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Thursday, September 25th, 2003


Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball

by Stefan Kanfer


A review by David Thomson

This is a wonderful and poignant book about one of life's perfect storms: the collision, the marriage, and the consequent art of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Anglo and Cuban, not only unlikely but very nearly illegal for their time, and surely one of the most endearing marriages in the history of American culture. Near the end of his book, in a summation of the achievement of Desilu, Stefan Kanfer cites Douglas McGrath: "A rerun of I Love Lucy starts, and just as the heart is closing around the title, the tears well up in my eyes because of the contrast between the triumph of love of the fictional Desi and Lucy, and the fact that they broke up in real life." I'm not sure that anyone will do better at capturing the lasting appeal of I Love Lucy. Truly, it is a show about the dance between romance and reality, as well as one of the best justifications for that uncanny domestic intruder known as television.

The story is taken for granted now, I think: how Lucille Ball, born in Jamestown, New York in 1911, had knocked around show business (and been knocked around) for close to forty years before she suddenly burst forth in a kind of stardom that not even her desperate gaze had foreseen, and which show business itself hardly understood. Yet this wild Cuban guy, Desi, seemed to have the whole cockamamie thing already in his head, if you could ever understand more than two sentences of what he said. If nothing else, this story is the celebration of what it can be to be Cuban-American -- a version of the tale somewhat different from the riot that goes on in Al Pacino's gorgeously lisping Tony Montana in Scarface, and in the never-to-be-forgotten brief melodrama that was Jose Canseco in the 1980s.

But notice this. Canseco was a force of nature (maybe steroids helped), a bull turned loose, and a bash brother in Oakland who dominated the white-bread Mark McGwire and had his own tabloid marriage to someone named Esther who was, like, Charo's gloomy sister. And Tony Montana is the animal turned loose in Miami, as well as a wanton Ricardo III who overwhelms the wan, WASPy Michelle Pfeiffer. I mean, these guys are all threat. But here was this Ricky Ricardo -- wearin' a tie, mon! -- not just a business success, but an executive, who somehow had this ditzy wife at home, and wow, was she lucky to have him to tidy up her messes and keep her out of the asylum! And Ricky was Desi, a small, brilliantined drummer with a very wicked look, a guy who sang "Babalu" and "Cuban Pete," the latter with these lyrics:

When I play the maracas
I go chick-chicky-boom
Si, Señorita, I know that you will like
the chicky-boom-chick
'Cause it's the dance of Latin

There were girls aplenty in Hollywood who knew the truth of that confidence coming out of Desi's mouth. He wasn't just Cuban, dark, unintelligible, but all rhythm; he was also sexy. And this is the guy who somehow gets to be the pillar of society, the ideal family man, as well as the adoring hubby who keeps his wife's madcap ways out of electroshock treatment? Remember, this was 1951, when Lena Horne sequences got cut out of MGM films when they played the country. Put it another way: how likely do you think it would be today to have a hit sitcom in which Ving Rhames plays a successful show-business businessman and Lisa Kudrow is his half-crazy homemaker wife who can't control her dream of the limelight? I mean a mixed-race couple, married, in prime time?

It's not that Desi Arnaz alone created I Love Lucy. Kanfer is very good on how several people, and several ways of thinking, brought the sublime show together. Still, Desi was the president of Desilu. He made crucial decisions about the business nature of the series. And he was Ricky. He was I. Don't ever doubt the power of that title. It shone all the light on Lucy and on Lucille Ball's comic inventions, but I was in charge. I had envisaged the show. I was the sane member of the couple, the organizer. Lucille Ball was an extraordinary clown, who revised the timing and the dynamics of the situation comedy because she got such prolonged laughs. But Desi, he was a genius.

Lucille was conceived in Anaconda, Montana, where her father was a telegraph lineman. Her mother went back home to Jamestown for the birth, and shortly after that the family moved to Wyandotte, near Detroit. It was there, in 1915, that her father died of typhoid fever. The burial was back in Jamestown, and Lucille was led away from the grave screaming. A few months later her mother had her second child, a boy named Frederick, who got all the attention from his mother and his grandparents. Lucille was left out. Or so she felt. By 1918, her mother married again. "Are you our new daddy?" asked a longing Lucille -- and was told to call the man Ed.

Without belaboring the point, Kanfer portrays Lucille Ball as insatiably anxious and insecure, a woman whose search for a father figure would only ever find the unlikely and unholdable Desi. Then, in time, he gave her the children and the stardom for which she longed, but he never stopped his skirt-chasing, his drinking, and his general concentration on everything -- or anything -- except family stability.

The real Lucy was not the easiest company. There was a grating mixture of harsh realism and self-pity. It's what made her insist, "I am not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. The situations were funny. But I am not funny. I am not funny. What I am is brave." That sort of line can turn oppressive after a while: courage is always best noted by others. Lucy had a way of seeing everything that ever happened as a burden made especially for her. It's not the least sign of the astuteness behind I Love Lucy that such scolding was kept out of the show. Not that anything ever dulled the pain or the paranoia in her eyes: the very cover of Kanfer's book, which shows Lucy in a moment of almost orgasmic, comic horror, is a valuable record of how close the eye-popping double take at domestic disaster can come to terror or madness.

She was often unlucky. In her teens she was sent to a good drama school in New York: she did vaudeville turns while other girls auditioned with Shakespeare. She was taken on -- and it was hard for her mother to find the money -- but then the teachers said she was hopeless. "All I learned in drama school," she would say later, "was how to be frightened." Back home, her grandfather gave Lucille's younger brother a rifle. Lucille was present when the accident occurred: a neighbor's son was shot in the back, paralyzed, and dead in six years. The bereaved parents sued her grandfather for just $5,000, but it bankrupted the man and cast a further shadow over the family.

When she was fourteen Lucille got a boyfriend, but he was twenty-one and the son of a local gangster. She made progress as a model -- she already had a great figure, and vivid auburn hair -- but she worked so hard that some mysterious illness overtook her. Was it rheumatic fever? Time and again in the future her relentless work habits clashed with her fragile or neurotic constitution. Eventually, I think, that steady impairment separated her from her own sexuality.

I wonder how much that lack of cheerfulness hurt her early career. For by 1940, the year she met Desi, she had been in dozens of films, for Goldwyn and RKO, often in very small parts. She is there in Stage Door, way down the cast list, beneath Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Andrea Leeds, but at the level of Eve Arden -- very noticeable, quite funny with words, and on the tough side. Later, there was an attempt to make her a musical star: she danced far better than she sang in films such as Du Barry Was a Lady, with Red Skelton. She was a threatened figure in a good noir, Dark Corner, and her big break was Dance Girl Dance, in which she plays the burlesque dancer and Maureen O'Hara is the gamine set on ballet.

Ball was versatile, willing, desperate even, and there is just one film in which she is unforgettable (if not quite pleasant). It is The Big Street (1942), taken from a Damon Runyon story, in which she plays a selfish, hypochondriac nightclub singer who is loved by a shy busboy (Henry Fonda!) and treats him like a slave during her alleged and prolonged illness. The film was a flop -- there was no one in it to like -- but in hindsight it seems to hold intimations of the Lucille Ball who would be regarded as a genius best avoided by other actors if they wanted a decent or calm life. It was a weird role for an actress to take, but what is really remarkable is how far Ball expands and finds herself in the film.

By then, Desi had happened. They met at RKO, and her luck turned. Desiderio Alberto Arnaz was the son of the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, a grandee who owned several ranches. Lucille had thought he must be a slum kid: wasn't he Cuban? The first time they met she wore a fake black eye (for a scene), and he decided she was a whore lately beaten up by her pimp. Thus empires are made. Desi was actually a refugee from the Batista regime, as well as a drummer, a singer, a bandleader, and a womanizer. He was six years younger than Lucille.

He rescued her. In 1946, MGM had terminated Ball's contract. After a brief surge in attendance after the war, the picture business fell on hard times. Lucille got ill, and she developed a stammer that ruined her line readings. She seemed helpless with Desi, while his affairs were famous. The gossip columnist Louella Parsons said that Ball wore a bracelet that read, "My name is Lucille Ball. If lost, return me to my master, Desi Arnaz." She had miscarriages. She was getting older. As if to signal that decline, she was offered a radio show called My Favorite Husband, in which she partnered a B-movie actor named Richard Denning. The show had a writer named Jess Oppenheimer.

Funnily enough at the time, Lucille had suggested Desi for the part of the husband. People laughed in derision. How could Desi do a typical American spouse? But as the radio show progressed, Oppenheimer saw a way to make the wife more scatterbrained, closer to the comic imp in Ball that had not really been discovered before. At the same time, Desilu (they had become a company) went on a vaudeville tour -- slapstick and situations -- that proved unexpectedly popular. So Oppenheimer and his associate Don Sharpe got the idea of taking My Favorite Husband to the new medium of television. But it was Lucy and Desi who paid personally for the pilot and resolved to own the show.

When I Love Lucy began, in the 1951-1952 season, only about eight million American homes had a television set. But Desi had seen the future somehow. As executive producer of the show, he guaranteed to deliver it to CBS at $26,000 an episode. He also insisted on shooting the show on film with three cameras. So much of early television died as it was transmitted, surviving only as very poor kinescopes, filmed off the television cameras. Desi also decided on the live audience. Plus he was Ricky, the other half of the show. The rest you know, because those shows still play. But their amazing durability is owed entirely to Desi's intuition about film.

The series opened on October 15, 1951, produced by Oppenheimer, and mostly written by Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. The photography was in the hands of Karl Freund, which was another sign of the times: Freund was a master from UFA who had shot Murnau's The Last Laugh and some of Lang's Metropolis before going to Hollywood. There he shot the Bela Lugosi Dracula, Garbo's Camille, and John Huston's Key Largo. Then the expert on shadow helped to invent the radiant, if not glaring, high-key lighting of television sitcoms and the self-assured 1950s.

Of course, there was more to the show than clever situations, good dialogue, and Lucy's visual set pieces. There were the Mertzes, Ethel and Fred (Vivian Vance and William Frawley), older, stabler, and so conservative as to bestow a certain social acceptance on the Ricardos. If crusty Fred Mertz could take them, so could the audience. Don't think that such problems are academic or the fruit of hindsight. Ricky Ricardo was dynamite slipped under the door, and those were very sensitive times. A year into the show Lucy came under scrutiny as a Communist: to please her grandfather, she said, she had registered that allegiance in 1936. There was a campaign against her. The sponsor, Philip Morris, was warned to drop her. Desi just laughed and said the only thing red about his wife was her hair, and that was fake, too. And so it was: Desi had told her to go red and picked the color himself. It was called Tango Red.

So the series was forever pledged to cross-purposes: Ricky believing the show was just a business, with Lucy dazzled by the show. But that in itself was interesting as a concept. I'm not sure that Desi ever thought this through, but by the early '50s the empire of film was rapidly giving way to the new age of television. Stardom suddenly took on a domestic footing. And we commenced upon a strange puzzle in which every day or every week "friends" on television are the new stars -- as remote as Garbo, maybe even better paid, but apparently without the old luster and the distancing glamour. The television world looked harsh, slapdash, small, grainy; indeed, it resembled the one genre that American television has so steadily avoided or denied, the documentary.

There were paradoxes everywhere. Lucy Ricardo was so insanely eager to be on television -- but Lucy was on television every Monday at nine. Ricky could not possibly be Lucy's husband -- but he was; the world knew it. And the public held the marriage in two strands, never fixed to meet, the fictional bliss and the real tumult. For the more famous Desilu became, the more press commentary there was on how at odds man and wife really were. And lo and behold, when Ricky and Lucy got pregnant, so did Desilu -- it was even the same child, Desi Jr., born in life and on the show at the same time, a moment in the history of reality television as important as Joseph Welch wondering if Senator McCarthy had any decency.

CBS, including Bill Paley, feared the order of miscegenation. But it was soon reported that one-fifth of the American population watched the show. Lucy appeared on the cover of Time. When Ricky Jr./Desi Jr. was born, forty-four million people watched. For three years I Love Lucy was the number-one show. Though Desi and Lucy drew a salary of only $35,000 each, by the end of 1953 Desilu grossed $6 million. MGM saw a chance to capitalize on the couple, and it tossed off a flimsy film, The Long, Long Trailer, which grossed $4.5 million, far more than any Lucille Ball picture. And Desilu became, under Desi, a television studio: it did 229 half-hour shows in 1954.

The couple moved from the San Fernando Valley to Beverly Hills. It wasn't easy. The children, Lucie and Desi Jr., hardly saw their parents. Lucy found that doing television was physically more difficult than doing movies, and she often cracked. Desi got furious at being called Mr. Ball, and he split his time between running the studio and running women to ground. He started drinking more heavily. Lucy became a chronic chain-smoker. Oppenheimer left. Freund left. And the ideas began to be more forced, or harder to conjure up. I Love Lucy lasted ten years, with thirty-nine episodes a year. That is the equivalent of about one hundred movies.

But in 1955, with a loan from the Bank of America, Desilu bought RKO from Howard Hughes for $6.15 million. The company generated more and more television shows, including Wyatt Earp, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek. With twenty-six soundstages and a back lot of forty-three acres, it was bigger than the biggest studios of the golden age. In 1958, Desilu went public, and both partners cleared $2.5 million each. Lucy kept hers, but Desi had only $100,000 left after he paid his debts.

He was brilliant and footloose; she was maudlin, unwell, and grouchy. They fought all the time. She called him a drunk, a cheat, and a spic. There was a merciful divorce. Then, in 1962, Desi decided to quit the company. She bought him out for $3 million. In 1967, Gulf %amp% Western bought Desilu for $17 million. $10 million went to Lucille Ball. You will not be astonished to hear that this was sackcloth and ashes to her.

She married again, to Gary Morton, an amiable and loyal lightweight, who escaped her tantrums with endless golf. She did more television, of course -- The Lucy Show (begun in 1962), Here's Lucy (1968), and even Life with Lucy (1986). There were more movies, dull at best, but sometimes cripplingly bad, as with Mame (1974). She was often ill. She was a fury to work with -- Kanfer gives a very funny account of the increasing distaste of Richard Burton on one episode. Her children were troubled (Desi Jr.) or estranged (Lucie). She was hailed, revered, beloved, and given every award in the world. Nothing went half an inch to soothe her. Desi died in 1986, a wreck. She went three years later. But they are married still, and always. Or as long as syndication means anything.

Stefan Kanfer pulls no punches over Lucy the pain in the neck, but he gives a superb picture of how she and Desi changed television. I Love Lucy shifted the basis of production from New York to Los Angeles, and so it brought a second life to many Hollywood technicians. It forged a fascinating link with vaudeville in its reliance on a live audience. And what did it do, in the 1950s, to family life, to gender politics, to race? I said that Desi was dynamite under the door, but that explosion never went off. The real big bang of sitcoms -- that people of different races can fuck without panic in the streets -- is still awaited. Nor did the show really promote feminism. Indeed, Lucy is a model for female folly and helplessness, with Ricky hugging her tears away. That was their chief way of touching. One hot kiss and the show might have been over.

Ball was ready to smother her own sexuality. I know what Susan Stamberg meant when she remarked about Lucy, "I didn't like what she did to get what she wanted." My own wife is named Lucy, born in the great years of the show, and she grew up very uneasy with thoughts that she might be confused with Lucy Ricardo. John Waters has said that he saw Lucille Ball -- especially in old age, under the red wig, with the savage makeup -- like a female impersonator. At the very least, I Love Lucy is a sad decline from the adult, independent, witty women -- Hepburn, Colbert, Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne -- that we find in the best comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s.

So, yes, the show released a frantic comic energy that its heroine had hardly understood before it. And many routines are still funny. But there really is something wounded or mad about Lucille Ball, and it is unnerving to behold now. Whereas, if you want to study a brave adventurer and a brilliant businessman, well, chick-chicky-boom!

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