Lucille Ball would have turned 100 on Aug. 6, and it would seem that Americans have loved her for nearly that long. But in fact, it took years for audiences to love Lucy.
She had been kicking around Hollywood for nearly two decades before her performance in the seminal CBS sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Her portrayal of the sweetly daffy redhead Lucy Ricardo, whose slapstick antics and schemes exasperated her Cuban bandleader husband, Ricky (real-life hubby Desi Arnaz), turned her into a comic superstar.
Ball, who died in 1989, was a platinum blond when she began as a sexy “Goldwyn Girl” chorine in the early 1930s in musical comedies such as 1933’s “Roman Scandals.” Then she moved off to RKO, working her way from bit parts in such Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical comedies as 1935’s “Roberta.” She was occasionally in “A” films at the studio such as 1937’s “Stage Door” with Katharine Hepburn and Rogers, but she quickly became labeled as the “Queen of the B’s” at the studio.
“She was probably one of the hardest-working actresses in Hollywood,” said Kathleen Brady, author of “Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball.” “At one point, she was making 10 films at once. But somehow she never crossed over” to become a star.
But Ball never gave up. She had “extraordinary perseverance, whether it was about getting pregnant or becoming a major star,” Brady said. “Somehow it took a long time to come together for her.”
Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, is thrilled that everyone is taking her mother’s centennial so seriously. “It’s a nice thing to do to look back and remember when somebody really changed the way we think about things, whether it be Thomas Edison or Lucille Ball,” Arnaz said. “I think she would, of course, be extremely honored and proud.”
Because “I Love Lucy” is on DVD and still airs on TV in reruns, Arnaz is constantly approached by fans of her mother. “I hear the same kind of stories from the same age people decade after decade as if it were the film ‘Groundhog Day.’ It is bizarre to be me.”
CBS Video jumped on the birthday bandwagon in June with the release of 14 classic episodes of “I Love Lucy,” including “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” and “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” Next week, Warner Archive is releasing several of her film comedies, including 1949’s “Miss Grant Takes Richmond,” and Turner Classic Movies will be screening several of her films on her birthday.
The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre will present two of her features Thursday evening: “The Long, Long Trailer,” the 1954 comedy with Arnaz, and the 1946 film noir “The Dark Corner.” And on the same evening, the Hollywood Museum opens its “Lucille Ball at 100 & ‘I Love Lucy’ at 60" exhibition that features costumes, scripts and even Arnaz’s original recordings and sheet music. The exhibition continues through Nov. 30.
Before “Lucy,” Ball did dramas like 1942’s “The Big Street,” musicals such as 1943’s “Best Foot Forward,” in which she unveiled her new look as a redhead, and even film noirs like “The Dark Corner” with Clifton Webb. But the seeds of Lucy Ricardo began to bloom in the late 1940s, when she started to do several feature comedies such as 1949’s “Sorrowful Jones,” 1950’s “Fancy Pants” with Bob Hope and 1949’s “Miss Grant Takes Richmond.”
She also starred in her first radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” from 1948-51, in which she played Liz Cooper, a happily married middle-class housewife. Ball worked on the radio series with writers Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Pugh and Jess Oppenheimer, who penned countless of the “Lucy” episodes.
Arnaz said that once her mother understood she had the power to make people laugh, “she realized, ‘This is what I am supposed to be doing.’ When she hit gold, there was no turning back. She didn’t want to prove herself as a dramatic actress. She said, ‘I found the Lucy character’ and said, ‘This is what I am.’ ”