Loving Lucy



 Lucille Ball
Lucille Ball talking with her husband Desi Arnaz while he looks over building plans.
Source: LIFE Archives

At first glance, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz make an unlikely couple: they had different personalities, lifestyles, native languages, religions and ages. They first met on the set of Too Many Girls, in 1940, and fell head-over-heels in love with each other, elloping and getting married in November the very same year.

However, by 1950 they had already filed for divorce once (having later reconciled) and their marriage was reportedly ‘on the rocks’. In 1948, Lucille had taken on a starring role in the hit radio series My Favorite Husband, in which she portrayed the dizzy wife of a Mid-Western banker, Liz Cooper. When CBS offered to turn it into a comedy series, Lucille and Desi saw it as an opportunity to save their crumbling marriage. Ball insisted that Arnaz be cast as her husband and some of the radio show’s scripts were re-written to fit the new plot by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr. A legend was in the making.

 Lucille Ball
Actress Mary Wickes as a dance instructor in na episode of ‘I Love Lucy’
Source: LIFE Archives

Set in New York City, I Love Lucy follows the lives of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (and, later, their son, Little Ricky). Ricky is an up-and-coming band leader/ singer at a famous night club, The Tropicana, and Lucy is his accident-prone, red-headed, wildcat wife, whose ambitions and overactive imagination never cease throughout the entire series, as she relentlessly tries to claw her way into showbusiness. Supporting the Ricardos are the Mertzes – former vaudevillians (The Merry Mertzes) and their landlords – Fred and Ethel. Ethel (played by Vivian Vance) is Lucy’s best friend and ‘partner in crime’, who often tries, usually to no avail, to talk sense into Lucy, but mostly just ends up helping her in whatever cock-eyed plan she’s cooking up at the time. Fred (played by William Frawley) is her stingy, no-nonesense husband, who never misses a chance to poke fun at his wife (when Ricky asks ‘What do you know about rice’, Fred promptly answers ‘I know I had it thrown at me on one of the darkest days of my life’).

I Love Lucy was a huge success, remaining on the air for six seasons (1951-1957) (and as number 1 most watched show during four of them), plus three additional seasons as The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Show, later known as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, with 13 one-hour specials (1957-1960). Over the total nine seasons, many were the famous guests that had the fortune (or, in some cases, misfortune) of crossing paths with the Ricardos and the Mertzes. Among them were William Holden and Eve Arden (in Hollywood At Last), Rock Hudson (in In Palm Springs), Van Johnson (in The Dancing Star), John Wayne (in Lucy and John Wayne), Charles Boyer (in Lucy and Charles Boyer), Bob Hope (in Lucy and Bob Hope), Orson Welles (in Lucy Meets Orson Welles) and Tallulah Bankhead (in The Celebrity Next Door).

 Lucille Ball
Actress Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz yelling at husband Fred, played by actor William Frawley, in nightclub scene from tv series "I Love Lucy.".
Source: LIFE Archives

Lauded by the critics, as well as the public, I Love Lucy went on to win Emmys for Best Sitcom, Best Actress (Lucille Ball) and Best Supporting Actress (Vivian Vance), among numerous other nominations. Still, the day after filming the last episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Lucille Ball filed for divorce and the couple went their seperate ways. Lucille began a six-year run as Lucy Carmichael in The Lucy Show (1962-1968), followed by Here’s Lucy (as Lucy Carter, from 1968 to 1974), while also starring in movies such as Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) and Mame (1974). Meanwhile, Desi went on to produce other television shows, like The Untouchables (1961-1962), before retiring into “a less stressful life” in his horse ranch in Corona, CA, USA.

For its over the top plots and unliberated views of marriage, one would expect I Love Lucy to have been forgotten over the course of the last 50 years. Nevertheless, Ball’s elastic face and timeless physical comedy, coupled with the show’s pursuit of universal themes: the tensions of married life, balance between life and career, friendship and loyalty, keep this sitcom as fun to watch and as fresh as the day it was first aired.

 Lucille Ball
Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Desi Arnaz and William Frawley shooting a scene for ‘I Love Lucy’ at the Desilu Studios
Source: LIFE Archives

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