Critic’s Notebook: Lucille Ball, 100 and ageless
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Happy 100th birthday, Lucille Ball -- I won’t add ‘wherever you are,’ because you’re everywhere. Somewhere in the world someone is watching you do that thing you did, or someone soon will be. It doesn’t feel even mildly controversial to call you the most important woman in the history of television comedy -- meaning no disrespect to Carol Burnett, Tina Fey and Mary Tyler Moore -- or television, period. Among the stars of TV’s golden age, only Jackie Gleason in his Ralph Kramden suit rivals you for iconic weight.
How to account for Lucy’s undying appeal, which I imagine will be roughly as appealing and undying a thousand years from now? There is ‘I Love Lucy’ itself, which will celebrate its 60th birthday in October, but which, even now, feels contemporary and timeless, recognizably modern and rooted in old theatrical verities. (There were subsequent series -- the successful ‘The Lucy Show’ and ‘Here’s Lucy’ and the short-lived ‘Life with Lucy’ -- but they are not the reason we have come to praise her.)
On a purely visual level, the decision of husband, business partner and co-star Desi Arnaz, the man who invented multi-camera comedy, to make the show on film gives it a continuing vivid presence. It looks as good now as it ever did: crisp, clear and immediate -- better, probably, given digital remastering and sharper TVs. (Karl Freund, who had worked for Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, was the director of photography.) And the stories, though sometimes thick with complication, are elemental in what drives them: The jokes are built on character, not on passing cultural references and ironic puzzles that future audiences will need footnotes to understand. Viewed carelessly from a distance the series might seem to reflect a common view of the 1950s, that it was a decade of almost enforced, picket-fence normalcy after the social somersaults of the Second World War: father at work, mother at housework -- the suburban dream world we see in many 1950s comedies. But ‘I Love Lucy,’ which spanned that decade, offered something quite different. Its characters are (relatively) sophisticated urban apartment-dwellers who eat in restaurants and go to nightclubs and travel to Europe. Age and Fred Mertz’s perpetual grumpiness apart, they’re youthful, often childish adults. They play pranks and make dares, they sing and they dance. Even with Little Ricky to look after, and occasional intimations of tight money, they are remarkably carefree.
In the quartet of voices for which ‘I Love Lucy’ is composed -- husband Arnaz as husband Ricky Ricardo, William Frawley and Vivian Vance as landlord-neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz -- Lucy is the first violin, the melody for which the other voices provide support and contrast. She is ambitious and clever; she wants to be where the action is, to gain a measure of independence, to be taken seriously. Her schemes -- only some of which center on her famous desire to be in show business -- often backfire, because her dreams don’t necessarily jibe with her talents, or because they are based on a lie that comes back to bite her. But she doesn’t always fail, and when she does, she is never down for long. The familiar warning ‘Luuucy’ notwithstanding, the show is not about putting Lucy in her place or teaching her a lesson; that is a strategy that as often as not teaches a lesson to the would-be lesson-teachers. (It’s worth remembering that the show was largely written by a woman, Madelyn Pugh, who with partner Bob Carroll Jr. has a credit on nearly every episode.)
As to the woman who played her, there is not much in the first half of Lucille Ball’s career -- as a chorine, movie-studio contract player and glamour girl -- from which you could predict the impact of the latter. Ball was already 40 when ‘I Love Lucy’ premiered, on Oct. 15, 1951, and 49 when the show it became, ‘The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,’ aired its final episode, on April Fools Day 1960, followed shortly by her divorce from Arnaz. (I find it interesting, if not necessarily significant, that he was six years her junior -- and second husband Gary Morton, 13.) She was born anew on ‘Lucy,’ as Lucy; TV remade her, as she remade television, as actor and executive.
She became ‘a clown’ -- which I suppose means that she could be funny with her face and body -- a description faintly echoed by the curl of her dyed hair, and the paint on her face: She was always made-up, even to get dirty, which at once underlined and somehow masked the fact that she was a beautiful woman. It made her look more ordinary, much in the way that her character’s slapstick awkwardness was clearly the product of impeccable timing and perfect control. Though the comedy is frequently panic-stricken, she always knows her center of gravity. And even when she goes big, with her eyes or lips or limbs, she’s never less than natural, playing not to the studio audience but to the confidential camera, apparently average and evidently extraordinary.
So, happy birthday, Lucy -- Ball and Ricardo both. I toast you with a spoonful of Vitamitameatavegamin, Vitavetavegivac, Mitameatamigamin, Mitavatameatimac -- well, you get the idea: We love you.
[For the Record, 5:17 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misidentified the writing partner of Madelyn Pugh as Jim Carroll Jr. It was Bob Carroll Jr.]
-- Robert Lloyd