Fab 400 Entertainers - Lucille Ball, #9
Fab 400 Entertainers - Lucille Ball, #9
By: Steve Daly | Entertainment Weekly

Over the years, her writers developed a code. They’d invoke the shorthand name for some surefire bit of business in the stage directions, and Lucille Ball could run with it like a red-helmeted quarterback, unerring in her sense of how to parlay the call into a comedic touchdown. There was "the drats," a fists-clenching, double-forearm-drop gesture that Lucille’s alter ego, Lucy - the starstruck showbiz-wannabe housewife forever wheedling her way onto stages and into celebrities’ lives - would make after another crazy scheme backfired. Just as reliable was "the spider," that curl-the-upper-lip, swivel-the-head "Eyeeeoooough!" exclamation that said Oh no in a thousand ways. (It was so labeled because Ball first invented it playing a frightened Little Miss Muffett in late-‘40s radio ads for Jell-O.)

The thing that elevated these bits (and do many more never designated with any formal genus) beyond mechanical shtick and into perpetual-rerun touchstones was the way Ball mixed them up and folded them into her Lucy characters with such seeming nonchalance; first as Mrs. Ricardo in her most enduring work, I Love Lucy (1951-57), then in The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (1957-1960), The Lucy Show (1962-68), and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). It was a magnificent illusion. People who worked with her knew that behind the improvisatory aura, Ball was a compulsive rehearser who nursed every inch of her choreography till she knew it cold. She herself rarely knew what was funny when handed a situation, but could she play that situation. The infamous putty-nose-on-fire gag? Totally planned (except the final touch of dipping her schnozz in a cup of coffee; that she added on set in a rare moment of improv). She once spent three hours practicing how to blow up and pop a paper bag for one momentary aside in an I Love Lucy segment.

The result, wrote Love producer-cowriter Jess Oppenheimer in his memoirs, was that "there was no feeling that the audience was watching her act. She simply was Lucy Ricardo. And if you looked carefully, you would marvel that every fiber in the woman’s body was contributing to the illusion. Did Ricky catch her in a lie? She wouldn't be just a voice denying it. Her stance would be a liars stance... There would be a telltale picking at a cuticle, or a finger brushed against her upper lip... Her hands, her feet, her knees... every cell - would be doing the right thing."

Though Ball made it look ineluctable, she stumbled into her slapstick métier only after spending the first half of her career fumbling around. Between the early ‘30s and the late ‘40s, she appeared in more than 60 movies, ranging from musicals (like DuBarry Was a Lady, the Technicolor flick that introduced her trademark, chemically induced electric-orange hair color) to melodramas (like Stage Door, opposite Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers) to comedies (she bonded with Bob Hope on Sorrowful Jones). She plugged away but never became a top-tier, name-brand star.

By 1950, Ball had finally managed to peck out the one bona fide hit of her career - as a disembodied voice. She’s clicked big time in a radio show called My Favorite Husband, where she was the wacky wife of a staid banker (think Dharma & Greg). But radio was rapidly becoming a passé ghetto thanks to TV, which loomed at the start of the ‘50s the way the Internet does today. CBS wanted to translate Ball’s radio show to TV, with Ball starring - and with her radio costar Richard Denning coming along for the ride.

That’s when Ball (at 39!) gathered her strength and gambled everything. If CBS wanted a TV show, fine: She was going to use it to salvage not just her career but her life. Her ten-year marriage to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban bandleader five years her junior, was perpetually in danger of pulling apart due to their conflicting schedules. If she could just turn the TV gig into a chance for her and Desi to work together, she figured it might give them a sort of family life. So she dragged a nervous Desi into the nascent I Love Lucy as her costar, where he’s play a thinly fictionalized version of himself named Ricky Ricardo. Sponsors and network execs raised heated objections to the Arnaz casting. Who’d believe his character? They harrumphed. Lucille’s ballsy response: You want me, you take my husband. Otherwise, no show.

It was the most unique form of couples therapy in the history of entertainment. And though it ultimately didn’t work off camera - Lucille and Desi split for good in 1960, one day after filming their last material as Lucy and Ricky - it worked miraculously well as fiction. By the end of its first, 35 episode season, I Love Lucy had regularly topped the weekly ratings. It was the season champion for the next three years and never left the top five in its entire run.

In the industry, Lucy changed everything: Not only did 30-minute sitcoms push aside variety hours as the dominant TV format, but the show’s groundbreaking technique of shooting each episode on motion picture film with three cameras, then broadcasting the edited result (instead of beaming it out live with only a fuzzy kinescope as a record), was quickly adopted. That latter innovation was a happy accident born of Ball’s refusal to do Lucy out of New York, then TV’s capital. Arnaz proposed doing Lucy in an L.A. studio, but the network moguls felt Ball worked better with an audience. Okay, Arnaz impulsively countered, we’ll shoot it in a studio on film with and audience. And since it’s out demand, we’ll pay the extra $5,000-,6,000 per episode to do it that way - provided our fledgling company, Desilu, retains complete ownership of the films.

Thus the three-camera photography system, the "studio audience" for sitcoms, and the syndication market were all established in one serendipitous swoop. And as the broadcast infrastructure reeled, so did the public. I Love Lucy captivated post-World War II nest builders who were doing everything the Ricardos were doing: riding the power struggles of married life, trading up their apartments, moving to the suburbs. "There was no theatricality to it," says James L. Brooks, who spent the ‘70s replacing the Lucy family-comedy template with sitcoms built around workplaces. "You believed it was real. I mean, they had a baby on there and everything."

Behind the scenes, Ball was anything but just folks. She took over Desilu Productions after Desi, who was early on a business natural but became increasingly hobbled by alcoholism, bowed out in ’62. And through the years, she grew impossibly bossy toward employees and costars alike (Joan Crawford, after guesting on an episode, said, "My God, and they I’m a bitch"). Some of that ferociousness percolated beneath ball’s ditzy TV persona, but there it was actually endearing. Lucy plotlines centered an extraordinary amount of the time on fights. It was Jerry Springer and The Peoples Court with a happy ending, as the Ricardos constantly bickered over money and property, both with each other and with their neighbors Ethel (played to summering perfection by Vivian Vance) and Fred Mertz (William Frawley, a crusty alcoholic whose hands were so shaky he had to keep them in his pants pockets - hence Fred’s default stance).

It didn’t hurt that Ball, despite the public not being able to see her striking blue eyes and scarlet locks on their black-and-white sets, was about the hottest looker on the tube in her early days. Ball managed to make silly, physical comedy seem sexy - something no male clown had done before, certainly not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. (Many episodes ended with Lucy and Ricky en route to the bedroom, and even though the mattresses were separate, you just knew they ended up in one sack a lot.) "It’s amazing, there was never any reference, or any other character who met her on that show, who ever thought she was attractive," marvels Brooks. "Nobody ever mentioned it. She was just regular. But of course she was so good-looking."

That was one of Lucy’s wonderfully subversive appeals. Lucy was ostensibly the untalented one, perennially kept out of showbiz by her successful bandleader husband. But every minute of the show proved otherwise. Arnaz could sing and set only passably (though he was a better arbiter off screen than Ball of what was funny), while Ball was a mesmerizing performing. "There’s a delicious, secret pleasure in watching her challenge and completely upstage Ricky over and over," says feminist author Susan Faludi. "The spotlight was really on her. It was gratifying to so many women of that time who had to play the artificial role of a second fiddle, the helpmate to their supposedly more competent, qualified husbands. It was a huge inside joke."

And a less-than-perfect fit for advertisers, who weren’t exactly delighted that ball was such a self-sufficient woman. (So much so that Saudi Arabia banned the show - ‘nuff said.) While Ball’s clown act let her get away with murder on this front, after Lucy, most female TV characters were desexualized until Mary Tyler Moore and (more realistically still) Roseanne. The majority were insipid homemakers (Donna Reed, Jane Wyatt - even That Girl’s Marlo Thomas was a housewife in career-girl clothing), and until Carl Burnett, few were genuinely funny.

So Ball got the last laugh in many ways. On the outside, she was always deprecating herself with her "spider" wince. On the inside, we got the feeling that she never so much as blinked. As often as she wound up apologizing and kowtowing to Ricky Ricardo, it’s not the Lucy who crumbled in the last 30 seconds were remember. We really loved the petulant, determined, scheming redhead who just couldn’t do deferential.
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