BALL, LUCILLE

U.S. Actor/Comedienne

Lucille Ball was one of television's foremost pioneers and, quite likely, the preeminent woman in the history of television. As a young contract player for MGM, Ball began her career as a Goldwyn Girl, eventually moving up to become a moderately respected star of "B" movies. She came to television after nearly 20 years in motion pictures, having undergone a gradual transformation from a platinum blonde sex symbol to a wise-cracking redhead.

Her first television program, I Love Lucy, premiered 15 October 1951 and for the next 25 years Lucille Ball virtually ruled the airwaves in a series of situation comedies designed to exploit her elastic expressions, slapstick abilities and distinct verbal talents. A five-time Emmy award winner, the first woman inducted into the Television Academy's Hall of Fame, a recipient of a Genii Award and a Kennedy Center Honor, Lucille Ball was perhaps the most beloved of all television stars, and certainly the most recognizable.

In all of her television series, the protagonist she played was at once beautiful, zany, inept and talented. Her comedic skills were grounded in the style of the silent comics, and Buster Keaton, with whom she once shared an office at MGM, seems to have been particularly influential in the development of Lucy's daring exploits, hang-dog expressions, and direct looks at the audience. Although she personally fueled the myth that much of her performance was ad-libbed, in actuality, every move was choreographed. An accomplished perfectionist, she spent days practicing a particular routine before incorporating it into her programs. So distinct were her rubbery facial expressions, that scriptwriters for I Love Lucy referred to them with specific code word notations. For example, the cue "puddling up" directed the star to pause momentarily with huge tear-filled eyes and then burst into a loud wail. "Light bulb" was an indication to portray a sudden idea, while "credentials" directed the star to gape in astonished indignation. Her importance for future comediennes such as Mary Tyler Moore, Candice Bergen, and Cybill Shepard was paramount; Lucille Ball demonstrated that a woman could be beautiful and silly, and that she could perform the most outrageous of slapstick routines and still be feminine. Lucy's unusual use of props and her imaginative escapes from the most implausible of situations influenced future sitcom stars such as Penny Marshall, Bronson Pinchot, Ellen Degeneris, and Robin Williams, whose comedic styles and series' storylines echoed her own.

But while her acting contributions are singularly laudable, it was Ball's role in re-defining the very structure of television programming which makes her additionally noteworthy. Her independence, popularity, and determination, coupled with her husband's technical and financial savvy, resulted in their co-ownership and control of one of the most successful television production studios in history.

I Love Lucy was unique in that it was one of the first television series to be produced live on film, using a multiple camera technique in front of a studio audience. The filmed nature of the program granted it a permanency which allowed Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, to profit from re-runs, syndication and foreign distribution. The program was incomparably successful, reaching the number one position by February of its first season and remaining number one for four of its six years on the air, averaging a 67 share. Aired in over 100 countries, the series quite literally financed the creation of Desilu Studios, where Lucy and her husband reigned as vice President and President respectively. Desilu went on to become the production headquarters of a virtual greatest hits of 1950s and 1960s television programs, including, Our Miss Brooks, Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible, Mannix and Star Trek. Indeed, it was Lucille Ball's clout with the CBS network that convinced them to pick up the latter three pilots.

Ball's first success with I Love Lucy allowed her a power denied most entertainers. She was one of the few 1950s television stars to successfully fight the Communist witch hunts of HUAC, when a 1953 Walter Winchell program attempted to derail her career. Established film stars, such as Orson Welles, William Holden and Joan Crawford, who had previously shunned television, made guest-appearances for the sake of appearing with the Queen of prime time. And, Lucy's popularity with the press and her fans forced CBS executives to acquiesce to her decision to reveal her real-life pregnancy during the show's second season. This television first was monitored carefully by a trio of clergy who oversaw each script. While timid CBS executives insisted the word "expectant" be substituted for "pregnant," seven episodes detailed the fictional Lucy's pregnancy in near symmetry with the actress's own physical condition. Backlogging five episodes for use while she convalesced from delivery, the program worked around Lucy's due date, so that her real life Caesarean delivery coincided with the airing of her television delivery. The episode set a rating record of 71.1, with more viewers tuning in to witness the fictional Lucy Ricardo give birth than had seen Eisenhower's inauguration.

With her 1962 buyout of Desilu from her by then ex-husband Desi Arnaz, she became the first woman to head a major television production studio. Through the mid-1970s she starred in three additional series for CBS, with her third series The Lucy Show, earning the highest initial price ever paid for a thirty minute series ($2.3 million dollars for 30 episodes). In the mid-1960s, she sold Desilu to Gulf and Western for $17 million, and she went on to form Lucille Ball Productions with her second husband, Gary Morton, as vice president. Her final CBS series, Here's Lucy, while not as critically acclaimed as her previous ventures, was responsible for launching the careers of her children Lucie and Desi Arnaz, Jr. and for bringing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton into situation comedy.

By the mid-1970s the diffused lighting, the surgical tape "face lifts," the skilled makeup and bright wig could not hide her diminishing physical flexibility or her increasing reliance on cue-cards. A 1986 ABC series, Life with Lucy, seemed forced and stodgy and lasted a mere 13 weeks. But even in her decline there were flashes of brilliance. In 1985 she surprised critics and fans with her appearance as a homeless woman in the CBS made-for-tv movie Stone Pillow. With her death in 1989, she was eulogized by fans, network executives, and even the President of the United States, as "the first woman of television."

For all her impact upon the very nature of television production, Ball is most vividly recalled as a series of black and white images. To remember Lucille Ball is to recall a profusion of universal images of magical mayhem--a losing battle with a candy conveyor belt, a flaming nose, a slippery vat of grapes--images which, contrary to most American situation comedy, transcend nationalities and generations, in an absolute paradigm of side-splitting laughter.

-Nina Leibman

 


Lucille Ball

LUCILLE (Désirée) BALL (Lucy Montana, Diane Belmont). Born in Jamestown, New York, U.S., 6 August 1911. Attended John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton Dramatic School, New York City. Married 1) Desi Arnaz, 1940 (divorced, 1960); children: Lucie Désirée and Desi Jr.; 2) Gary Morton, 1961. Began her performing career in the 1920s under the name Diane Belmont, being hired for, then quickly fired from, Earl Carroll's Vanities and the Shuberts' Stepping Stones; a walk-on role in Broadway Thru a Keyhole, 1933; selected as a "Goldwyn Girl" for film Roman Scandals, 1933; signed with Columbia, 1934; under contract to RKO from 1935; moved to MGM 1943-46; played role on CBS radio program My Favorite Husband, 1947-51; co-starred with Bob Hope in Sorrowful Jones, 1949, and Fancy Pants, 1950; with husband Desi Arnaz established Desilu Productions, which began producing the I Love Lucy, television series, 1951-57, and later series such as The Ann Sothern Show and The Untouchables; in 1957, with Arnaz, bought RKO studios and lot; debuted on Broadway in Wildcat, 1960; bought Arnaz's share of Desilu, 1962, which she managed until 1967; sold Desilu to Gulf & Western Industries, 1967; formed and managed Lucille Ball Productions, 1968; starred in film Mame, 1974; played a Manhattan bag lady in made-for-television movie Stone Pillows, 1985; starred in series Life With Lucy, 1986. Recipient: Emmy Award 1952, 1955, 1967, and 1968; Golden Apple Award, 1973; Ruby Award, 1974; Entertainer of the Year, 1975; Television Academy Hall of Fame, 1984. Died in Los Angeles, 26 April 1989.

TELEVISION SERIES

1951-57 I Love Lucy
1957-60 The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Show
1962-68 The Lucy Show
1968-74 Here's Lucy
1986 Life With Lucy

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1974 Happy Anniversary and Goodbye
1976 What Now, Catherine Curtis?
1985 Stone Pillows

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1975 The Lucille Ball Special Starring Lucille Ball and Dean Martin
1975 The Lucille Ball Special Starring Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason
1977 Bob Hope's All-Star Tribute to Vaudeville

FILMS

Bulldog Drummond, 1929; Broadway Thru a Keyhole, 1933; Blood Money, 1933; Roman Scandals, 1933; The Bowery, 1933; Moulin Rouge, 1934; Nana, 1934; Bottoms Up, 1934; Hold That Girl, 1934; Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, 1934; The Affairs of Cellini, 1934; Kid Millions, 1934; Broadway Bill, 1934; Jealousy, 1934; Men of the Night, 1934; Fugitive Lady, 1934; The Whole Town's Talking, 1934; Carnival, 1935; Roberta, 1935; Old Man Rhythm, 1935; The Three Musketeers, 1935; Top Hat, 1935; I Dream Too Much, 1935; The Farmer in the Dell, 1936; Chatterbox, 1936; Follow the Fleet, 1936; Bunker Bean, 1936; That Girl from Paris, 1936; Winterset, 1936; Don't Tell the Wife, 1937; Stage Door, 1937; Go Chase Yourself, 1938; Joy of Living, 1938; Having Wonderful Time, 1938; The Affairs of Annabel, 1938; Room Service, 1938; The Next Time I Marry, 1938; Annabel Takes a Tour, 1939; Beauty for the Asking, 1939; Twelve Crowded Hours, 1939; Panama Lady, 1939; Five Came Back, 1939; That's Right, You're Wrong, 1939; The Marines Fly High, 1940; You Can't Fool Your Wife, 1940; Dance, Girl, Dance, 1940; Too Many Girls, 1940; A Girl, a Guy and a Gob, 1941; Look Who's Laughing, 1941; Valley of the Sun, 1942; The Big Street, 1942; Seven Days' Leave, 1942; Dubarry Was a Lady, 1943; Best Foot Forward, 1943; Thousands Cheer, 1943; Meet the People, 1944; Ziegfeld Follies, 1944 (released 1946); Without Love, 1945; Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hollywood, 1945; The Dark Corner, 1946; Easy to Wed, 1946; Two Smart People, 1946; Lover Come Back, 1946; Lured, 1947; Her Husband's Affairs, 1947; Sorrowful Jones, 1949; Easy Living, 1949; Miss Grant Takes Richmond, 1949; A Woman of Distinction, 1950; Fancy Pants, 1950; The Fuller Brush Girl, 1950; The Magic Carpet, 1951; The Long, Long Trailer, 1954; Forever, Darling, 1956; Critic's Choice, 1963; A Guide for the Married Man, 1967; Yours, Mine and Ours, 1968; Mame, 1974.

RADIO

Phil Baker's show, 1938; Jack Haley's Wonder Bread Show, 1938; Lux Radio Theatre; Suspense; Screen Guild Playhouse.

STAGE

Dream Girl, 1947-48; vaudeville tour with Desi Arnaz, 1950; Wildcat, 1960.

FURTHER READING

Andrews, Bart. Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel. New York: Dutton, 1976.

_______________. The "I Love Lucy" Book. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Andrews, Bart, and Thomas Watson. Loving Lucy: An Illustrated Tribute to Lucille Ball. New York: St. Martin's, 1980.

Arnaz, Desi. A Book by Desi Arnaz. New York: Morrow, 1976.

Brochu, Jim. Lucy in the Afternoon: An Intimate Memoir of Lucille Ball. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Dinter, Charlotte. "I Just Couldn't Take Any More." Photoplay (New York), June 1960.

Higham, Charles. Lucy: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

"Lucille Ball" (interview). Dialogue on Film (Beverly Hills, California) May-June 1974.

Morella, Joe, and Edward Epstein. Lucy: The Bittersweet Life of Lucille Ball. Secaucus, New Jersey: L. Stuart, 1986.

Nugent, Frank. "The Bouncing Ball." Photoplay (New York), September 1946.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. New York: Crown, 1970.

 

See also Arnaz, Desi; Comedy (Domestic Settings); I Love Lucy; Gender and Television; Independent Producers and Production Companies