I Love Lucy

Investigate the impact that Lucille Ball had on 1950’s film and television during the 1950s. How much power did she really wield?

The Impact of Lucille Ball during the 1950’s, on television in particular, is vast. This essay will focus on the success of I Love Lucy and Desilu productions, the technical innovations that the show founded, and how (and hopefully why) Ball manipulated her public image. I will look particularly at Susan Carini’s article which examines the birth of I Love Lucy and Desilu, Ball’s “Red Scare” incident and how Ball and Desi Arnaz managed their public images in the midst of their turbulent marriage,

I Love Lucy debuted in October 1951 and was an immediate success. It spent four of its six prime-time seasons as the highest-rated series on television and when it ceased production as a weekly series in 1957, I Love Lucy was still the number one series in the country. To this day it is one of only a few to do so. Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration in January 1953 drew twenty-nine million viewers, but when Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky in an episode broadcast the next day forty-four million viewers (72% of all U.S. homes with TV) tuned in to I Love Lucy. While quite amusing, this statistic is scary. It not only shows the popularity of the show, but it is also evident that, in the eyes of the public, Lucy Ricardo’s influence was greater than the President of the United States. It will be interesting to see what television program (if any) rates higher during the next U.S. election or presidential inauguration.

When the I Love Lucy began, a contract was negotiated with CBS for Desilu to produce it. This meant that Ball had become the first woman to own her own film studio. CBS and the sponsor insisted that the program be broadcast live from New York but Ball and Arnaz wanted to stay in Hollywood to take advantage of the movie industry’s production facilities and to ensure the long-term value of their series by capturing it on film. The network finally agreed to the couple’s demands, but as a concession asked Ball and Arnaz to pay the additional cost of production and to accept a reduced fee for themselves. In exchange Desilu was given one-hundred percent ownership of the series – a provision that quickly turned Ball and Arnaz into the first millionaire television stars. Eventually Desilu bought out Ball’s former studio RKO leading it to become larger than both MGM and Fox.

When initially pitched the idea of I Love Lucy, CBS and prospective sponsors hesitated at the casting of Desi Arnaz, fearing that his Cuban accent and ethnic identity would alienate television viewers and in her article Susan Carini confirms this saying that ‘the racist requirements of the film industry in the 1940’s had seen to it that Arnaz was used…as a kind of salsa: he was a flavouring applied from time to time but never allowed the status of main taste.'(Carini, 2003, p.44) Thus when it came to I Love Lucy Arnaz was strict on the depiction of his character. Ball recalls at the shows first meeting that, ‘most of all Desi insisted on Ricky’s manhood. He refused to ever be a nincompoop husband.’ (Carini, 2003, p.48) Arnaz also rejected a script that would show him cheating on his income tax saying that it was something that he would never do. To have convinced CBS that a first generation Cuban-American bandleader should play her husband despite the studio’s misgivings attests to Ball’s power in the industry. And so, no matter how much Arnaz controlled his image, it was Ball who was seen as the “star” of the show and it is for this reason that Carini believes Arnaz started to focus on becoming the “consummate business man” and stabilizing his role behind the camera. This involved both Desilu productions and the technical aspects of filming. With the help of Karl Freund, Arnaz pioneered the 3-camera technique, with three cameras running simultaneously in front of a studio audience. This meant I Love Lucy was able to combine the energy of live performances with the visual quality of film. Although the technique was not generally used outside of Desilu until the 1970s, it is now widely used throughout the television industry. This combination ensured the show’s quality and longevity – I Love Lucy re-runs are still being broadcast today.

During the time I Love Lucy was being aired, Ball rarely commented to the press or public about her personal life but she would often provide information to Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to give uninteresting inaccuracies about the marital bliss she and Arnaz were experiencing, with reports often situating Ball at home tending to her husband and children. Interestingly though, when on being asked how the show originated, Ball responded: ‘We decided that instead of divorce lawyers profiting from mistakes we’d profit from them.” (Gilbert and Sanders, 1993, p. 29) Apart from her interaction with Hopper, it seemed that Arnaz was in charge of their public relations. In the show that followed the break of the communist story Arnaz was teary eyed on set while defending Ball against the accusation. He spoke of his wife being “100 percent American” and, if we needed further clarification: “as American as the Brady Bunch.” Carini highlights that television had clearly succeeded here as a means of shaping public opinion and says that ‘No matter how large the Photostatted copy of Ball’s Communist registration card would be printed, the impact was nothing compared to that of Arnaz before a studio audience.’ (Carini, 2003, p. 57) This incident is also a good example of what Carini positions as Ball’s silence or ‘refusal of language’ outside the series, and says this to be the ‘province of a true clown’ (Carini, 2003, p. 46) thus linking Ball to other silent comic greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx (who actually appeared in one I Love Lucy episode).

The show often focuses on Lucy’s desire and scheming to enter the show business world with her husband. Hollywood writer Christopher Anderson states that ‘In episode after episode Lucy rebels against the confinements of domestic life for women, the dull routines of cooking and housework…the straightjacket of demure femininity. Her acts of rebellion…are meant to expose the absurd restrictions placed on women in a male-dominated society.’ (Anderson) Put like this, we can see Lucy as a subversive character. Yet the domestic role she subverts seems, in some ways, made possible due to her husband’s ethnicity and thus inferiority. I am not in anyway saying that Ball saw her husband and inferior because he was Cuban-American but instead that 1950’s American society accepted Lucy Ricardo’s “un-homely” antics because they perhaps saw her as superior to her husband. If, on the other hand, her onscreen husband had been someone like Cary Grant would Lucy have been able to undermine his authority in the same way?

In a series that corresponded roughly to their real lives, it is notable that Desi played a character very much like himself, while Ball had to suppress her professional identity as a performer and pretend to be a mere housewife.  Having said this, Carini believes in portraying certain images of themselves to the media and public, it is in fact Ball and Arnaz who are actually the ones living this gender conservatism, not their characters. She asserts that ‘In claiming their roles of unemotional business man and doting wife and mother, each partner gravitated toward a highly gendered discourse that seemed to confirm the cliché that dogs the Eisenhower era: that the male was the head of the household and that the female kept the hearth fires burning.'(Carini. 2003, p. 47) And when looking a Ball’s interaction with Hopper and the image she projected to the public through her it is clear that Carini’s point is a valid one. When not being completely guarded about her personal life, Ball portrayed this “domestic goddess” image to the media and in doing so was strategically distancing herself from the active business woman that she clearly was. Therefore, she was perhaps not subjected to quite as much politics of being a woman in a “man’s world”. It also meant that Ball did not distance any of her faithful viewers who only really knew her as Lucy Ricardo, not a business savvy woman who was making millions of dollars playing the goofy housewife.

Lucille Ball once said “I’m not funny. What I am is brave” and to be the first woman to own her own studio in Hollywood not only indicates that she had guts but also shows the level of power she had in the industry during the 1950’s. At head of Desilu productions Ball and Arnaz are responsible for television filming innovation that are still used and relevant today. As the engine that drove I Love Lucy, she created a show that pushed the boundaries of technical advancements, of social content, and popularity. American viewers felt that the birth of her onscreen child was of more interest to them than the beginning of a new political era. This, in some ways shows, that with the help of television as her medium Ball reached viewers that no political arena could.

References:

Anderson, Christopher, ‘I Love Lucy‘, 30 Nov 2007.  1 May 2008. <http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/I/htmlI/ilovelucy/ilovelucy.htm>

Carini, Susan M., 2003 ‘Love’s Labors Almost Lost: Managing Crisis during the Reign of I Love Lucy’ in Cinema Journal 43, no.1, Fall, p.44-62.

Gilbert, T, and Sanders, C S, 1993, Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Morrow, New York, p. 29. Quoted from a statement made in 1952.

Filmography:

I Love Lucy, CBS, 1951 – 1957.


Here are two of the most memorable I Love Lucy moments:

Questions:

  • Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz vs. Public personas vs. Lucy & Ricky Ricardo. Where does one end and another begin?

  • Investigate the impact that Lucille Ball had on 1950 film and television during the 1950s. How much power did she really wield? (Tutorial Question)

References:

Susan M. Carini (2003) ‘Love’s Labors Almost Lost: Managing Crisis During the Reign of I Love Lucy’ in Cinema Journal 43, no.1, Fall, p.44-62.

Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.

http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/I/htmlI/ilovelucy/ilovelucy.htm

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