BY: LYNN ELBER
We loved Lucy and we still do.
On the 100th anniversary of her birth Saturday and 60 years since “I Love Lucy” first aired, Lucille Ball’s legacy remains remarkable _ and her talent remarkably fresh and watchable.
Consider other popular sitcoms that aired alongside Ball and Desi Arnaz’s show during its 1951-to-1957 life span on CBS. “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” and “Father Knows Best,” among others, are period Americana that evoke sweet nostalgia far more than laughs.
But “I Love Lucy,” in all its black-and-white glory, remains a draw worldwide for viewers who certainly weren’t around for its debut. Over the past five decades the sitcom has won new audiences _ and introduced Lucy to younger generations _ over and over through TV syndication and video sales.
Lucie Arnaz, Ball’s daughter, was asked by a Chinese interviewer to explain why her mother and the show are so popular in China. It’s a “phenomenon,” Arnaz offers.
“I think of her as mom most of the time. Then I switch … and try to see her as the rest of the world does. It’s almost too big,” Arnaz said Friday.
Who could have predicted that the most timeless and international of all TV talents would be a fortysomething woman who, taking the structured role of a homemaker in mid-century New York City, stretched into it the stuff of classic comedy?
Picture this: Lucy swigging down awful Vitameatavegamine, with a grimace and a wannabe-pitchman’s smile fighting for custody of her face before the boozy patent medicine begins to take control of her. Can you recall the scene, let alone watch it, and not get at least a small jolt of pleasure, even if it’s the umpteenth time?
Or consider Lucy vs. the industrial revolution, as a conveyer belt outpaces her candy-processing skills and desperation and poor judgment join ranks.
“All right, girls, now this is your last chance. If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packing room unwrapped, you’re fired,” the plant supervisor barks at Lucy and partner-in-crime Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance).
That’s the setup. The delivery, in the most rewarding Ball fashion, is mostly wordless.
As the belt speeds up and chocolates slip by en masse, Lucy and Ethel try stuffing the evidence in their mouths. Down their dresses. In their handbags.
Lucy, eyes wide and lips puckered, looks as guilty as a kid cheating big-time in class.
Another winner: the Italian grape-stomping scene, which turns an oversized barrel of fruit into an arena with Lucy the poseur versus a diligent worker. Lucy turns their task into a pas de deux that goes from a square dance to a grape-flinging battle.
Lucy Goes to Charm School:
Dialogue? Forget about it. No need, given Lucy’s adroit physicality and gleeful mugging, all dignity and beauty be damned. (She credited masterful Buster Keaton for teaching her timing and how to move, and fall.)
Her big-eyed, full-lipped look didn’t start as comic fodder. She was a model, a movie starlet in the early 1930s and then an actress with minor roles in a handful of good films (“Stage Door”) and bigger roles in many more forgettable ones (“Dance, Girl, Dance”).
Then came television, which made Lucille Ball. In return, she and Arnaz, her husband, partner and co-star, made TV comedy what it is to this day.
First, they pushed the narrow-minded TV industry beyond its comfort zone, proving that audiences would accept a blue-eyed redhead married to a Cuban-born band leader with a heavy accent. (“Lucy, you got some `splainin’ to do!”)
Ball and Arnaz pioneered the three-camera sitcom with “I Love Lucy,” which was filmed like a stage play. Using multiple cameras eliminated the need to interrupt scenes to shoot from different angles and allowed actors to play to a studio audience.
Although “The Office,” “30 Rock” and other comedies have popularized the single-camera format, multiple-camera “Two and a Half Men” has reigned as the top-rated sitcom in recent years and more new comedies are embracing the convention.
Creating a quality film record of the episodes _ at a time most shows aired live and unpreserved _ paid a huge dividend, making “I Love Lucy” episodes resalable as reruns and their production house, Desilu, the first studio to profit from program syndication.
Desilu became a powerful force in early television. Besides “I Love Lucy,” it turned out some of the top comedy shows of the 1950s and 1960s, including “December Bride,” “Our Miss Brooks” and “Make Room for Daddy.” After Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960, he sold her his share in the company for $3 million. With a shrewd business sense, she built it into a major TV production company and in 1967 sold it to Gulf & Western Industries Inc. for $17 million.
Fanboys and girls, note: At Ball’s insistence, the studio produced the original “Star Trek” series and landed it on NBC.
Ball was known as a modest luminary, invariably sharing credit and especially when “I Love Lucy” drew praise. “Well, all of the credit should go to (writers) Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr.” Or, “Desi was a genius: He was responsible for the show’s success.” Or she cited co-stars Arnaz, Vance and Bill Frawley.
But people knew better. Gale Gordon, who played her sidekick from radio through three of her TV shows (“The Lucy Show” from 1962-68, “Here’s Lucy,” 1968-74, and short-lived “Life With Lucy,” 1986) called her a bit of a genius _ “the only one I’ve ever really known.”
Ball was 77 when she died in 1989 of a ruptured abdominal artery after heart surgery. Arnaz is gone, and so are Vance, Frawley, Gordon and screenwriter Carroll. In April, fellow head writer Madelyn Pugh Davis died at age 90.
But their creation, with Ball at its center, is eternally vital and joyful. George Burns called it when she died, and his tribute remains true.
“I and 100 million others will miss her,” Burns said. “But we haven’t lost Lucille Ball because she’s still with us on television and we can see her on and on.”
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