The Centenary of Lucy: We Still Love Her

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Lucille Ball, foiled again!
Lucille Ball would have celebrated her 100th birthday over the weekend, so I celebrated by watching a handful of episodes of her groundbreaking show, and never regretting the decision for a moment. I must admit, for a guy with an edgy sensibility and weird tastes (modern classical music, avant-garde jazz, etc), I would rather watch I Love Lucy than any number of consciously kooky, modern-day sitcoms. Keep your cynicism and your post-modern winks, I'll have a glass of vitameatavegamin and call it a day.
As is now commonly acknowledged, I Love Lucy provided heaping doses of the stylistic DNA that was replicated in the innumerable sitcoms that followed in its wake. Even the much joked-about Desi Arnaz is credited with deciding to shoot the series on film, and also co-conceived the "multi-camera" production method with Fritz Lang's cinematographer, Karl Freund. Freund flooded the set with light, eliminating shadows when actors moved around, and thus allowed one set-up for all three cameras. Simple, but brilliant.
Old Ricky Ricardo had another idea up his sleeve, one that would reap huge financial rewards for the couple's company, Desilu Productions. When the network suits complained about the cost of shooting the series on film, Arnaz made a deal to absorb any additional costs incurred to do so, in exchange for owning and controlling the rights to the show. That may not have sounded so shrewd at the time, but it means Desilu reaped the boundless sums generated by re-runs and syndication in the last 60 years!
But it is Lucille Ball herself who provided the blueprint for success in television comedy — she was the first, and remains to this day, the most powerful woman in the history of the medium. Even her fictional persona, the hapless but lovable red-headed ditz, had a head full of promising get-rich schemes that were all doomed to miserably fail. As such, she may have captured the lightning of post-war euphoria and boundless optimism in a tiny, half-hour bottle. The underdog was never so appealingly innocent and deserving, even if Ricky scoffed at her harebrained schemes.
And even when the premise of an episode is less than inspired, one finds one's eyes trained on Lucille Ball at all times. Not that she tries to upstage her fellow performers, it's just that the elasticity of her facial expressions and balletic clumsiness make her so compelling to watch. In the episode I saw yesterday, a cameo appearance by Hollywood gossip Hedda Hopper sets the story in motion, but it is Lucy's pratfalls into a swimming pool that get the grins. lucille ball
Although it seems like the show has been on forever, I Love Lucy lasted just six seasons, spawning 180 episodes. For my money, reruns of Lucy stand with those of Seinfeld when it comes to transcending comedic time and space, perhaps because the four principal characters in the respective shows seem to learn so precious little about themselves as time waxes on. Comedy doesn't depend on character development as much as drama — even Aristotle surmised that comic figures are mainly "average to below average" in terms of moral fibre and wisdom. As such Lucille Ball would have met his most hearty approval — she is a lovable Everywoman for the ages, and an enduring monument to a simpler, more hopeful time in our nation's history.


TCM, continuing their efforts to issue great classic collections has done it again with more DVD issues. A pair of TCM Classic Legends releases brings together two leading Hollywood actresses who have more in common than meets the eye. Fame, influence, tabloid fodder, they shared these by-products of Hollywood success. Elizabeth Taylor and Lucille Ball were sisters in arms in the battle for box office bucks but they were also much more.

Elizabeth Taylor was considered the most beautiful woman in the world at the height of her fame. Those cool violet eyes and blue black hair were the stuff of art directors’ dreams. Taylor seemed slightly dangerous to men, and an anathema to suddenly single women.

Taylor was a man-trap, married eight times and as crazy about love when she died as when she raised eyebrows making out with her married Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton. She stole Eddie Fisher from America’s Sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, and Richard Burton from his wife Sybill. Taylor’s personal life was far juicier than any role she played.
Always the romantic, Taylor left nearly a $1M to her last ex-husband, Larry Fortensky, a much younger man – a construction worker – romance always! Taylor’s appetites were big – men, food, clothes, jewels, and at times, drink. She doted on her three children, one of whom she adopted on the set of Cleopatra.

But her turbulent relationship with Richard Burton was her romantic legacy, as much as they married twice and vowed eternal love they were apart some years when he died. In their heyday, they were dynamite, behaving scandalously in various corners of the world, buying up treasures wherever they went including the 33 carat Krupp diamond and the 69 carat “Taylor-Burton” diamond and showing off their chemistry at every opportunity. The “paparazzi”, the new breed of invasive celebrity photographers of the sixties, tracked their every move.
Lucille Ball was beautiful, not Taylor beautiful but warm, funny, down to earth and wide eyed beautiful. Art directors went to great pains to create color palettes that complemented her marmalade red hair, which was often feature as a bit in her TV series and in her movies, representing her fiery nature and her expensive dye habit.

Lucy wasn’t afraid to get gritty, and physical and look the fool. In fact, she relished it. Lucy’s showbiz savvy was her secret weapon; she knew all aspects of Hollywood and had strong business acumen. But onscreen is the payoff – apparently rather dour off-screen, she was insanely, unforgettably funny on.

Ball too had a long, headline grabbing and turbulent relationship. Desi Arnaz was her husband and business partner at Desilu Studio, and the pioneering, inventive mind behind the success of their TV shows. She was timing, acting skill and appeal.

Together they became wealthy, Hollywood moguls whose TV shows and films were seen all around the world. Through their partnership, he emerged from the far fringes of Hollywood to become one of its biggest power players and Ball found her niche as a comedienne after a long string of ho hum dramatic and romantic films. Together they were dynamite. Separate, not so much.
The Taylor DVD collection features a variety of Taylor moods – sexy, hungry and clingy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, enamored of her husband who can’t bear her. Taylor is a hooker In Butterflied 8, desperate to change her ways and win her mother’s approval and the love of a married man for keeps.

Taylor is gorgeously young and adorable in Father of the Bride as she embarks on the adventure of first love and marriage; not quite innocent, she’s teetering on the brink of womanhood. And The Sandpiper reunites Taylor and Burton as a married man in love with Taylor’s Big Sur artist; this time they are lovers in the autumn of their lives, pondering life’s Big Questions. This is an extremely well chosen set.

Ball is featured in all her Technicolor glory in DuBarry Was a Lady, which pretty much stars her hair and clothes, with Lucy and Red Skelton in second billing. The film was made to enhance her coloring, or so it seems. It’s pretty eye-popping. Forever Darling is one of two “getaway” films Lucy and Desi made together as husbands and wives embark on a trip, like fish out of water, and they bicker and fight funny. Here they go camping to test his bug spray formula.

They play a married couple honeymooning In Rockies in a super big mobile home in The Long, Long, Trailer. Harrowing scenes navigating narrow mountain trails are hilariously unbearable, and of course her rock collection doesn’t help. Ball’s long-time friendship with the Marx Brothers began in Room Service, a classic comedy in which she’s the straight girl. In 1938, she hadn’t quite found her way to comedy but it’s clear she had the greatest teachers available to any young aspiring actress...

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