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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I Love Lucy's Dream Team || Part One, "The Stars"

Hello friends (I can't say this without thinking of "Vitavetavegamin").

With the anticipation for I Love Lucy's sixtieth anniversary on Saturday, I thought I'd do a two part post on examining I Love Lucy's "dream team" - a short profiling of the handful or so of actors and backstage crew that worked to make the show a success. Instead of doing a summary of their life, however, I'm going to discuss how they became involved with the show, why their role was important, and just how they added to the show's overall amazingness. ;)

I'll probably write the second part either Friday or tomorrow, if I can swing it. For now, here's part one!

***

THE STARS.



THE WOMAN WHO WAS LUCY 

Lucille Desiree Ball (1911 - 1989), would make famous the zany redhead we all know and love, Lucy Ricardo. My dahhling Lucy ventured into the world of television when her career in movies had been consistently the same for over a decade -  strings of B movies; studios were giving her second hand roles The American public was familiar with her face but she wasn't a big movie star. Television was risky. TV and movies were hardened enemies at the time because the small screens with their antennas were attacking the popularity of going to the theater - why would you, when you could just flick a dial at home? With a little help from deceased friend Carole Lombard, who appeared to her in a dream - "Give it a whirl!", Carole said - Lucy decided to take the plunge. After all, this may save her marriage to husband Desi too. Destined for true stardom, her life would never be the same.

I cannot sum into a few sentences what Lucy's contribution was to the show.. it would be impossible.. - she was the show. All the other members of this dream team were amazing and spectacular in their own way and the show wouldn't possibly be the same without them, but Lucy was the star and she proved to people what they had doubted for years. It takes a lot to be a comedienne and she had all of it: the perfect timing, a gift for physical comedy, a good rapport with her co-stars. America began a love affair with the character that never ceases to end. With all of her  imperfections, we still love her and that's the premise of the show. Look, to be put simply: Lucy was the show. Without Lucy, there was no show. She made it everything that is and always will be. 


Fantastically short, yes, but I think you all know already how much I love this woman. And if you've watched even a couple seconds of any episode, you'll know why she was special and why she was indeed the show. Desi, when once asked to distribute the success of the show among the actors, writers, directors, said: "Give Lucy 90% of the credit and divide the other 10% among the rest of us. Viv, Fred, and I were just props; damned good props, but props nevertheless" And I am sure every single person who worked on that show would agree.

THE MAN WHO LOVED HER

Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III (1917 - 1986) was not having much luck in the movies, either. In fact, he was doing quite a bit worse than his wife, who had at least taken the title of "Queen of the B's." Studios would not take Desi despite his obvious talent; at first they were enchanted by the "Cuban glamour boy", but their curiosity had run out. That accent, to begin with. What roles could they possibly give him with that accent? Because of these factors, his only source of income was to tour with his rhumba band all the time. This put a great strain on his marriage, however - "You can't get pregnant over the phone," Lucy would cry.

They wanted to work together but execs felt that the American public would not accept redheaded, all American Lucy and Cuban Desi together as a couple. "But we are married!" Lucy insisted. I Love Lucy was their only chance to work together. It was developed from the radio show "My Favorite Husband" which Lucy had starred in with Richard Denning voicing her husband. Lucy liked Denning but insisted that Desi be her husband or there would be no show. They were desperate to work together so he would be able to stay at home; and then they may actually begin to start a family. Again, execs balked at the idea so they took a vaudeville show on the road to convince them that the public would accept them. The show was a success and Desi was on board.

Desi as Ricky was different than any of the other TV husbands or dads on the tube. Sure, he had dark looks and the accent. That to begin with that made him stand out from any other program with their all American men. But his famous Latin temperament was the perfect foil for Lucy's antics, and the chemistry between he and his on screen wife sparkled because they were married off screen. You could believe the Ricardos were really in love.

Desi played a big part off screen, though. He was the executive producer and quite good at his job; the true brains, people would say. He made sure everything rolled smoothly, he knew how to talk to his employees and also helped birth the rerun by selling back all of the Lucys to CBS. I think Lucy sums it up pretty well in what she once told friend and protegee Carol Burnett: "Y'know, when I was married to the Cuban, I never had to worry about a thing. Desi was so damn smart about everything- scripts, cameras, lighting, costuming, you name it. I would simply waltz in on Monday mornings and the cast and I would read a perfect script, all ready for rehearsal. All I had to do was be Lucy."


THE BEST FRIEND A GIRL COULD ASK FOR

Vivian Roberta Jones (1909 - 1979) was having some steady roles in theater. Though she wasn't the toast of the town, she popped into the mind of Lucy director Marc Daniels, who "remembered her from New York." It was not so long before the original rehearsals of Lucy would begin (in fact, one must remember most of the planning for show happened in a hurried six month period), and they were searching for the perfect "second banana": Ethel Mertz. Ethel was going to be a hard type to cast. She needed to be slightly older than Lucy and somewhat frumpy, but at the same time not so out of Lucy's range that Lucy would not be able to scheme with her.

 Lucy was at home resting from her Cesarean pregnancy to daughter Lucie when Desi, Marc, and Jess Oppenhemier (the producer) went to the La Jolla Theater to see Vivian in "The Voice of the Turtle." They loved her and went backstage to deliver the good news, but Vivian was dubious. The character sounded kind of frumpy and Vivian wanted to be a serious actress. None the less, she would audition for the role and a few days later, she got it.

Vivian made Ethel Mertz the most famous second banana or sidekick of all time. Vivian's Ethel and Lucy's Lucy went together like peanut butter and jelly. It certainly helped that backstage they were becoming great friends (and always would be), much in the same way that Lucy and Ricky's marriage seemed real because the Arnazes were truly married off screen. You can sense their friendship and that even if Ethel knows what kind of a mess she's going to be getting into, she'll do it because she (like us) loves Lucy... also, sometimes she can't resist the fun!

The Ethel-Lucy pairing would produce some of the funniest moments in the show, most famously the candy factory scene.

HE WAS FRED;
AND FRED WAS HIM

William Clement Frawley (1887 - 1966) actually can be noticed in small character roles in several films, like "Miracle on 34th Street" or "East Side, West Side." He first met Lucy on the set of "Ziegfield Follies". They did not work together in the movie (the whole film was stitched up musical numbers or skits starring various MGM stars - Bill participated in a skit with Fanny Brice whereas Lucy had a fancy musical number consisting of horses and beautiful pink outfits centered around her) or got to be great friends or anything. But when Bill discovered Lucy needed a Fred Mertz, and that her first choice (Gale Gordon) was unavailable, he called her up and asked for the role.

Both Lucy and Desi loved him as Fred Mertz, but the others became worried about Bill's habit of drinking. A deal was made that if Bill was ever late or missed a show for any reason but a truly important medical situation, he would be fired. Bill agreed to it. Though he would often pluck through the script for his lines and learn them alone (sometimes so that he didn't even understand the plot or the jokes), as well as battled hard with Vivian Vance (it has been said she declared "Champagne for all!" when the news of his death reached her), Bill never missed a show due to his drinking or any other reason. He was never drink on set and best of all, he made the perfect Fred Mertz.

"He was Fred Mertz," Lucy would say of him. He identified so perfectly with Fred's cranky yet lovable character that the two become one and it resulted in pure hilariousness. His banter with his wife, his adoration for his godson, his love of watching the fights with Ricky. Fred Mertz really put definition into "being a character" and we loved him for it.

                                                                                      THE SUPPORTING PLAYERS

As if it wasn't even wonderful enough that the stars of the show would be so perfect and true in their characters, the supporting cast and bit players were excellent players as well. They were familiar faces throughout the whole run of the show. There was Keith Thibodeaux (billed as Richard Keith or simply "Little Ricky") as the Ricardos son, Little Ricky (read here my explanation why he was the cutest TV kid EVER). Or Doris Singleton who would appear several times in hilarious episodes as Lillian, or later on, Carolyn Appleby. Elizabeth Patterson, another character actress veteran, was Mathilda Trumbell, who we'd all come to know and love as Little Ricky's dependent babysitter, or Mary Jane Croft was Betty Ramsey, who would become one of Lucy and Ethel's BFFs when the gang moved out to Conneticuit. They supported the main characters perfectly and even in roles that were sometimes quite small, shone and contributed to the sitcom to make it all around perfect. 

***
Okay, that's it for part one. I'll be back with part two soon that will spotlight the writers, directors, even cameramen. 

By the way, as we celebrate I Love Lucy's 60th among the next few days, I'm personally inviting everyone to leave your comments with what you think made the show special, why we love it so much, which member of the "dream team" is your favorite, which episode, etc. I hope you all would comment anyway, but this is a special request. Think of it as a big valentine to the show. :)

3 comments:

Carmen said...

Happens to be that I couldn't find I Love Lucy anywhere, and I mean anywhere. I was dying to find it because I had heard lots of great things. A little after the summer ended, I bumped into David's Film Classics Blog, where he has all the I Love Lucy series, and I went like mad. I am still in the first season because I don't want to finish it too fast. I could actually watch 5 episodes a day because it's really addictive, but I measure myself (though it's hard) :D I loved the post because it' always great to know a little of the backstage. I really look forward to the second part.

Oh, and I am really starting to love Lucy, and I understand your love for her because she was really great!!

Rianna said...

Yes, Film Classics I think has pretty much all of them!! I know, it's addictive and it's hard, but it's one of those things that is so good you want it to last as long as possible (I mean, I watch them over and over, but you know, the excitement of watching it for the first time) When I discovered Lucy they used to show it on TV at a prime time and I'd watch two episodes everyday when I came back from school (way back in the days when homework was like a worksheet).

Anyway, I'm so glad you're starting to love her. Oh and thanks! I should have the second part up soon. :)

helen carlton said...

J'ai une estime et une affection particulière pour Desi Arnaz, qui n'a JAMAIS connu les mérites qui lui revenaient en tant que, acteur, chanteur, chef d'orchestre, business man, et family man...... C'est tellement dommage et étrange que son fan club n'ait que 37 membres, y compris, moi.... Pourquoi ses enfants ne font rien, pour le faire mieux connaître du publique international? Hélène de Paris, France.

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