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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Funny Lady | The Evolution of Lucy Ricardo



The very lovely Movies, Silently blog is holding a Funny Lady Blogathon - how awesome of an idea is that? - and I of course signed up to write about my favorite lady of them all, Lucille Ball.

Okay, but what can I really tell you about Lucy and her comic genius that hasn't already been said countless times before? She is considered, more often than not, to truly be the funniest woman in the history of the entertainment business. And I'm sure few would dispute her position as being the First Lady of Comedy, opening the doors for nearly all the comediennes who followed in the path she blazed: Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, Carol Burnett, Tina Fey, Kristen Whig, Mindy Kaling - just to name a few. Just about everyone has seen the clip of her drunkly pimping Vitameatavegamin or the one of her furiously stuffing chocolates down her blouse, in her hat, and into her mouth at the candy factory.

For this post, I felt as if writing about I Love Lucy would be pointless, because I wouldn't be able to provide any new or groundbreaking information. I couldn't write something about her performance on the show that would be news to anybody. Instead, I thought I would write about how her talent as a comedienne grew over time - from the conviction in a little girl from upstate New York to make people laugh to October 15th, 1951, when I Love Lucy debuted on air. You could call it the evolution of Lucy Ricardo.

It's fairly well known that Lucille Ball was quite different than Lucy Ricardo. Lucy's real life humor was like that of, as her daughter Lucie once described it, "the fast talking broad of the 30s." In fact, real life Lucy was far more serious and adult than the childlike illusion she portrayed in Lucy Ricardo and extended to all of her long running television characters - Lucy Carmichael (The Lucy Show) and Lucy Carter (Here's Lucy).

But, despite this, Lucy always had an interest in comedy - long before television existed. As a young girl, her grandpa would take her brother and her to vaudeville shows, and Lucy was intrigued with the way the clowns could make the audience laugh. This sparked in her her first desire to act out, recalling later, "All I knew is that I wanted to make people laugh - I certainly didn't want to make them cry." She went out to Hollywood in 1933 as one of Samuel Goldwyn's Girls. When lined up for inspection by Eddie Cantor, Lucy applied little pieces of red felt to her face, so it would look as if she had chicken pox. Cantor laughed and enjoyed her little prank. She increasingly became known as the only girl willing to sacrifice glamour to take a pie in the face or preform any other physical pratfall to get a laugh. She christened herself and friend Eve Arden as "the drop gag girls." Pandro Berman told studio executives that she was "a really funny kid, great at parties" - but never thought that this talent would amount to anything. In a 1940 letter to then boyfriend Desi Arnaz, she wrote of a guest part on a radio show she was going to do because it seemed like "a funny role." Even in the home movies of she and Desi from the forties, she can be seen clowning for the camera and blacking out her teeth for costume parties.

Many of Lucy's earliest leading film roles - in the late thirties - are comedic, though studios widened her range in the forties and she appeared in comedies, dramas, musicals, even a Western. Her earliest significant role would probably be in Stage Door (1937); Gregory La Cava's highly acclaimed blockbuster about a handful of young girls trying to make in the business. The ensemble cast, headlined by Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, is easily impressive, also containing supporting roles filled by Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Gail Patrick, and Andrea Leads. Lucy doesn't preform any physical comedy in Stage Door but manages to hold her own, rolling her eyes melodramatically and delivering wisecracks with nonchalance. In one scene, Lucy is asked, "If it's not food, it's men. Can't you talking about anything else?" To which she replies, "What else is there?"

Stage Door boosted her career, giving way to supporting roles in A pictures for stars like Ginger Rogers (Having Wonderful Time, '38, in which one can also spot a young Henry Fonda) and Irene Dunne (Joy of Living). It also bolstered her to the role of a leading lady in B films, fastening her as a fixture in comedies with low budget actors like Joe Penner and Jack Oakie. One comedy from this era in her career is Go Chase Yourself (1938); like I Love Lucy in reverse, Lucy plays a irritated wife having to clean up the messes her scatterbrained husband, Penner, is always getting into. The film is a madcap screwball comedy lacking the necessary charm, and Lucy is, as usual, confined to quips and sarcasm, but she makes the most of it.

Whereas she played a housewife in the latter film, she was elevated to a more glamorous role in her next movie, The Affairs of Annabel (1938), in which she plays a movie star, Annabel Allison, a victim of the harebrained schemes contrived by her publicity agent, Oakie, to advance her career. Once more, the screwball is not her but the male character, however, Annabel did fairly well at the box office, and even spurned a sequel, Annabel Takes a Tour, in the same year. It gave Lucy a bigger helping of physical comedy than her prior films, and was likely the largest role she had to date. The New York Post commented, "The gal should go places."

Her next movie was Room Service (1938), with the Marx Brothers. In later years, many would draw correlations between the antics of Lucy Ricardo and the wild comedic group of the thirties, but at the time, Lucy's experiences with them were nowhere near life changing. The farce failed at the box office and was distinctively less pleasant and more sober than their earlier box office hits. As expected, each schtcik was handed off to the brothers, giving Lucy and co-star and friend Ann Miller not much more to do than run in and out of scenes, looking beautiful but frazzled. Lucy didn't particularly like any of the Marx brothers other than Harpo, who treated her the best of all, and was later given a guest starring spot on I Love Lucy (the famous and brilliant pantomime routine in the Hollywood episodes). Whereas she might have, still, been appreciative of their comedic talent, Groucho Marx didn't think much of hers: "Lucille Ball," he said, "Is not funny without a script."

In Next Time I Marry (1938), she played one of the famous ditzy heiresses of the thirties. It paired her with James Ellison for the first of two times, and had some decently funny moments, but over all was a mediocre comedy. Reviewers, however, took notice of her, calling her a "lanky and glass eyed comedienne" (The New York Times) and "as screwy and spoiled as any of Hollywood's poor little rich gals" (The New York Post) in the role.

What was particular about her next film was that it was a comedy-drama; Beauty for the Asking (1939) has several moments that gave way to her capability as a dramatic actress, which audiences had not really seen yet. New York Daily News wrote, "Miss Ball rises high enough above her material" - which she would continue to do so over the next decade of less than quality scripts -"to remind us that she is the stuff that stars are made of."

In You Can't Fool Your Wife (1940), Lucy was given a dual role as a housewife and as a Spanish seductress. She fakes an accent and dons dark hair, which is especially ironic when it would be later that year in which she met and married Desi Arnaz. She tackled the roles with ease and though the film is not particularly spectacular, it allowed for a slight expansion of her range. Critics continually praised her and sought a future for her that apparently, her RKO bosses did not see; at the time, even Orson Welles was interested in casting her as the lead in one of his projects that never came to be.

The rest of her run at RKO, resulted in her being cast in an array of different roles, from burlesque queen to ingenue to heroine of the western front. None particularly showcased her ability as a comedienne, and, in fact, her best performance at RKO was likely her turn as the paralyzed, unforgivably bitchy but beautiful Gloria Lyons in The Big Street (1942). Interestingly, this dramatic role was the one she was most proud of over the years, and critics were enthralled as well, writing that RKO should've wrangled her an Oscar nomination for the role - which never, of course, materialized.

RKO couldn't make a star, but maybe MGM could - that was, in fact, her hope when she arrived at the studio in 1943. (Lucy wouldn't return to RKO until 1957, when she and Desi bought it). She was now thirty-two, and she had been in Hollywood for ten years, and though she had made her fair share of B pictures, she hadn't yet achieved star status. If anyone was going to do it, it was MGM, who had the biggest corral of actors or as they put it, "more stars than the heavens." Her debut role was DuBarry Was a Lady (1943), a musical in which she worked alongside friends Gene Kelly and Red Skelton, but it only notable for her change to her famous red hair. It gave her little chance for comedy, but did offer her an opportunity to show off her new tresses - she looks breathtakingly beautiful in the closeups of her leaned up against the piano while Gene Kelly professes his love to her in song.

Her next, most pronounced comedic role came three years later with Easy to Wed, MGM's remake of the popular Libeled Lady. She was given the Jean Harlow role, and it was easily her best chance to shine as a comedienne to date. Esther Williams took Myrna Loy's character, and Van Johnson William Powell's. Though the film falls completely flat next to the stunning original, Lucy stole every scene, doing justice to the character (one that had switched from a bottle blonde to a hennaed redhead) that the late Harlow had made so famous. She is given the opportunity to play totally drunk, a foreshadowing of Lucy Ricardo getting smashed on Vitameatavegamin, the bit easily the most entertaining and vivid in the whole film. She looked the part of the beautiful clown, her red hair and blue eyes making her a knockout in the Technicolor print. "Miss Ball all proves herself a superb farceuse. She snaps her lines over the heads of other characters and in pantomime manages to be as scatterbrained and indignant as a wet hen," wrote The New York Herald-Tribune. "Very special honors go to Lucille Ball for her topnotch comedy scenes which highlight the film," said Film Daily, and The Los Angeles Times agreed, citing her comedy as "the most compensating feature of this production - she is her super best."

But Louis B. Mayer's philosophy was that "funny women don't sell tickets, beautiful women do." She made one more picture for MGM, a film noir, before being released from her contract. Certain that her career was over, she soldiered on, free lancing for a period with the help of her agent Kurt Frings. She did a series of dramas and her next light fare was not until Her Husband's Affairs (1947). Reminiscent of Go Chase Yourself from nearly a decade earlier, as well as a backwards version of I Love Lucy, Lucy plays a wife constantly saving her husband, Franchot Tone,  from his own self in this less than perfect film . "Lucille Ball, an able an comedienne," said The New York Times of her performance.

In the years just before I Love Lucy's 1951 debut, she would play a mixture of roles, but some stand out as being as close to Lucy Ricardo as she would ever come pre-Lucy. Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949) is a prime example. She plays an empty headed secretary hired by William Holden (six years before the infamous pie in the face) who unknowingly becomes a prop to front for Holden's "business"; he is in actuality is a bookie. Her absentmindedness sets off a string of calamities. The movie gave Lucy the liberty to do a great deal of physical comedy. Early on in the film, she struggles with her typewriter ribbon to a comedic hilt, nearly destroying the machine, wasting practically a stack of paper, and covering herself in ink. Like Lucy Ricardo, her character, Ellen is lovable - Holden can't help but fall for her - and has good intentions, but is naturally inclined to cause trouble wherever she goes.

In 1950, she made Fancy Pants alongside her best pal, Bob Hope, a movie that reached all heights of absurdity and prompted Cue to call her, "one of the finest comediennes in Hollywood." That same year, in a true precursor to the physical comedy she would execute on I Love Lucy, she made The Fuller Brush Girl. Her character plays a door to door saleswoman (think Avon Girl), and much like Lucy Ricardo unwittingly attracts trouble when she witnesses a murder. The results are disastrous, and she and her husband end up in a string of ruses to avoid being blamed for a crime they did not commit, including hanging precariously from a clothing line, a slapstick striptease number she is forced to preform and a wild goose chase on a ship. Lucy proved that she was fearless when it came to physical comedy, preforming all of her stunts with wild abandon, as she would do on her television shows for years to come. The repercussions were harmful. She reflected, "I sprained both wrists and displaced six vertebrae, then irritated my sciatic nerve...I also suffered a two day paralysis of the eyeball when talcum power was accidentally blown into my eye by a wind machine. A three day dunking in a wine vat gave me a severe cold, and I was also bruised by several tons of coffee beans." But the reviews for her comedy, written by critics who unknowingly were watching Lucy Ricardo form before their eyes, were excellent. "Miss Ball carries the ball for comedy touchdown," wrote The Los Angeles Times. "Lucille Ball, with her wide eyed beauty and buoyant charm, puts over her comedy with perfect timing, and just the right amount of pathos and bewilderment to arouse the film goer's sympathy while she keeps them laughing," praised The Hollywood Reporter, a description equally fit for Lucy Ricardo.

Lucy made one more movie, a strange Arabian nights sort of farce for Columbia, before going on air in October 1951 in I Love Lucy. Needless to say, the show took off like gangbusters and Lucille Ball, who had struggled in B roles and mediocre films for nearly the past twenty years in Hollywood, her comedic talent ignored by studio moguls but noted by reviewers - shot to stardom.

Starting in 1948, Lucy had been molding Lucy Ricardo on radio as well. She was the star of My Favorite Husband, a program about Mr. and Mrs. Cooper and all the jams Mrs. Cooper got Mr. Cooper into - if that sounds familiar, it's because the show became the basis for I Love Lucy. Originally, the Coopers were the Cugats and Liz Cugat was more of a socialite than a middle class housewife. But that was before Jess Oppenheimer, a veteran of Fanny Brice's program, was brought to work on the show - he and writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis worked to make the character of Liz Cooper more wacky and screwball, much like the character Baby Snooks. All three went on to make I Love Lucy the success it was.

Her work on My Favorite Husband widened her comedic range more than any of her prior film roles - and this is clearly evident in the three comedies she made during the run of the program, discussed above. Not only was she funny with just her voice, but she learned how to play to the live audience the program was recorded in front of - it also gave birth to her famous "spider face." Lucy learned to love the audience, and they in return adored her. Over the years, this bond only grew stronger, intensely symbolic of America's affection for her, a relationship that lasted on her sound stages for three decades. By the point of Here's Lucy, Lucy got rousing applause from the audience only for walking onto the set - their laughter for even the most neutral of lines, one observer later noted, was their way of telling her, "We love you."

Though Lucille Ball was not much like Lucy Ricardo, a part of the famous character was being conceived in her from the very start - in the little girl who just wanted to make people laugh. In her screwball film roles of the late thirties and the forties, one can see as her ability as a comedienne grows, the progression of Lucy Ricardo seems to lie under the surface, climaxing in the late forties thanks to funnier film roles and her radio show, and finally resulting in what we all know as I Love Lucy.

6 comments:

Fritzi Kramer said...

Hi there! Thanks so much for bringing out some of the hits of Lucy's early career. I am personally quite partial to Lured. And that anecdote about doing her own stunts... Poor thing! That must have hurt! What a trouper!

Thanks for participating!

Iba said...

Lucille Ball was boss.
In your piece I particularly like the shout out to Miss Grant Takes Richmond for two reasons: 1) William Holden is in it (love him and I laugh when I think what they did not her show just a few years later) and 2) they are adorable together.
I rally like your drawing a line between what she did in these movies and what she would later go on to do in her films.

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Silver Screenings said...

This is a great tribute to Lucy -- you'e included a lot of info that I never knew!

Here's to a remarkable and exceptionally talented woman.

LĂȘ said...

I'm so happy our online Lucy PhD is part of the blogathon! Your post is perfect, with lots of information and in-depth analysis. Since the only online Lucy film I could find was Lured, so it was nice to have a glance at her other works.
Kisses!

Judy said...

Very interesting to learn more about Lucy's earlier career before her famous show - I didn't realise that she had made such a lot of films, and am especially intrigued to hear that she was in a remake of the wonderful 'Libeled Lady'. Great contribution to the blogathon!

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