Tuesday, July 2, 2002
DVD Review of The Lost Pilot of I Love Lucy, from DigitallyObsessed.com
In one of those happy accidents that doesn’t happen often enough, the self-financed pilot that Lucy and Desi produced to sell CBS on the idea resurfaced after 40 years, thanks to Joanne Perez, wife of famed Spanish clown Pepito Perez, whom Arnaz recruited for co-star duties in the historic filming. As a way of saying thanks, Desi presented Pepito with what turned out to be the only surviving copy. Discovered amongst the entertainer’s treasured keepsakes following his death, Joanne got word to the Arnaz family, who put the wheels in motion to share this amazing piece of television history with the world. On the night of April 30, 1990, CBS premiered The Lost I Love Lucy Pilot in the program’s original 9 Eastern/8 Central time period, capturing a massive audience, great reviews and an Emmy nomination. Just like old times.
Though the plotline of Lucy trying to worm her way into showbiz notoriety via Ricky’s nightclub act is familiar to long time fans who have seen dozens of variations on it throughout the program’s six-year residency, every nuance, from Lucy’s scream takes, to Desi’s fractured English, felt like new again under these circumstances. There’s something uniquely gratifying and sweet about watching these two soon-to-be legendary performers putting every ounce of emotion into a project they had so much faith in. Ironically, the two look much more comfortable in this presentation than some of their initial first season episodes, thanks to the utilization of material from their well-honed nightclub act (including Arnaz’s passionate take on the classic Babalu).
Other fascinating moments of note include the duo’s outward appearances (Arnaz’ untamed pompadour; Ball’s shoulder-length mane reminiscent of her cinema days) that contrast sharply when compared to their more polished look in months to come, the absence of supporting players (save for Pepito, whose baby talk act is hilarious, and short-lived cast member Jerry Hauser as Ricky’s agent) and the cost-cutting set designs (which makes you thank God the Arnaz’s held their ground and didn’t settle for second best in terms of quality, once the CBS deal was sealed). The granddaddy of all television comedy pilots merits a perfect five heart rating.
Before the dawn of I Love Lucy in 1951, most if not all non-variety comedy programs were one-camera affairs supplemented with canned laughter. Ball and Arnaz didn’t want artificial laughter; it had to be genuine, like the reactions of viewers at home. Filming in front of a live audience was just one of the stipulations the couple insisted upon when negotiations began with CBS to bring the series to television. In true Hollywood fashion, executives tried to meddle in every aspect from casting to where the show would be produced. Lucy wanted to parlay her real life marriage to Desi by having him play her husband on the show, but the network winced, feeling viewers (much less prospective sponsors) would not accept a Cuban leading man. So, the couple hit the road on a national nightclub tour, playing to packed houses and rave reviews, discrediting that theory.
After a pilot episode tested well, a bi-coastal tug of war between the network and the Arnaz’s over where the show’s production should be based commenced. CBS voted for the Big Apple, where much of its live programming originated, but Lucy and Desi wanted to take advantage of better production facilities on the west coast. Sensing a potential monster on their hands, the twosome also insisted that their pet project be captured on film rather than live transmissions that could only be preserved via poor quality kinescopes for future use. Balking at the notion, CBS would agree to this move only if the couple picked up the tab and work for reduced fees. Risky though it was, Lucy and Desi decided the gamble would pay dividends in the long run for their fledging Desilu prodction company; little did they know how huge of a goldmine they had stumbled upon.
In less than a year, I Love Lucy became one of the country’s top rated shows, moving to number one in its second season. Thanks to their savvy business sense and visionary foresight, the couple earned millions from selling the rights to their 179 episodes to CBS; in fact, the show’s staying power was such that classic episodes played in prime time for an additional three years, with weekday airings becoming a staple of their mid-morning lineup through the mid-1960s. Once network airings ran their course, local stations were offered the chance to purchase the series, setting a precedent for the even more profitable process of syndication, which helped introduce the series to new generations that have embraced it in equal measure for the last five decades.
Beginning in the summer of 2002, the digital versatile disc faithful started getting in on the act with Paramount’s excellent re-issues of the show’s first season on the format, beginning with I Love Lucy: Season One, Volume One. Collecting the first three episodes from its freshman year with the legendary (and at one time feared lost) pilot episode, it offers evidence how one of the greatest ensembles in the history of comedy (including Vivian Vance and William Frawley as neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz ) had chemistry from the onset.
Image Transfer Review: At the time of I Love Lucy, no market for syndication existed and since a large majority of prime time programming aired live, repeats during summertime as we know now were not an option (since videotape hadn’t been perfected at that stage). That makes the picture quality on this release even more stunning; Desilu took great care of their archives and it shows via the smooth, film-like sheen exhibited on the programs collected from their freshman year. Other than a stray speck of debris here and there, the quality of these black-and-white prints are nothing short of beautiful. Although some may feel cheated with only four installments per disc, the lack of overcrowding is the main reason why these shows look so good (sometimes, less is more). As for the pilot, we’re lucky to have it at all, so even though it’s littered with scratches and excessive grain, it’s worth the price of admission alone.
DVD review from http://www.digitallyobsessed.com/showreview.php3?ID=4659