Thursday, 11 October 2012

Loving Lucy Day 2: The Story of I Love Lucy

In the late 1940s, Lucy was torn between a moderately successful radio show... 
...or leaving everything behind for a chance to shine with Desi

It wasn’t easy for Lucy to admit that the movies were a hopeless medium for her. They weren’t the right outlet for her talent that, despite being overwhelmingly clear, went by almost unrecognized by Hollywood directors and producers. Lucy’s résumé is easy to understand even at a first glance. She was the studio’s jack-of-all-trades: flexible, versatile, widely capable of playing all kinds of roles. The studios used her for every and any part they needed. She did comedies, dramas, musicals, even westerns! But, now, she needed a plan B and she needed it fast. It turned out to be only two letters: TV.

The idea of a sitcom featuring Lucy and Desi as a normal married couple came after Lucy became the star of a new radio show called "My Favorite Husband", in 1948. She co-starred Richard Denning as the well-off housewife of a banking boss. They had a lukewarm reception in their very beginning, to the disappointment of their sponsor Jell-O, who thought multiple times about dropping the show altogether. In an effort to remain afloat, CBS Radio hired three new writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.

Lucy and Richard Denning, recording "My Favorite Husband"

Whoa!, you say, I've heard those names before! Yes, you have. Any "I Love Lucy" fan is at least remotely familiar with the likes of Oppenheimer, Pugh and Carroll. They were the writers who remained with Lucy in her endeavors on television. They were the minds behind every episode of "I Love Lucy". They were very intelligent in tweaking the essence of the radio show: Ball and Denning were now a middle-class couple, a lot more appealing and relatable to their average audience. The show started gaining visibility and CBS decided to take it to television. It was a new medium, very risky, but that already started competing with the motion picture industry. For Lucy, to go to television was to betray the movies, and there was no way she would be accepted back on the big screen after such betrayal. It was an all or nothing situation: Either she struck gold on television or her career as an entertainer was likely to be over.

Because of the possibility of this television show being the escape route for all Lucy's problems, she was categorical with the CBS bosses: It's either me and Desi or neither of us. Doing a show with a different man would only aggravate her problems at home, and, despite not receiving enough credit for it half the time, Desi had very well-developed business wits. He'd be one of the brains behind the whole ordeal and Lucy counted on him, perhaps more than anyone, to make the show work.

CBS Television, however, was skeptical about the pair. They were unsure about the reception of an interracial couple by the American audience of the early 1950s. It seems unimaginable to us, analyzers from today's mindset, that the simple difference of ethnicity between two co-stars would be a reason for unease, especially if those co-stars were as talented as Lucy and Desi. But, it's important to note the racist idealism that still permeated the society of the time. In fact, "I Love Lucy" marked exactly the era when that started to change. (Read more about it here. Seriously, do it.) It seemed like their show would never take off.

Genuine smiles about the bright future ahead of them: The Arnazes in the early 1950s

But, they were determined to carry on with the idea no matter what it took. So, since both had had vaudeville and theater experience, Lucy and Desi decided to put on a travelling act, that would tour around America and prove that they were capable of inciting a positive reaction from the audience despite the racial difference. They were unexpectedly successful and CBS agreed to feature them. Jell-O, however, was still unsure. It was the Arnazes' luck (and perhaps a hint of destiny), that cigarette giant Philip Morris, one of the world's wealthiest companies at the time, decided to believe in them and funded the entire show. All they had to do was change "Do you want a cigarrette, Lucy?" to "Do you want a Philip Morris, Lucy?" and they were good to go.

The excitement over their new endeavors restored a little bit of the happiness and simplicity the Arnazes' marriage was lacking. Now they needed to stick together to make this show the best it could possibly be. They already had the writers, they already had the two protagonists, they already had the television network and the general outline. Now, all they needed was a pair of great supporting actors for the Arnazes to bounce off of. William Frawley was Lucy's suggestion. Vivian Vance was brought by the director Marc Daniels. The four of them clicked like a symphony.


Now everything was ready for filming to start, but yet another complication was about to arrive. Because of the general skepticism of the crew and the bosses, the only medium made available to film and store the episodes was the cheap and pre-historical kinescope, which used a 16mm film camera to record low-quality video and audio. Philip Morris also wanted the series to stream from New York City, which meant that the quality of their broadcast to Midwestern and Western audiences would be mediocre at best. Lucy and Desi couldn't take it. They then had a thousand dollars each deducted from their weekly pay to cover the expenses to put the show on cinematic film. In doing so, they demanded the major ownership of the "I Love Lucy" franchise and took charge of the production themselves. I don't think today's audience really understands how daring that decision was. It was already all or nothing and now the stakes were growing higher by the second. 

Now, not only were Lucy and Desi stars of a new show; they were the stars, the major owners and the executive producers of a new show to be filmed with an expensive technology on a new, inexperienced medium in a reluctant and skeptical network and making not very much money at all. In summary, the Arnazes were complete nutcases. Thank God they were. 

Since they were big-shot producers now, they needed a name for their team. Arnaball? Nope. Ballrnaz? How would we even pronounce that? Lucy's Arnaz? Too corny. Desi's Balls? GASP! Lucydes? Almost- Desilu! We got it. Desilu. Desi and Lu. Together. Once and for all. Needless to say that their new found status of show business daredevils brought the pair a lot closer than they had lately been. 



On October 15th, 1951, a month and a half from the Arnazes' 11th wedding anniversary, "I Love Lucy" made its shy premiere. It's gonna be a passing craze, the studio thought. It really was an almost certain fail, but there was one thing no one took into account: The show was unbelievably good. 

Have you ever seen anything funnier than this? Or anything more romantic than this? Or a show that has the comic and the poetic on the same episode in such beautiful synchronization? I'm sure I haven't. And neither had the American audience, because before they knew it, "I Love Lucy" had skyrocketed to the most successful television show of all time. Overwhelmed by their own success, how would Lucy and Desi deal with their brand new superstar status?

To be continued... tomorrow.

So long,
Marcela
This beautiful art was made by Iryvan on deviantART. I can't believe it's a drawing!

P.S. I just realized I should've named this series "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Oh, shucks.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Marcela, another great post, and I agree that drawing is amazing. It would be so wierd to imagine the show without Desi. In fact without any of them, it was so perfectly cast, as well as brilliantly written. Look forward to the next post.

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  2. I researched a lot about I Love Lucy in Lucy's centennial, in 2011. THe Google Doodle made for the occasion, by the way, was awesome.
    I knew some facts, but is hard to imagine how big was the risk of Lucy's and Desi's decision about making the sitcom.
    Kisses!

    P.S.: Desi's Ball would be the funniest name for a team EVER!

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