Monday, June 2, 2014

Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon: I Love Lucy

This essay is the first of two of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contributions to the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon (June 2-5) hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.  (Full disclosure: portions of this have been recycled from previous essays published both here and at Edward Copeland's Tangents.)

“We’ve just bought a little thing being made out on the Coast,” a prominent public relations man was overheard intoning at a Grammercy Park soiree in New York City back in the 1950s.  “A situation comedy with Lucille Ball and her husband—what’s-his-name.   I don’t know if it will amount to anything.”

There are understatements…and then there are major understatements.  That situation comedy with Lucille Ball and “what’s-his-name” (Desi Arnaz) was none other than I Love Lucy, which quickly became the most-watched program on television (during its initial run from 1951 to 1957, the series was out of the top spot only twice—in its inaugural season, when it ranked #3, and in the 1955-56 season, when it took second place to The $64,000 Question).  It literally changed the face of television comedy, pioneering the use of a three-camera system to film Lucy’s weekly antics (that was later adopted as the industry standard) while making strides in how television programs fared once they retired to The Old Shows Home.  Now a prominent staple of the MeTV lineup, I Love Lucy is also seen in more than 77 countries (dubbed in 22 languages) and enjoys an estimated forty million cable viewers today.

The origins of I Love Lucy began with a radio sitcom on which Lucille Ball appeared with B-movie actor Richard Denning—My Favorite Husband, based originally on a novel (Mr. & Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage) written by Isabel Scott Rorick.  Husband had been on CBS Radio since July of 1948, and the success of the show was due not only to Lucy’s previously untapped comedic talents…but the contributions made by producer-director Jess Oppenheimer, who also headed up a writing team comprised of Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.  It was Jess’ decision to retool what had previously been an intermittently funny program into a subtler copy of the series on which he had previously worked, Fanny Brice’s The Baby Snooks Show.  Lucy’s character of Liz Cugat—originally written as a societal sophisticate—was made more childlike and impulsive, not unlike Brice’s Snooks.  Oppenheimer also changed the last name of the couple on Husband from “Cugat” to “Cooper” (bandleader Xavier Cugat had been threatening a lawsuit for some time) and added the characters of Rudolph and Iris Atterbury (played by Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet) as an older husband-and-wife counterpart to the Cooper couple.  (Rudolph was George Cooper’s boss.)

The revamping of My Favorite Husband’s format did wonders for its radio ratings—so much so that the subject of transitioning the series to television was up for a spirited discussion, one in which star Lucille Ball was quite keen in participating.  The problem was, while she bore no ill will toward her radio hubby Denning, she couldn’t convince CBS’ Harry Ackerman to let her real-life husband Desi Arnaz play her fictional spouse in the new venture.  (Sadly, there was a slight undercurrent of racism in this—the “mixed marriage” of Caucasian Lucy and Latin Desi—but Ackerman was also convinced that viewers would have difficulty understanding Arnaz’s admittedly thick accent.)  “If I can’t do a show with him, I’m going to travel with him,” declared Ball, and the couple formed their own company (Desilu Productions) in March of 1950.  The result was a successful vaudeville tour that took place in the summer of that year (while Lucy’s radio show was on hiatus), and from that sprang the idea of a pilot for a possible series that the Arnazes had hoped to use as leverage (CBS’ rival, NBC, had made overtures to the couple about a potential series).

It was Oppenheimer who argued that the Lucy-Desi project be as similar to Husband as possible…even though writers Pugh and Carroll weren’t convinced that audiences in TV Land would buy Desi as a banker.  Finally, Jess made the pitch to CBS executive Ackerman: “Why don’t we do a show about a middle-class working stiff who works very hard at his job as a bandleader, and likes nothing better than to come home at night and relax with his wife…who doesn’t like staying at home and is dying to get into show business herself?”

Lo and behold…a sitcom was born.

Even with the pilot—which featured Lucy and Desi as the now legendary Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (though they were originally called “Lucy and Larry Lopez”), famed performer Pepito the Clown (as himself), and character great Jerry Hausner as Ricky’s agent—CBS had a case of the sweats because landing a sponsor wasn’t as easy as originally gambled.  At practically the last second, the Milton Blow agency came through, convincing cigarette company Philip Morris to take a flutter.  But additional roadblocks were on the horizon; at that particular time in the TV biz, New York was the center of television production.  Programs were aired live in the Big Apple, with a motion picture camera pointed at a monitor to record what was called a “kinescope”—this is what audiences on the West Coast would see days and sometimes weeks later.

To do I Love Lucy, the Arnazes would have had to relocate to NYC…but they were already comfortable in the land of swimming pools and movie stars to entertain such a notion.  (And in Lucy’s defense, she was pregnant with daughter Lucie—hardly an occasion to make such a major move.)  The couple made a deal with CBS: they would take a pay cut to offset the expense of filming the series (a practice that had been recently established with the network’s boob tube version of Amos ‘n’ Andy) and all they wanted in return for this sacrifice was full ownership of the series.  (This would pay off like a slot machine when the show went into syndication; it should really be filed under “Boneheaded Network TV Decisions.”)

The creative team behind Lucy elected to borrow the idea of utilizing a three-camera system for filming, a practice that had found much favor on the TV game show Truth or Consequences, and veteran movie director–cinematographer Karl Freund was brought aboard to innovatively work on ways to light the sets so that no diminishment of image quality would be detected on any of the three cameras.  Hollywood’s General Service Studios, in a financial bind, talked the Arnazes into using their facilities and even agreed to make the necessary adjustments needed to produce the show weekly (even undergoing renovations to conform to California’s fire laws).  Because of the decision to film I Love Lucy, however, the program would have to adhere to the union regulations regarding film studio production…namely using film studio employees.  Whether they wanted to or not, this forced Lucy and Desi into the TV production business…but their Desilu company would wind up becoming a major player in the industry.

It was decided that the regular cast of characters on I Love Lucy would include an older couple as a counterpart to the younger Ricardos, much in keeping with the addition of the Atterburys on My Favorite Husband.  Fred and Ethel Mertz would be the Ricardos’ landlords…only the difference was that Lucy and Desi were a little better off (though not by much) than Fred and Ethel.  Lucy had wanted Bea Benaderet and Gale Gordon to reprise their radio gigs as the Mertzes; however, Benaderet was already appearing on TV as neighbor Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and Gordon was likewise occupied with previous commitments—one of which would surface a year after I Love Lucy’s debut, when he reprised his radio role as dyspeptic high school principal Osgood Conklin in a TV version of radio hit Our Miss Brooks, starring Eve Arden.  (The show was one of the first non-Lucy productions to emerge from the Desilu stable.)

After character veteran James Gleason was nixed for the role of Fred Mertz (Gleason wanted $3,500 a week, which was way out of the Arnazes’ budget), another possibility emerged in the form of actor William Frawley…who had actually called his old friend Lucy to see if there was a part for him in her new venture.  Desi liked Bill, but CBS was nervous about Frawley’s hiring; Bill had a reputation for being a bit heavy on the bottle.  Arnaz bucked the network and agreed to take the actor on (even reworking the Mertz character as more of a curmudgeon for a better fit) but had a clause inserted in Bill’s contract that if he ever showed up for work more than one time spiffed he was out.

Former chorine Barbara Pepper, sadly, would not receive that same courtesy.  Lucy suggested her old Goldwyn Girls crony as a possible Ethel Mertz, but Pepper’s reputation for imbibing matched that of her would-be co-star Frawley, and CBS put their foot down: they would not cotton to the idea of having two problem drinkers on the set.  It would be Marc Daniels, the show’s first season director, who suggested hiring an actress named Vivian Vance to play Lucy’s BFF and confidante; Vance didn’t have many movie or TV credits on her resume but after Daniels convinced Desi to check out her work in a theater production of The Voice of the Turtle, Vance was hired on the spot.  Vivian was nervous about getting involved in what at that time was a risky venture, and this anxiety might have played a role in the initial antagonism between her and star Lucy, who perceived Viv as a threat.  (Later, Lucy would recognize both Vance’s dedication and professionalism and the two of them became close friends.)

Ball and Vance may have patched up their differences…but there was no optimistic outlook for détente between Viv and her TV hubby, Bill Frawley.  It took their feud considerable time to boil but much of it stemmed from the actress’ embarrassment that the veteran performer was actually twenty-three years older than his boob tube wife, suggesting she really should have been playing his daughter.  Frawley exploded, delivering salty ripostes on the lines that Vance looked like “a sack of doorknobs.”  While the two always behaved above board in a professional capacity, there was no love lost between them off the set and, in a way, it worked to the show’s benefit, adding to the underlying hostility always present in the Mertz's marriage.  (When I Love Lucy left TV screens, the idea of a Fred-and-Ethel spin-off was bandied about; Frawley was all for it and Vance agin it—which just added more fuel to the fire of their already acrimonious relationship.)

As for the discarded Barbara Pepper…well, she would eventually make guest appearances on I Love Lucy, as did Bea Benaderet and Gale Gordon (who did a pair of episodes as Ricky’s boss at the nightclub, Mr. Littlefield).  The show is practically a repository of the work of beloved character actors, many of whom Lucy had worked with previously on My Favorite Husband: Frank Nelson, Herb Vigran, Elvia Allman, Harry Bartell, Jay Novello, Shirley Mitchell, Hans Conried, Joseph Kearns, etc.  Some of the players very fortunate to land recurring roles: radio veteran Doris Singleton played Lucy’s nemesis from her women’s club, Caroline Appleby, and Elizabeth Patterson appeared in later episodes as upstairs neighbor (and babysitter) Matilda Trumbull.  Jerry Hausner reprised his role as “Jerry the Agent” in several early entries in the series before a heated argument with Desi during the making of a 1954 episode convinced him to depart.

On October 15, 1951, in a slot originally occupied by Horace Heidt and His Youth Opportunity Program, I Love Lucy premiered…to a somewhat jaded reception.  But within a few months, critics would start to ransack their vocabulary for superlatives.  Variety gushed that the sitcom was “one of the slickest TV entertainment shows to date” while The New York Times’ Jack Gould proclaimed “The series has engendered as much public interest as anything since the days when the world stood still every evening to hear Amos ’n’ Andy on the radio.”  Within four months, I Love Lucy moved ahead of the likes of Arthur Godfrey, Milton Berle and Your Show of Shows to become TV’s most popular program…a status that was threatened just as the first season came to a close.

It was Desi who gave producer Oppenheimer the bad news.  Lucy was pregnant again, this time with the son that would eventually become Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha IV (Desi, Jr.).  Jess didn’t think that was such a big deal; they’d just work the pregnancy into the show.  But afterward, he thought that this might not fly with CBS—after all, on I Love Lucy, the Ricardos still slept in separate beds.  CBS’ initial reaction was “no way no how”…which was softened to “okay, talk about it on two shows—and that’s it.”  Desi and Jess held firm, until the network brass finally relented and let the two men work the event into the second season.  (Do you really think they were going to put the brakes on the most popular TV program in the country?)  For insurance, a priest, a rabbi and a minister were consulted to make sure nothing objectionable appeared in any of the episodes—with all of them pretty much in agreement: “What’s so objectionable about having a baby?”

Lucy wasn’t even allowed to be “pregnant” in the “baby” shows—she could be “expecting,” or “with child”…or even the Latin word used in the title of the episode where Lucy delivers Ricky, Jr., “enceinte.”  With the semantics out of the way, Lucy delivered both her real and pretend babies on the same day: January 19, 1953.  Forty-four million viewers tuned in to see the Ricardos’ bundle of joy enter the world—15 million more than those who watched the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower the next day…and Ike was on all three networks.  The decision to film I Love Lucy also paid off after the birth; while Lucy got a little R&R, the series was able to continue with episodes that had been in the can before her trip to the hospital.

The popularity of I Love Lucy at that point was unstoppable…but even in television, audiences will only set still for shinier objects to accommodate their short attention spans.  When the creative minds behind the show decided the “husband vs. wife” hijinks were getting stale, the writing staff concocted the idea of featuring a story arc in the fourth season that found the Ricardos and Mertzes cavorting in Hollywood after Ricky was summoned for a screen test in a proposed production of Don Juan.  This proved to be a most beneficial shot-in-the-arm for Lucy’s creativity, and was responsible for several classic outings involving William Holden, John Wayne and Harpo Marx.  The fifth season saw Lucy loose in Europe, with Ricky’s band on tour on the continent and the zany redhead engaged in more classic comedy including an encounter with Charles Boyer and a tussle in a grape-stomping vat.

In its final season, I Love Lucy relocated to suburbia.  The writers asked themselves how a talent like Ricky Ricardo could continue working at a dive like the Tropicana without upwardly mobile ambitions of his own…so by season six, Ricky had his own club (Club Babalu) and was living in Connecticut alongside neighbors Ralph and Betty Ramsey (Frank Nelson, Mary Jane Croft).  The Mertzes would eventually wind up there as well, volunteering to manage Lucy and Ricky’s “chicken farm” in an episode that featured a sequence with Lucy jitter-bugging in a blouse filled with eggs.  (That earned the series its longest audience laugh reaction in its history—it even had to be edited down, it lasted that long.)

I Love Lucy had a great run…but it couldn’t last forever.  (It is, however, one of only three television situation comedies that finished their final seasons ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings.)  Not that the Arnazes didn’t give it the old college try; after the show’s cancellation in 1957 the couple continued with the occasional hour-long special, showcased on an anthology series entitled The Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse and referred to frequently as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour—it lasted until April 1, 1960.  The irony was that a venture that was originally designed to help save the Arnazes’ marriage—the two performers’ separate careers created tension, and Desi’s bandleader activities provided much temptation for him to stray now and then—wound up emphasizing the cracks in their union; Lucy and Desi were miserable married in real life but deliriously happy on TV.  (Precisely how fans of the show would like to remember it.)

For that’s what made—and continues to make—I Love Lucy such a phenomenal success in the world of the TV sitcom; it provided a fairly realistic view of marital bliss, with slight exaggerations to make it funny—holding life up to a funhouse mirror, as it were.  People (including myself) roar with laughter at the unmatched physical comedy talents of Lucille Ball; the underrated comedic aplomb of Desi Arnaz; the lemon-like acerbic wit of William Frawley; and the peerless straight-woman support of Vivian Vance.  Shortly after Lucy’s debut, The Hollywood Reporter opined: “Every once in a rare great while a new TV show comes along that fulfills, in its own particular niche, every promise of the harassed new medium.”  That statement describes the series in a nutshell: a simple domestic comedy premise built around the age-old “battle of the sexes” that Henry Kissinger once observed would never really be won because “there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.”  (Believe me—I’m just as surprised as you that Henry Kissinger got worked into this.)


David Hofstede said...

I am now watching season 1 again on the recent blu-ray release. Still fresh and funny after all these years. Great piece!

Rick29 said...

Ivan, this is a stellar history of the origins of I LOVE LUCY. Given the show's exceptional quality, it's fascinating to learn the twists & turns required to create the magic. I think it's interesting, too, that none of the principals went on to recreate anything that came close to I LOVE LUCY in terms of first-rate entertainment (for the record, I'm not a fan of any of Lucy's subsequent series). And, unlike many sitcoms, I even enjoy the later episodes (the Hollywood trip, the Europe excursion, and the move to the suburbs). This is truly one of your best posts.

Citizen Screen said...

Terrific read, fantastic information - a great story on a classic for the ages. THAT.IS.ALL.


The Metzinger Sisters said...

This was a great read Ivan on one of my all-time favorite television shows.( Truth be told, I didn't even know it was in Me-TV's summer lineup! I'm still reeling from the loss of Hawaii-5-0 ). Every once in awhile Desi and Lucy's real-life tension with each other seeped through into the episodes, but that just made the show all the more believable. A lot of people say that Lucy had some crazy "hi-jinks" but when you look at, she had some sensible motives behind what she did on the show, no matter how these escapades would up in the end.

Kevyn Knox said...

A fantastic write-up on one of the best TV shows ever made. I always love reading about the behind-the-scenes hubbub that goes on in Hollywood (and NYC, in this case). I read once that Vance was made to wear unflattering clothes and frumpy make-up, in order to look older than Lucy, since she was actually less than two years older in real life.

Again, great post. See ya 'round the web. All Things Kevyn.

Joanna said...

Reading this, I'm reminded how far television has changed since these earliest of days--and yet NOTHING is still as funny as Lucy. Funny is funny even after 60+ years. Thanks for writing this.