Stars of Slapstick #139: Lucille Ball
Today is the birthday of Lucille Ball (1911-1989). People older and younger than me know her primarily for and initially from her groundbreaking tv series I Love Lucy (1951-1957). But those just my age (or a hair older) got there through a more circuitous route…seeing her first in her later tv programs The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). These colorful family shows were quite a bit different from I Love Lucy. The mature Lucy played a ditzy widow who worked for the hilariously irate Gale Gordon, her foil. In the show’s last incarnation her actual children played her screen children, giving the show a sort of contemporary flair. Lucy was an institution at that point, the only female equivalent of say, Bob Hope,(with whom she co-starred in films in the 60s) and she seemed it. Later in the mid 70s during the 50s nostalgia craze, they began showing reruns of I Love Lucy on our local tv station — a big event, and I watched every episode. But as I got older I lost my taste for her. As part of the process of working on Chain of Fools I’ve begun attempting to rediscover my enthusiasm. Nearly every female colleague I know cites her as a major hero and influence.
Lucy’s comedy pedigree is rather amazing — she had countless opportunities to learn from the best, and she did. Starting out as a model and Broadway chorus girl in shows like Earl Carroll’s Vanities she moved to Hollywood in 1933 where her progress was slow, but also inexorable. She was one of the Goldwyn Girls in Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933). but she got a speaking part in the Three Stooges short Pigskin Parade the next year. She got bit parts in the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movies Roberta, Top Hat (both 1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). Then she began to get decent parts: she was a notable part of the ensemble in Stage Door (1937), played opposite the Marx Brothers in Room Service (1938), and co-starred with Red Skelton in DuBarry was a Lady (1943).
Along the way she was also becoming a radio star on The Phil Baker Show and Jack Haley’s The Wonder Show. In 1948, she got their own radio show My Favorite Husband, which (with the addition real-life husband Desi Arnaz) was later adapted into the tv show I Love Lucy. The premise of the show is similar to The Honeymooners, but with the genders reversed. Lucy and her best friend, Ethel (Vivian Vance), sneak around enacting hare-brained schemes behind their husbands’ backs (Arnaz and vaudeville veteran William Frawley). In the end they’re always caught and “put back in their places,” making the show feel something less than progressive to modern sensibilities. It’s kind of like A Doll’s House meets Waiting for Godot. Nora never gets to escape. I think of I Love Lucy as the first of the existentialist sit-coms. Gilligan’s Island (1964-67) and Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971) both followed similar “Myth of Sisyphus” premises.
Lucy the housewife’s situation would be unbearably bleak if not for the slapstick skills of Lucy the clown. First there’s her comic mask, with her enormous, blank doe-eyes, framed by the maximum acceptable amount of make-up: drawn-on eyebrows in a perpetual state of surprise, eye-lashes conveyed as big splashes of black, and a mouth so covered in red, pink or orange it looks like she’s wearing a pair of wax lips. And of course her bright red wig, not perceptible of course until the shows began shooting in color. She had a small repertoire of broad, ritualistic, emotional reactions. For example, she was the most famous comedy crier since Stan Laurel. But she could also do shock, indignation, “crossness,” and her own laughter was infectious.
Add to this her slapstick skills. In her day she was routinely compared to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Skelton, and Harpo Marx. She wasn’t subtle about encouraging the comparisons. She reprised the famous mirror scene from Duck Soup with Harpo on I Love Lucy in 1955; she dressed as the Little Tramp and did a Chaplin routine on The Lucy Show in 1963. The famous “Vitameatavegamin” (where Lucy gets progressively drunker while hawking a health tonic) is an obvious take on Red Skelton’s “Guzzler’s Gin” routine.
But her original slapstick was plenty impressive as well. Her most famous routine of all was the candy assembly line segment in the episode “Job Switching,” where she falls behind and winds up trying to hide all the chocolates that are backing up at her work station. Other favorites include “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (that’s the one where she gets into a big vat and stomps on grapes), and “L.A. at Last” where she dons a disguise so that she can meet William Holden and he, lighting her cigarette, accidentally sets her nose putty on fire.
After the mid 70s, she slowed her output somewhat. There were a couple of tv movies and occasional appearances on shows like the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. She briefly tried to emerge from retirement in 1986 with the disastrous Life with Lucy, which was canceled after only half a dozen episodes. (Clips are available on Youtube and it’s somewhat painful; the elderly Lucy was simply out of touch with the sensibilities of modern audiences).
Here she is in a happier era, as I first knew her, in a scene from Here’s Lucy — with guest star Liberace!
To learn more about slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.