Sunday, February 10, 1991
by Bart Andrews
It was inevitable. A movie about Lucille Ball, the American icon, the Queen of Comedy, the First Lady of Television. A shoo-in, a sure-fire ratings-getter.
An earlier program, the Dec. 18, 1989, airing of the 1956 “I Love Lucy” Christmas episode garnered CBS a 18.5 rating, placing it No. 6 on the Nielsen list for the week. Then on April 30, 1990, when CBS trotted out the long-lost “Lucy” pilot and built a one-hour special around it hosted by Lucie Arnaz, it topped the Nielsen chart for the week.
Can “Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter,” airing Sunday on CBS fail? For more than 23 years, Lucille Ball reigned supreme at CBS, starring in three sitcoms (four if you count the three years of the hourlong “Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” 1957-60), while earning countless awards, mind-boggling ratings and setting standards for television comedy that 40 years later are hard to match. Her last venture into TV was a dismal failure, lasting only eight weeks on ABC in 1986; it is clear that Lucy-ites savor vintage “Lucy” — the work she did on the tube in the ’50s and early ’60s as Lucy Ricardo and Lucy Carmichael.
Recognizing this, CBS assigned a $3.2-million budget to filmmaker Larry Thompson, who made the two-hour TV movie after conducting an exhaustive, nationwide talent search last summer for the two actors who would play Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a story set in the ’40s. (The roles went to Frances Fisher and Maurice Benard.)
“Lucy & Desi” is not the story of “I Love Lucy.” Thompson, who also produced a television biography on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (“The Woman He Loved”) chose to concentrate on Lucy and Desi’s stormy relationship before their television careers–how they met, married, loved and battled.
There was a lot of Angst over the project, most of it from the Lucille Ball camp. Daughter Lucie felt it was too soon to do a movie about her parents, saying recently: “I read an early draft of the script and I just thought it wasn’t enough. I wanted to see a deeper story. I wanted to see what made these people tick. But it’ll only be on for one night and it’ll be off. Their story will be told again, I’m sure, by somebody else and maybe better.”
“Lucy & Desi” takes place on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 8, 1951, the date of the filming of the first episode of “I Love Lucy,” titled “Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her.” The bulk of the movie is comprised of flashbacks of the 1940s, all leading up to the start of the most celebrated television series in history.
Experts agree that the better story is how “I Love Lucy” went on the air (perhaps that was Thompson’s ingenious plan all along, a sequel). In any case, that is the story we will tell here.
It all began when CBS nixed Lucy’s idea of having her husband co-star with her in a video version of her hit radio series “My Favorite Husband.”
“If Paley won’t accept us as a team,” 33-year-old Desi told Lucy in early 1950, “then let’s go on the road and test it. You go on tour with me and the band in June. We’ll work up an act and see what happens. If the public can accept us as a comedy team, then CBS can’t possibly ignore us.”
It sounded good to Lucy, 38, who wanted nothing more than to work with her husband of nine years in an effort to save their shaky marriage and, she hoped, start a family.
The Arnazes sought the help of an old fishing buddy of Desi’s, Pepito Perez. The internationally known performer, who was billed as “The Spanish Clown” when he headlined the Hippodrome, agreed to help fashion an act for the couple.
Lucy and Desi spent nearly a week in March 1950 holed up in a hotel suite learning some original comic routines devised by Pepito and film legend Buster Keaton, Lucy’s mentor from MGM. These comedy bits would serve them well: They would become the focal point of the pilot a year later and be used in several episodes of “I Love Lucy.”
Pepito and Keaton worked their charges furiously. Lucy rehearsed endless hours impersonating a baggy-pants “professor” bent on joining the Arnaz band with his prop cello and a seal honking out the notes to “How Dry I Am” on a strange-looking homemade contraption dubbed a “saxa-fifa-trona-phono-vich.” Some songs and husband-and-wife sketches written by two of Lucy’s radio writers, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh, were added to the 20-minute act.
The vaudeville bits, which would play between sets of Desi’s rhumba band, opened at the Chicago Paramount Theatre on June 2, 1950. “After the first show, Desi and I looked at each other in wild surprise,” Lucille Ball recounted in “The ‘I Love Lucy’ Book.” “Well, I guess we can work together after all. We’re on our way!”
Variety called it a “sock new act . . . top fare,” but after record-breaking stints in New York, Buffalo and Milwaukee the Arnazes decided to call off the tour. Lucy was pregnant and because she already had suffered one miscarriage in the ’40s, she didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances on the road with an act as strenuous as this one. But it was not to be. Two weeks later, back at the Arnazes’ ranch in Northridge, Lucy lost the baby. It was a devastating blow both personally and professionally.
Nothing seemed to be going right for Lucy. Her movie career was all but at a standstill. Her only outlet was the radio show of which she was about to start the third season. In “My Favorite Husband,” Lucy played the proverbial scatterbrained wife opposite Richard Denning as her Midwestern banker husband. The suggestion by CBS chairman Bill Paley that Lucy try her hand at a TV version of the radio show encouraged her to consider a career in television, but Paley’s no-Desi dictum was unacceptable to Mrs. Arnaz.
She wanted Mr. Arnaz to play her TV husband, but CBS was unrelenting. “Lucy’s an all-American redhead. Desi’s a Latin with a thick accent. Nobody will believe it,” was the official network stonewall.
Lucy’s determination to do it her way was borne of sheer desperation–she knew that her marriage would only survive if she and Desi could spend their lives together–not with him on the road 50 weeks a year and her in Hollywood.
In fact, by the fall of 1950, Lucy had made a momentous decision: If she and Desi could not do a TV show together, then she would quit acting and travel with him. CBS did not budge. The network was willing to lose its promising comedian rather than give in to her unconventional demand. Harry Ackerman, who ran CBS on the West Coast, was one of Lucy’s greatest supporters–in fact, it was he who persuaded her to try radio–but he couldn’t convince the big brass in New York.
As a last-ditch effort, the Arnazes and their agent Don Sharpe offered the couple’s service to rival NBC, then the No. 1 network (it had 14 of the top 20 shows). Armed with a pilot script that featured Lucy and Desi playing themselves–a movie star and orchestra leader — Sharpe came close to making a deal, although Lucy wasn’t sold on the concept.
Some have characterized the ploy as the classic “squeeze play”: When CBS heard through the grapevine what was about to transpire at NBC, Ackerman went to work in his own brilliant way. To keep Desi happy, he revamped a CBS Radio game show, “Earn Your Vacation,” into one with a Latin theme, renamed “Your Tropical Trip,” and put it on the air in January 1951 starring Desi and his orchestra. That would keep Mr. Arnaz geographically close to Mrs. Arnaz while CBS opened a dialogue with Don Sharpe about a possible TV series for Lucy and (maybe) Desi.
Lucy’s spirits were bolstered considerably around the Christmas holidays. She discovered that she was pregnant again, with the baby due in early July; Don Sharpe called with the news that CBS finally had given the green light for a TV pilot to star her and Desi; and that Jess Oppenheimer, her radio producer-writer-director, had concocted the perfect premise for the TV outing.
“I didn’t want to play a typical Hollywood couple,” Lucy confirmed in “The ‘I Love Lucy’ Book.” “It would have been a stereotype. Everybody thinks if you’re a Hollywood couple, you have no problems. We know it isn’t so–just because you have a pool and a couple of cars, it’s ridiculous for people to assume you don’t have problems. I didn’t want my character to be glamorous. I didn’t want her to have beautiful clothes. And I didn’t want her to be a wisecracking girl who drops a line and walks out of the room. I’d done that in pictures and I certainly didn’t want to do that over again.”
Oppenheimer recalled before his death in 1988: “I hit upon the idea of a middle-class working stiff who works very hard at his job and who likes nothing better than coming home at night and relaxing with his wife, who doesn’t like staying home and wants a career of her own.”
Lucy trusted Oppenheimer implicitly. He had made a hit out of her faltering summer (1948) radio series. “Of all the 30 or 40 films I had made up to that time,” Lucy stated, “I could find only three or four scenes in those pictures that I cared anything about. When I put them all together, I discovered they were domestic scenes, where I portrayed a housewife.”
Five months pregnant, Lucy stepped before the live TV cameras at Studio A at CBS headquarters on Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street on March 2, 1951, to do the “audition film.” A 16mm print of the proceedings (known as a kinescope) was made to show to advertising agencies in New York in hopes of finding a sponsor willing to underwrite the cost of producing “I Love Lucy.” (At the last minute, Lucy and Desi’s character names were changed from Lucy and Larry Lopez to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo when somebody pointed out that there may be some confusion over real-life orchestra leader Vincent Lopez.)
Although the 34-minute test film did not include the characters Fred and Ethel Mertz (they were added to the format several months later), it proved to have enough potential to interest giant Phillip Morris in picking up the production tab.
While Lucy herself spent the spring preparing for the birth of Lucie (who arrived two weeks late on July 17), Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh started churning out scripts, lifting most of their basic storylines from their own “My Favorite Husband” scripts.
The last-minute decision to do the series on film–allowing us to enjoy the reruns 40 years later–was made when the ad agency made a routine phone call to producer Oppenheimer, asking when he and the Arnazes were going to move to New York. Because nobody intended leaving Southern California for New York, everything came to a grinding halt until Lucy pleaded with Desi to “do something.”
What Arnaz did was literally create a new way of doing TV shows–the so-called three-camera method still in existence today. With able contributions from Al Simon and Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Freund, inexperienced Arnaz came up with the wild notion to do “Lucy” on film with a live studio audience so that the quality of the prints for the various affiliates (62 in those days) could be upheld. CBS’ Harry Ackerman knew from his experience with Lucy on the radio that she was “dead without an audience.”
With only two weeks left before the first episode needed to be filmed, a motion-picture studio had to be located that would allow Desilu to build the sort of stage the production required. At the very last moment, on Aug. 30, 1951, a lease was signed for Stage 2 at General Service Studio at 1040 North Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood for $1,000 a week. Nine days later, on Sept. 8, 300 eager people waited single file along Romaine Street. Above them hung a sign that read “Desilu Playhouse.” When the doors opened at 7 p.m. and they found seats in massive bleachers that had just been erected 24 hours before, audience members had no idea that they were about to see television history in the making.
Who would think that nearly 40 years later somebody would make a movie of it.
“Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.
“I Love Lucy” reruns airs on KTTV Monday-Friday 9-10 a.m. and 11-11:30 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday 4-6 p.m., and on TBS Monday-Friday 1:30-2 a.m.
The writer is the author of “The ‘I Love Lucy’ Book” (Doubleday) and co-author of “Loving Lucy” (St. Martin’s Press).
Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1991.