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"Sure, I loved Lucy. But a gentleman never kisses and tells."

- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium Curator

I LOVE LUCY

I 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".

Set 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.

Lucy 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.

The 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.

The 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.

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The 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.

SEASON 1 DVDDesilu 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.

Gale 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.

 

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