In the summer of 1940, a group of lesser-known thespians of RKO Radio Pictures were filming a low-budget musical described by critics as "harmless fluff". When the red-headed, blue-eyed 29-year-old leading lady walked into the set, she immediately caught the eye of another cast member. "That's a hunk o'woman." He mouthed at the sight of her. Their eyes met and fireworks went off inside both their hearts. He took her out dancing and every time he looked at her, he was more inebriated by her presence. They dated for about six months and ran off to marry. Great all-American love story, if it wasn't for one detail. His name was Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha, and he hailed all the way from Santiago de Cuba. Oh, Lucy, what did you do!?
In the 1940s and 1950s, racial segregation was still a reality, not only in America, but in most of the world. By marrying a Hispanic man, Lucille Desirée Ball (a rather sophisticated-sounding name) was frowned upon by the traditional society, was considered imprudent by most her media bosses, and was punishable by prison in 4 states. Sometimes I have a hard time believing society has, at one point, sunk as low as outlawing interracial marriage. It strikes me as absurd that any individual, under any circumstance, has been looked at differently by the law only on account of being a non-white.
Thankfully, however, despite her presence in show business, Lucy's marriage didn't account for too much commotion back in the day. First, because Cuba was under the capitalist dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had the support of the American government and army and secondly, because she wasn't looking to promote, broadcast or endorse her behavior in any way, shape or form. It was only in 1950, when they decided to create a sitcom together and appear as a romantically-involved couple in live television, that the bigoted society of the era (frankly, today is not all that much better) started to show its ugly head.
The idea was quite simple: To depict a normal, average, middle-class, clean-cut American couple. If you were a middle-class teenager watching I Love Lucy, 9 chances out of 10 you would, in a few years, be living a similar story of your own. The only thing unusual about the sitcom was that the couple and their best friends would go through all sorts of crazy, hysterical situations that 9 chances out of 10 you will never have to go through. I have yet to see such a simple concept result in such genius work.
The wife, Lucy, was a typical 1950s American housewife: Caring and sweet, with a happy, clumsy nature and heart of gold. Ricky was the typical working husband, providing for the wife and making sure her innocently crazy behavior doesn't result in too much damage. Very little about their lifestyle didn't transcend the years and many American couples can still identify with Lucy and Ricky's life. They felt that since they were so relatable, they would have no trouble selling the idea to CBS. The real story was a little different.
The television company immediately turned down their idea because they felt Desi was "too ethnic". (As far as I knew, each person had their ethnicity to the same degree. How a person can be "too ethnic", we'll never know.) They felt it would be impossible to create a TV show centered around their married life without making it completely about race. As far as CBS was concerned, Lucille Ball was a darling, and brother, was she talented, but Desi Arnaz was not a realistic contribution to the show. They felt it was unimaginable that a white, all-American gal like Lucy could be married to a Cuban fella like Desi. In 1950, they offered to make another TV show, with Lucy and a white guy, so that American families could relate more easily.
Lucy's response was a soundly "no". Either we're both in this or I walk.
I must give Lucy my standing ovation for her attitude.
They proved themselves to CBS by putting on a vaudevillian act, that toured around America in 1950. The crowds adored them. Lucy and Desi were a hit, but the CBS bosses were still skeptical.The network's "yes" felt more like an "alrighty, then" to the couple who had twenty years of discouragement in Hollywood on their backs. Cigarette giant Philip Morris was gonna pay for it, so why not?
Boom! I Love Lucy was a bigger hit than any other sitcom in American history! "Oh, brother! They're hilarious! They're so sweet! Their life is unbelievable! Wait, he's Cuban. Oh, who cares?! We adore this show!" And if it was okay that he was a Cuban on television, why wouldn't it be okay to love a Cuban guy outside of television? Hey, maybe our vision was prejudiced before. Maybe interracial love is not all bad!
Slowly and lingeringly, Lucy and Desi's love illustrated and influenced a change in all-around society. A change in racial roles, a change in what is okay and what isn't in the name of love. Alongside I Love Lucy, the teenagers started their own not-so-quiet revolution: Rock'N'Roll, a new groove that combined blues, an essentially black rhythm, and swing, native of the white community. In cinema, personalities like Sidney Poitier were making their start. Things were changing. The color of your skin was losing importance by the second.
Gif by [x]
Another way I Love Lucy pushed the boundaries was to show Lucille Ball in all her pregnant glory, expecting a child from none other than her Cuban sweetheart. It was the first TV show in history to feature a pregnant woman. The networks were reluctant to feature pregnancies because of their obvious associations with sex. And sex? On TV? God, no.
So, not only were Lucy and Desi innovative for being interracial, they wen't further and further on the depiction of their love and sex life, to the shock of the 1950s audience. One wonders about many scenes: "How did they ever get away with that?!" As early as Season One, Lucy and Ricky share a kiss where they are both sitting in bed, and by the end of it, she is lying on his lap (Lucy is Jealous of the Girl Singer). At another point, he innocently throws her a question with a million sexual connotations: "You don't like the way I vibrate?" (The Seance). They were forbidden to use the word "pregnant", but they worked around it and the episode where the "expectation" was announced had more viewers than the Eisenhower inauguration
Another example? Check out this gif by heckyeahlucydesi. Can you imagine anyone doing this on live television in 1950s? Me neither!
They divorced in 1960 due to personal problems related to drinking, womanizing and the overall strong character they both had. But their love for each other remained evident. Desi once said: "I loved her very much and, in my own and perhaps peculiar way, I will always love her. " Lucy is said to have said: "Desi was the great love of my life. I will miss him until the day I die."
She hired him as the director on The Lucy Show because she couldn't stand not having him around during their separation. In 1960, shortly after their divorce, Desi showed up at the press conference of Lucy's movie The Facts of Life and greeted her with, quite simply, a kiss on the lips. Don't believe me? See for yourself.
It was evident that a love like Lucy and Desi's would have to impact the world in one way or another. And teaching the 1950s world that the American dream was a broader and more colorful image than any of them would like to admit was certainly not what they expected.
Interracial marriage still accounts for only 14.6% of wedded couples in the United States of America, and it is still frowned upon in many circles. The Arnazes had many problems. Not one of them related to Desi's race. She got married again, to comedian Gary Morton (move over, Mr. Ball), a Caucasian, but they had in no way the fire and passion that Lucy and Desi were associated with. The marriage lasted 19 and a half years. The love lasted forever.
P.S. In the later years of her life, Lucy often wondered "How can I ever top what Vivian, Bill, Desi and I did on I Love Lucy?". Indeed, Lucille. How can anyone ever top what you did? You stepped on society's foot, you told them what was wrong, you showed them how to improve it, you introduced them to a new reality no matter who you'd hurt, and they accepted it blindly.
No one, in a million years, will ever top that.