played the first divorced woman who was a regular character on a prime time series.
Based on the book Life Without George, and featuring three very likeable kids—not cookie-cutter TV offspring—as the girls’ children, The Lucy Show was a delight, especially as it found its footing in the first two seasons, which were filmed in black-and-white. Audiences obviously loved Ball and Vance as a team, and when the two of them worked their magic—on stilts, installing a TV antenna, trying to fix a broken shower and nearly drowning, clowning on an electric mattress—are classic comedy.
The addition of Ball's longtime co-star Gale Gordon as the blustery (what else?) president of Lucy’s bank in Season Two (replacing character actor Charles Lane from the first season) signaled a change in the direction of the show, and not necessarily a good one. The interplay between Lucy and Mooney (I always thought he barely acknowleged Vance’s character on the show) was fun shtick, to a point. But as the series ran on, and especially after Vance departed (she left after the third season, tired of her weekly east-west coast commute), the Lucy/Mooney stuff became increasingly irritating and repetitive.
The show seemed to lose its heart with Vance’s departure in 1965. Lucy relied on guest stars for the remainder of the show’s long run (until 1968) to fill Vance’s place, but no one really could. Pal Ann Sothern stepped up to the plate for a half-dozen or so episodes, as a dissolute “Countess” who needed money, and she worked well with Lucy…but she was not Viv. The success of any particular episode began to depend on how much viewers enjoyed the guest star of the week, and how well he/she fit in to the “Lucy” format.
As an example, when the guest was pro Jack Benny, as in the season six episode “Lucy Gets Jack Benny’s Account,” and the plot involved Lucy scheming to get his bank account moved to her bank by building him a break-in-proof vault, the results were fine, clever and satisfying. But they were more often misfires.
Still, the audiences were far from tired of Lucy, and kept the show in the Top Ten for all six of its seasons. In fact, in its final season, 1967-1968, The Lucy Show exited as the Number Two show on TV.
Lucy had an end-of-season tradition: saying she wasn’t sure if she was coming back the following season. She always re-upped, but usually only after CBS came to the party with more money and compliments about how important she was to the network’s schedule (which she was). She might have had more incentive than usually to end The Lucy Show. It had begun life in 1962 a Desilu production, and remained one. Since Lucy had sold her (and ex-husband Desi’s) company to Paramount in 1967, she no got profits from the show as an owner. By ending it and creating Here’s Lucy (see below) under her own banner (Lucille Ball Productions) at Paramount, the ball (so to speak) was squarely back in her court.
Lucille Ball as Lucy Carter
Gale Gordon as Harrison Carter
Lucy Arnaz as Kim Carter
Desi Arnaz Jr. as Craig Carter
Mary Jane Croft as Mary Jane Lewis
Lucy Carter works for brother-in-law Harry's Unique Employment Agency. This allows many opportunities for arguing, yelling, screaming and double takes as Lucy inevitably destroys relationships with Harry's clients, for some serendipitous reason, often guest celebrities.
This is the least successful of Ball's prime-time hit series (but keep in mind in saying that, it was a ratings hit — it was the No. 3 show in its third season, for example, and never out of the Top 15 shows, until its final season, when it was #29...and that's a number that would pretty much guarantee renewal today. Still, the Lucy character and the format, were showing its age. It was basically "Lucy" getting into trouble plopped into a new setting. Her kids, Lucie and Desi Jr., brought some new blood to the show, but Desi left after the third season to pursue a movie career. As well he should have; most of the plots and dialogue were embarrassingly old-fashioned.
Lucie eventually carried entire episodes on her own charm and talent. But it wasn't enough. Vivian Vance guest-starred six times through 1972, but that wasn't enough. Her presence was sorely missed, as it was on the last few seasons of The Lucy Show. Gale Gordon was, as always, a pro, and as Harry Carter, his apoplectic self, but how many times can one see Lucy do something — break the water cooler, drop a plant, cut off Harry's tie — to her easily annoyed co-star, watch Harry get annoyed, watch Lucy apologize, and then move on to annoying Harry (or some celebrity guest) all over again? The Lucy character was by turns sweet, childish, idiotic, innocent, stupid, infuriating, and clever, sometimes all in the same episode. In a 60-plus-year-old woman with grown children and a job she needed, it was a bit much to accept, after awhile.
There are some enjoyable episodes in this series (I mean, with 141 to choose from, there were bound to be). These include Lucy's turns with Shelley Winters and Patty Andrews (little Lucie playing the third Andrews sister) in the first season; and later shows featuring Ann-Margret, Bob Cummings, Vincent Price, Helen Hayes, Sammy Davis Jr., Wally Cox, and Charles Nelson Reilly.
Season Three was literally the series peak, ratings and otherwise. It featued a two-parter with Vance called "Lucy Goes Hawaiian" that brought back some of the old magic. The season opener, "Lucy Meets the Burtons," was the highest rated episode of the series, in which Lucy gets Liz's huge diamond ring stuck on her finger, and has to substitute her hand for Mrs. Burton's during a press conference. It was hysterical, but there's the rub: Lucy's writers, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh, recycled an old bit from I Love Lucy, which in turn had been used on My Favorite Husband, the radio show that served as the template for I Love Lucy.
Rehashing plots and slapstick was, unfortunately, too much a part of this series. In the second season, Lucy and Gale Gordon had dinner at The Brown Derby, with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon (having won a contest on Carson's late-night show in the first act of the episode). But when she accidentally makes the waiter spill a tray of food on Carson, we can only sigh and remember how much funnier the original Brown Derby scene was on I Love Lucy, with Vance, William Frawley, and William Holden. And so on.
Still, it was obvious that, until almost the end of her nearly 25-year prime-time comedy run, Lucy's fans pretty much didnt care what she did, as long as they could watch her on Monday nights. Ball broke her leg skiing before the fifth season, and spent much it playing her character in a cast, which added some spice to the show. But by the sixth season, even Ball was ready to call it quits. And on March 18, 1974, with the airing of the show's final episode, "Lucy Fights the System," the legendary prime time run of perhaps TV's most beloved character — you can call her Lucy Ricardo, Lucy Carmichael, or Lucy Carter, but they were all "Lucy" — came to a close.
Or, it should have. See below.
Life With Lucy
Aired: September 20, 1986-November 15, 1986
Lucille Ball as Lucy Barker
Gale Gordon as Curtis McGibbon
Larry Anderson as Ted McGibbon
Philip Amelio as Kevin McGibbon
Ann Dusenberry as Margo Barker McGibbon
Jenny Lewis as Becky McGibbon
Donovan Scott as Leonard Stoner
Lucille Barker comes to live with her daughter's family. The sprightly grandma takes a job in brother-in-law Curtis' hardware store. Let the smashing of tools begin!
If only Lucy hadn't missed working so much, this misfire — the only really awful thing she ever produced for television — might never have happened. But she got tired of sitting at home, or playing backgammon, or attending awards shows (usually to pick up an award for herself) or the occasional guest-starring role on a special. And who could blame her? The problem was largely due to the format she chose to return in, one that was, yet again, a rehashing of her time-honored character, "Lucy," this time as an, er, more mature woman.
The bigger problem: though everyone still loved Lucy, she was looking her age (nothing wrong with that) but acting as if 35 years hadn't gone by since she debuted in I Love Lucy. The audience (not the studio audience, which cheered Lucy's every move and speech uproariously) was terrified Lucy — or the even older Gale Gordon — might break a hip doing a pratfall. And the scripts, with few exceptions, just weren't that funny. Audrey Meadows guest-starred on the final aired episode as Lucy Barker's sister, and it was the highlight of the series. Had she been a regular and if they'd been able to build on the stars' interplay...who knows?
But it was too late. By then, ratings had plunged and even producer Aaron Spelling, who'd given the show a 22-episode commitment, had to reluctantly pull the plug. Thirteen episodes were shot, and only eight aired. Spelling (who'd played a bit part on I Love Lucy and was a big fan of the redhead's) donated all the episodes to Jamestown, N.Y.'s Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center, where they are occasionally screened during the Center's twice-yearly Lucy festivals.
Ball was hurt by the savage reviews (I believe overly savage, just as the critics were with Mame). She could subsequently be seen on the occasional talk show bemoaning the fact that her fans didn't want her to grow old. That was not necessarily true; we merely would have preferred Ball aging gracefully on TV, a la The Golden Girls. With good writing, plausible plots, and a "Lucy" character we could embrace. Life With Lucy became an unfortunate coda to Lucy's TV career; it made Here's Lucy look like a classic. And that brings up another salient point: we have hundreds and hundreds of fabulous Lucy performances to enjoy on DVD; why harp on this one mistake?
All information and text copyright 2011 by Michael Karol; any photos copyright their original owners.