"Sure, I loved Lucy.
But a gentleman never kisses and tells."
- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium
Love Lucy, a CBS television sitcom that aired in the 1950s, was the
most popular American sitcom of its generation and is still
considered by viewers and experts alike to be one of the greatest
television series of all time. The series starred movie actress and
radio comedienne Lucille Ball, her actor/orchestra leader husband
Desi Arnaz, stage actress Vivian Vance and movie character actor
William Frawley. The series ran from October 15, 1951 to May 6, 1957
on CBS (180 episodes, including the "lost" Christmas
episode). Episodes of "I Love Lucy" are still syndicated on
television in dozens of languages across the world. The show was
heavily based on a radio show from a few years before, My Favorite
Husband about Liz and George Cooper (George is a banker) and many of
the scripts were rewritten for I Love Lucy using the same writers
(Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.). On this radio show, Lucy had
played "Liz" and actor Richard Denning had played "George".
in New York City, I Love Lucy is centered around Lucy Ricardo
née McGillicuddy (Lucille Ball), a housewife, her husband
Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), a singer and bandleader, and their
friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and
Vivian Vance). Most episodes take place in the Ricardos' modest
brownstone apartment at 623 East 68th Street which in reality
would be in the middle of the East River or at the downtown
"Tropicana" nightclub where Ricky is employed, and
sometimes elsewhere in the city. The Mertz's kitchen was only shown,
for instance, in the episode, "Never Do Business With
Friends". Later episodes took the Ricardos and the Mertzes to
Hollywood for Ricky to shoot a movie, and then they all accompanied
Ricky while he and his band toured Europe. There was also a trip to
Florida for the two couples. Eventually the Ricardos and the Mertzes
moved to a house in the rural town of Westport, Connecticut. Other
blocks of episodes were set in Los Angeles and Miami.
Ricardo is a loving if somewhat naïve housewife with an
ambitious character who has a knack for getting herself into trouble.
In particular, she is obsessed with joining her husband in show
business. Fred and Ethel are themselves former vaudevillians, which
strengthens Lucy's resolve to prove herself as a performer.
Unfortunately, Lucy Ricardo cannot carry a tune or play anything
other than an off-key rendition of "Glow Worm" (or
"Sweet Sue") on the saxophone and evidently has no other
artistic or managerial talent. Yet Lucy is determined to show
everyone around her that she is much more than an ordinary housewife.
A typical I Love Lucy episode involves one of Lucy's ambitious but
hare-brained schemes, whether it be sneaking into Ricky's nightclub
act, finding a way to hobnob with celebrities, showing up her fellow
women's club members, or simply trying to improve the quality of her
life. Usually she ends up in some comedic mess, often dragging in
Ethel as her (usually) reluctant companion.
program was originally sponsored by cigarette manufacturer Philip
Morris, and Lucy and Ricky (as well as Ethel) dutifully puffed away
in the early episodes. The program originally opened with animated
match-stick figures of Lucy and Ricky climbing down a packet of
Philip Morris cigarettes. It was only when the series went into
reruns that the familiar "heart on satin" with "I Love
Lucy" on it appeared.
I Love Lucy show was not only a star vehicle for Lucille Ball, but a
way for her to try to salvage her marriage to Desi Arnaz, which had
become badly strained, in part by the fact that each had a hectic
performing schedule which often kept them apart. Studio heads were
worried that American audiences would not find such a "mixed
marriage" to be believable, and were concerned about Arnaz's
heavy Cuban accent. But Ball was adamant, and they were eager to have
her in the part. To help sway their decision, Ball and Arnaz put
together a vaudeville act featuring his music and her comedy, which
was well received in several cities. In the end, CBS agreed, but
refused to let Desi Arnaz's role be part of the show's title (as in
"Lucy and Ricky"). After lengthy negotiations, Arnaz
relented and agreed to I Love Lucy, reasoning that the "I"
would be his part.
program was filmed at Desilu, a production studio jointly owned by
Ball and Arnaz. At this time, most television programs were broadcast
live, and as the largest markets were in New York, the rest of the
country received only kinescope images (the result of placing 35 mm
or 16 mm film cameras in front of a television monitor and shipping
the prints to other time zones for broadcast at a later date,
resulting in extremely poor quality). Network executives considered
the use of film an unnecessary extravagance. Arnaz convinced them to
allow Desilu to cover all additional costs associated with the
filming process, under the stipulation that Desilu owned and
controlled all rights to the film. Arnaz's unprecedented arrangement
is widely considered to be one of the shrewdest deals in television
history. As a result of his foresight, Desilu reaped the profits from
all re-runs of the series.
Arnaz also developed the
multicamera setup production style using adjacent sets that became
the standard for all subsequent situation comedies to this day. He
worked with the famous cameraman Karl Freund to design a set that
would accommodate an live studio audience. The audience reactions
were far more authentic than the "canned laughter" used on
most filmed sitcoms of the time. Scenes were then often performed in
sequence, as a play would be, which was unusual for comedies at that
time. Retakes were rare and dialogue mistakes were often played off
for the sake of continuity. This technique allowed the show to remain
fresh for years and retain its originality and liveliness.
Arnaz also persuaded Karl
Freund, cinematographer of such films as Metropolis (1927), Dracula
(1931), and The Good Earth (1937) as well as director of The Mummy
(1932), to be the series' cinematographer, which many critics believe
accounts for the show's lustrous black and white cinematography.
produced several other popular shows, most notably Our Miss Brooks,
The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. Many other
shows, particularly Sheldon Leonard-produced series like Make Room
for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and I Spy,
were filmed at Desilu Studios and bear its logo. Lucille Ball was the
first woman in television to be head of a production company and
after their divorce in 1960 Ball bought out Desi Arnaz's share of the
Desilu studio and continued to functioned as a very active studio
head. Desilu also produced a feature film version of I Love Lucy. The
film consisted of three first-season episodes edited together:
"The Benefit", "Breaking the Lease" and "The
Ballet". New scenes featuring the cast were filmed and put
between the episodes to tie them into one cohesive story. A
successful test screening was held in Bakersfield, California;
however, MGM demanded the I Love Lucy movie be shelved because they
felt it would diminish interest in the The Long, Long Trailer
(directed by Vincente Minnelli and staring Lucy and Desi). Although
the I Love Lucy movie was never theatrically released and ultimately
forgotten, in 2001, it was found and clips of it were featured in I
Love Lucy's 50th Anniversary Special. A screening was held in 2002 at
a Lucy fan convention.
Gordon and Bea Benaderet were originally approached for the roles of
Fred and Ethel, but neither could accept due to previous commitments.
Gordon did appear as a guest star in 2 episodes, playing Ricky's
boss, Mr. Littlefield. Gordon was a veteran from the classic radio
days in which he perfected the role of the exasperated character,
such as in Fibber McGee and Molly. He would go on to co-star with
Ball in most of her post-I Love Lucy series. Benaderet once guest
starred playing the Ricardo's neighbor, the elderly Miss Lewis. Ms.
Ball was reluctant to accept Vivian Vance for the role because she
considered her too attractive for the role, so Vance was required to
wear clothes that were too small for her in order to make her appear
overweight. In addition, Vance was given a series husband, William
Frawley, who was 20 years her senior. Frawley, a baseball fan, only
agreed on the series provided they let him go to any main game he
wanted to. Despite her scatty appearance on the show, Ball was a
perfectionist and would spend an hour practicising a simple stunt.
Later when big stars started appearing on the show, she even
complained to some of them about their delivery, and that if they had
done it such and such a way, they would have got 30% more laughs.