John Lennon once said that in the world of music, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." I suppose that it is safe to say, in the world of Television, Before Lucy... there was nothing. Though I normally choose to dedicate my articles to those who helped shape the film world, there can be no denying the impact that Lucy had on that new-fangled contraption called the TV set. Though she wasn't the first performer to appear on the small screen, she would become the biggest. Along with husband Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball would redefine-- in fact invent-- the situation comedy. Due to her weekly accessibility to salivating viewers, she too would finally achieve the stardom and celebrity she had always craved. In order to be big, Lucy had to get small. In result, she remains one of the most famous and recognizable actresses that ever lived.
All was not rosy, however. Comedians are perhaps the best actors, adeptly using laughter to detract and distract from their own personal torments. The facade of the hilarious, romantic, and peachy-keen domestic bliss of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo is a testament to the talent of both Lucy and Desi-- whose marriage was crumbling even as their hit TV show was skyrocketing them to fame and fortune. For Lucy, pain and personal tragedy were more familiar that laughs and hijinks. She would spend her life outrunning, out-thinking, and flat-out mugging her way out of obscurity, poverty, and invisibility. A born leader with a one-track-mind kind of ambition since her youth, Lucille Ball always pushed past the downward spirals in life in the belief that achieving her dreams would erase all sorrow. The eldest of three children by Henry Durrell Ball and Desiree Evelyn Hunt, Lucy was the most effected by her father's early, shocking death to typhoid fever. She was then neglected the paternal love she so craved by her new step-father, the gruff Ed Peterson. Shuffled between her mother, her grandparents, and any relative that would have her, Lucy's tenderest years were spent on shaky ground. When she dreamed of the future-- of performing, of being an actress, of being a star-- it wasn't the fame or money that called to her so much as the need for security. Safety. To live without financial worry was incredibly important. To have the adulation of fans was a promise of love. Yet every time she reached a peak, she clutched madly at it, certain that she would lose her grip on the life for which she had fought so hard. This insecurity, the same that fueled her tireless work ethic, was also the one that sabotaged her happiness. Even after becoming the Lucy that we all know and love, she would cry to herself: "Why can't I be happy?"
As with many actors, Lucy's one blanket of safety from her own conflicting and destructive thoughts was performing. From an early age, she had a knack for it. Whether BS-ing her way through a job as a short order cook in her native Jamestown, NY, earning rave reviews for her thirteen-year-old debut in a local musical (for which she was compared to the Jeanne Eagles), or taking on any and every silly role flung her way once she reached Hollywood, when on stage, she was always able to (temporarily) put the blues behind her. But it wasn't easy. Lucy was hard to peg. A hard worker, she was attractive but not "gorgeous," though she did find early work as a model. Her odd ball energy made her difficult to categorize. The studios doubted her leading lady ability, normally casting her as the smart-mouthed best friend in films like Stage Door or tough cookies and bad girls in films like Dance Girl Dance. Her blink-and-you'll-miss-them roles opposite rising stars like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire at RKO were what kept food on the table, as well as her badly written, poorly produced clunkers that made her, as she called herself, "Queen of the Bs." Still, her performances were solid when given the chance. She holds her own against George Sanders and Boris Karloff in Lured, and in The Big Street, her complex and deeply felt portrayal of a crippled show-girl breaks your heart. Yet, after appearing opposite The Marx Brothers, The Stooges, and Hepburn and Tracy, the poor girl still couldn't get anywhere above the title. Time, diligence, and love would later change this.
Lucille Ball was attracted to the handsome Cuban musician Desi Arnaz since the moment she saw him performing on stage in "Too Many Girls." When the two were cast in the film version of this hit, lightning struck them both. Five years her junior, there was something about the passionate, charismatic, and exotic man that fascinated her. Their relationship was tumultuous and full of jealousy from the get-go, but in the early stages this only fueled their infatuation. Quickly ditching the people they were with, their subsequent marriage was more of a dare or challenge than a well thought out plan. Lucille must have had a premonition of what was to come: she wore black to her wedding. Madly in love and angry as Hell most of the time, the two rarely saw each other, merely passing cars on the hill as Lucy drove off to work in the morning and Desi was arriving home from working the clubs the previous night. Affairs were numerous, mostly on Desi's side, but it is also speculated that Lucy dabbled herself. As she clawed for her career, she too fought for the solid family life that had always been denied her. It was like forcing square pegs into round holes-- with their mutual ambitions, a quiet domesticity was never in the cards. Lucy yearned for a child, but with Desi always travelling with his band, getting pregnant was next to impossible. The most she could hope for was her career. In this at least it can be said that the Arnaz's were in union. Despite their bickering, philandering, and contention, they equally recognized each other's talents. In 1951, they would get a chance to showcase them together.
Lucy was doing the radio show "My Favorite Husband" when, after much praise, the idea was born to turn it into a television program. Lucy was adamant that Desi replace Richard Denning as her husband and that the show be refashioned to suit his persona. With the help of producer Jess Oppenheimer, writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh, and CBS, many hours of blood, sweat, toil, and tears, brought about "I Love Lucy." All concerned worked tirelessly to take a shaky premise, constantly rewritten scripts, and an insecure, nitpicking leading lady-- whose perfectionism made her demanding one minute and left her in tears the next-- to create a pilot about a married couple whose relationship is constantly tested by the entertainer husband's patriarchal stances and the wife's madcap attempts to be a part of his show. The finished idea sold, and after some minor changes-- including casting an older landlord couple played by Vivian Vance and William Frawley-- the game was set. For 9 Seasons, "I Love Lucy" triumphed. Desi proved himself to be a gifted businessman, who spearheaded his own show's success, as well as that of other shows that would be produced at Desilu studios, (including "The Untouchables"). The show broke barriers by introducing an "interracial" couple, by showing a wedded couple in bed together (though their twins were pushed together and not legitimately a double), and by daring to have Lucy announce to Ricky that she was "pregnant"-- which at that time was as gasp-inducing as "Murphy Brown's" later out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
On the screen, Ricky and Lucy were in love. Off screen, Lucy and Desi fought constantly, as did Vivian Vance and William Frawley, whose mutual antipathy was mirrored in a much more cushiony version through their characters. Yet, for the sake of the show, everyone grinned and bore it. Frawley gave up booze while filming, though his shakes are often painfully visible to the viewer. Vance, who was constantly undergoing emotional breakdowns, remained a strong force of reason whose keen perception of story helped forge stronger scripts. While originally Lucy was intimidated by Vance, once pulling her false lashes from her face because "Only Lucy has fake lashes on this show!" the two grew on each other. Lucy came to rely on Vance, and Vance grew to understand Lucy's outbursts as indicative of her raging vulnerabilities. Desi enjoyed his position at the studio, becoming very knowledgeable about everyone on staff, helping to expand the empire, and gaining a reputation as a great judge of talent. Yet, in the end, as the Lucy/Desi marriage fell apart, so too did the Ricardos. After the dueling duo could go no longer, they would divorce each other, and "I Love Lucy" would divorce itself from living rooms around the world.
By the end of "I Love Lucy," Lucille Ball was enough of an icon to retire, had she so wanted. Yet, the perpetual laborer in her continued on. She returned sans Desi in "The Lucy Show," (again with Vance), and later flew solo in "Here's Lucy!", but both shows failed to attract the same adoration. She too took on stage roles and returned to cinema opposite other aging contemporaries like Bob Hope. Her most lasting effort would be with Henry Fonda in Yours Mine and Ours, though she continued working ceaselessly until her death. Lucy, always superstitious, believed that the letters "AR" gave her luck. She herself would say that "Lucille Ball" was a nobody until she became an "Arnaz" and even moreso "Lucy Ricardo." After her divorce from Desi, she would marry comedian Gary Morton, perhaps in the hope that he would bring the same good vibrations. Yet, though Gary offered constancy, the vim and vigor of Desi was irreplaceable. Though horrible as husband and wife and lackluster as parents due to their obsessive careers (they would eventually have two children, Lucie and Desi, Jr), some theorize that Lucy and Desi never truly fell out of love with each other. Their lives were too deeply interconnected to completely split asunder. The best of them remains in the continuing syndication of their best-beloved hit. Even today, new generations fall under the Ricardos' spell.
The true honor, however, belongs to the adorable, rubber-faced, accident-prone, but ever-loving Lucy. In one being, she was both Beauty and Bananas. Goofing for her audiences, she hoped that some of the joy she gave would be returned to her; that her audiences' laughter would warm her. For this, she fought until her dying day. It would be easy to say that she was merely a ham, but in her performances there is great depth and awareness, which would allow the show to maintain its power even after the collapse of the nostalgic nuclear family and the heights of the feminist movement. Lucy has become one of the biggest female icons of all time, building her empire out of the tiny box that most actors feared. Her lasting impression is that of joy, of letting go, of finding the humor and innocence in every day life. Groucho Marx would once say that Lucy wasn't a comedienne, she was an actress. Some interpreted this as an insult, but I find it to be a precise observation. There was art in what Lucy did. Orson Welles would agree. When observing Lucy rehearse on her show, he openly stated that he was "watching the world's greatest actress." Her hard work continues to pay off. In black and white, the fiery red head with the big blue eyes continues her reign as the eternal Queen of Comedy. We still Love you Lucy.