50 years since the height of her fame, Lucille Ball continues to fascinate.
|This week the late comedienne Lucille Ball was among the top ten Yahoo! searches, often landing in the top spot on that list. The news item surrounding the TV legend was the auctioning of her memorabilia, including lifetime achievement awards and love letters to her second husband, Gary Morton. The results of the legal wrangling seem to be that Ball’s estate retains possession of the awards and that Morton’s family retains the rights to sell the letters.
Pretty mundane stuff; nothing that would land anybody on the top of the Yahoo! search list. But this is Lucille Ball. Lucy. And we still love Lucy.
In addition to the surge in interest on the internet, Lucy continues to inspire fascination and reflection. A recent and very popular book about a man’s late-life friendship with the actress is now being cast as a play. Episodes of the classic TV sitcom I LOVE LUCY are rumored also to be casting for upcoming live recreations of the still-popular show. A new musical about the making of that sitcom, REDHEAD CUBAN HAUSFRAU HUSBAND, is in the first leg of a summer run in Los Angeles, CA. And on television or on the stage, America still loves Lucy.
Why do we treasure this icon? People all over the world watch reruns of I LOVE LUCY, which some say plays virtually around the global clock. At any given moment, they suggest, that show is playing on a television somewhere in the world. And they could well be correct. Many in my generation, and those before and after mine, grew up watching syndicated reruns like I LOVE LUCY and have much fondness associated with that experience. But other, lesser programs like BEWITCHED occupied the same pocket of memory without any of the dedication or loyalty that Lucy inspires. And the same case in point illustrates that it is more than merely childhood associations or nostalgia that wins Lucy our love. We don’t universally love THE BRADY BUNCH, for example.
And there is great love associated with this tragic clown, Lucille/Lucy. Her tumultuous relationship with husband, business partner and costar Desi Arnaz is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Now it is almost impossible to think of Ball without reflecting on the sorrowful trajectory of her doomed marriage to the Latin bandleader. And like so many modern-day celebrity marriages, their turbulent union fascinates.
But, with all due respect to the late genius Desi Arnaz, he does not appear on the Yahoo! search list. Nor is it the pair of names which appear together. It’s Lucy’s name we’re seeing on that Yahoo! page. And we love her not because we are sorry for her loss, or for our own; at least not entirely.
Foremost, I suspect the reason we remain so steadfastly loyal to the brassy redhead is simple: she was funny. Her show was funny. The writers were good, the actors were good. Ball dedicated a lot of time and attention to working through the bits of which so many are now considered classic, getting the feel of props and movements and obtaining a seamlessness between herself and the material. She worked hard to make it seem effortless, the mark of a master. But hard worker or not, she was funny.
But there were a lot of funny performers in Ball’s time; George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, Jack Benny. They were all hard workers, too. And they are beloved, no doubt. But not even Jerry Lewis retains the kind of legend that Ball has; at least not while he’s alive. George Burns is dead, but he does not occupy the kind of American Icon status that Lucy does.
Lucy was also a woman, which put her squarely in what was then clearly a man’s field. This made her stand out, no question. But there were other great comediennes in Lucy’s day and before, including Gracie Allen, Mae West and Imogene Coca; all hilarious and also nearly lost to history.
So it’s more than being a woman, and it’s more than being funny, and more than being hard working and even more than being dead. Because there are different shticks, or acts, for different performers. There is something particular about Lucy’s shtick, and also something universal (always, the universal can be found in the particular.) Milton Berle wore dresses, Jack Benny was cheap and vain, Groucho Marx was sardonic and slick. Gracie Allen was dizzy and Mae West was a slut.
So much of what made her show and its characters great was its honesty, its realism. We feel we know these four people in this New York apartment building because they seem so real to us. They seem real because they were real. The characters were built around the actors; Desi Arnaz had a legitimate problem with English turns of phrase and often misused the language. This became central to his character and a signature of his shtick. Lucy was jealous of Desi’s popularity with women (not without reason) and this became a central part of their on-screen relationship. Lucille was a driven performer, also central to the makeup of her onscreen persona, Lucy. Even their supporting characters, once meant merely to offer a line or two per episode, became iconic television characters because they were given life by the people who embodied them and the writers who guided that process. Vivian Vance’s Ethel Mertz is a strong foil for Lucy Ricardo, as Vance was to Ball in their personal friendship. Frawley’s Fred Mertz has all his contention and disagreeability, but his heart and the heart of the character beat with compassion and reason. And Frawley was Frawley. Sure, Gale Gordon could have played cheap and grumpy, but there was no replacing that deadpan sourpuss in Little Boy Blue knickers, holding a giant lollypop and singing in a growly baratone, “Rippety pippety Ayyyyyyyeeee” Let’s face it; Fred was funny because Frawley was funny. The characters were created with honesty. They were real.
Nowhere is this more evident than the relationship of the actress Lucille Ball and her character, Lucy Ricardo. Ball was a protestant, raised to work hard and hold her head up high. She was a one-time fashion model who re-enforced her sense of dignity with the understanding of the value of appearance. Lucille and Lucy both always held their heads up high. And the bits designed for her character all highlight this persistence, this dogged determination. Whether she was stuffing chocolates into her mouth or stomping grapes, clinging to the building’s ledge in the rain or stalking William Holden, Lucy never quit. And neither did Lucille; in her relentless drive to keep her family together, in her determination to thrive in a field dominated by men. But her persistence went beyond mere women’s liberation issues. It didn’t matter what the odds were or even what the challenge was; reigning in a tomcatting husband or trying to pass herself off as a clay bust of herself, running a television studio or trying to wrangle hundreds of freshly hatched chicks, neither Lucille nor Lucy ever gave up.
This is why we love Lucy, because she reflects that part of us that refuses to quit; even when the chocolates are impossibly innumerable, even when we’re out on that rainy ledge dressed like Superman. Because even if we cannot laugh at ourselves in the struggle, she allows us to laugh at her and with her. And that brings us closer to laughing at ourselves, and understanding ourselves all the more. And if we are still fascinated, still recreating and reinventing her, perhaps it is a reflection of our need to recreate and reinvent ourselves. Like Lucy, we don our costumes and concoct our own crazy schemes. When one fails, next week we’ll try another. We persevere.