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Lucille Ball: I Love Lucy and Lucy Ricardo's Cold War Domesticity

 

Lucille Ball achieved some fame in “B movies” (famously calling herself “Queen of the B’s”), but ultimately found lasting success in television comedy. In 1940, Ball met Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz on the set of one of her films, Too Many Girls, and their roller-coaster relationship began. They eloped just months later. Arnaz was six years older than Ball; the age difference and Arnaz’s Cuban heritage opened the couple to criticism from the press and the public. Ball found public support, however, in the world of comedy. She achieved critical success in the 1948 radio comedy My Favorite Husband, where she portrayed a well-to-do socialite married to a successful banker. CBS executives were impressed with the show and wanted to try it as a television series to take advantage of Ball’s “highly visual antics.”[1]

 

Ball was interested in television, but had one stipulation: she play opposite her husband Arnaz. CBS executives were not thrilled with the idea. Harry Ackerman worried that the audience “wouldn’t be able to understand him” because of his thick accent; Hubbell Robinson “nixed the idea completely, on the grounds that nobody would believe that an all-American redhead like Lucy was married to someone like Desi.”[2] Ball stood firm, and hit the vaudeville circuit with Arnaz to prove that they could be a successful comedy team.[3]  Their vaudeville act was a hit, but CBS was still not buying the show. Determined, Ball and Arnaz commissioned independent scripts to auction to other networks. One script “had them playing themselves – the successful bandleader, Desi Arnaz, and his successful movie star wife, Lucille Ball… Although it wasn’t what Lucy and Desi wanted, it did manage to spark some interest at a rival network – NBC.”[4] Why Lucy and Desi did not like this script is unclear, especially when compared to the eventual show I Love Lucy, which did have Desi playing himself to some extent, while Lucille Ball played a housewife. It seems both network executives and the stars themselves considered Ball’s fame unfit for her television character, even though Desi’s role as a musician remained in the program.

 

Losing Lucy was too much of a risk for CBS, so they finally agreed to sign Arnaz for a television series. The original premise, however, was not picked up by CBS, nor did anyone (even Ball herself) believe that Arnaz could play a small-town banker like the husband in My Favorite Husband. Producer and head writer Jess Oppenheimer thought of the idea to “do a show about a middle-class working stiff who works very hard at his job as a bandleader, and likes nothing better than to come home at night and relax with his wife, who doesn’t like staying home and is dying to get into show business herself.”[5] Both Ball and CBS liked the idea, and I Love Lucy (1951-1957) was born.


I Love Lucy's Lucy Ricardo was a housewife trying desperately to get into show business while her husband Ricky, a quasi-successful band leader, did everything in his power to keep her out of the spotlight. Lucy Ricardo was clumsy, foolish, and in no way suited for show business. Ball, on the other hand, was a star of both the big and small screens, as well as radio. The devaluation of character means a lot here; while the only part of The Goldbergs that really reflected Berg’s life was the Judaism she shared with her characters, I Love Lucy closely mirrored Ball's life. She used her own first name, and her character was married to her real-life husband, both of whom were bandleaders. In her autobiography, Ball frankly admits that “many times on the Lucy show the script was very close to reality.”[6] Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s quarreling relationship mirrored Ball and Arnaz’s difficult marriage. When Ball was pregnant with Desi Arnaz Jr., so was Lucy Ricardo (with Little Ricky, of course), and when Ball and Arnaz were fighting, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo did so as well. Perhaps as a result, I Love Lucy was a colossal success because, as Ball explains, the show “was love personified. It was little domestic spats and upsets happily concluded, an exaggeration of American life that came out all right.”[7]

 

While Lucy Ricardo may have tried to break free from the constraints of domesticity every Monday night, by the end of every episode she was always put back in her place and husband and wife lived happily ever after. For example, when Lucy impersonates Ricky’s agent to try and get him work, an innocent act of rebellion against tradition and domesticity, she nearly ruins his career. She lies to executives at Ricky’s studio, telling them that Ricky has an offer to be in a Broadway show, thinking it will tempt them into putting him in movies. Instead, the executive releases Ricky from his contract, letting him go from his position. Ricky is furious; Lucy apologizes for her mistake and has to contact the office to get them to change their mind. The episode ends with Lucy and Ricky at home with order restored, and Lucy learns her lesson that rebelling against traditional domesticity always leads to trouble.[8] While quite unlike Ball’s life with Arnaz, I Love Lucy portrayed a traditional, if imperfect, marriage that Americans loved to watch.

 

[Click here to watch this episode on Hulu]

 

To be successful on television, it seemed, Ball had to be domesticated, even after her movie and business success. The media explained Ball and Arnaz’s joint television show as a move towards traditional family and gender roles; it gave Ball the opportunity to spend more time with her husband and daughter, allowing her to be a traditional mother.[9] News articles framed Ball as a mother trying to lead a “normal” life, and Arnaz as the money-making star, reinforcing traditional gender norms of the Cold War. In reality, Ball was not only the driving force behind the creation of the series, but also the reason that viewers tuned in every week. Still, the successful star and businesswoman portrayed herself as a woman with far fewer opportunities than Ball herself enjoyed. This move towards domestication and traditional gender norms meant that “much of Ball’s sexuality had to be tempered and her image deglamourized in order to better suit the domestic and commercial setting of television.”[10] Her glamour and individual fame, it seems, were soon forgotten. Ironically, when Ball tried to lead other shows after the demise of I Love Lucy, executives worried if she could carry a show without Arnaz – the man she initially fought to prove as a worthwhile television star.[11] I Love Lucy ran from 1951 to 1957, and continued as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour from 1957 to 1960, when Ball and Arnaz divorced. Ball roughly reprised the same clumsy Lucy Ricardo character in several shows, but with different names, careers, and living situations – as Lucy Carmichael in The Lucy Show (1962-1968), as Lucy Carter in Here’s Lucy (1968-1974), and as Lucy Barker in Life with Lucy (1986).


I Love Lucy was the first major project of Ball and Arnaz’s co-owned and co-founded Desilu Productions.  Ball explained the founding of the company as a simple and obvious choice; she wrote, “one spring day in 1950, Desi and I decided that since nobody else seemed to have faith in us as a team, we’d form our own corporation to promote ourselves.”[12] The press often presented this joint venture in a more patriarchal light; while “it was clear that Desilu was co-owned by both Arnaz and Ball, the press accounts of their working relationship often posited Arnaz as the one who was really in control.”[13] Just as the move to television was framed in the media as striving for traditional family roles, Ball and Arnaz’s business ventures were presented as Arnaz’s work, with Lucy tagging along for the ride. While Ball was usually more in charge of creative processes than business arrangements, she was also the star that made the show and the production company possible.

 

In November 1962, two years after Ball and Arnaz divorced, Ball bought out Arnaz’s holdings in the company and succeeded him as president, becoming the first woman to control a major production studio.[14] Lucy Ricardo, Ball’s character on I Love Lucy, could not even get her husband’s approval to start out in show business. But Ball’s character, Lucy Ricardo, “bore no resemblance to Ball as businesswoman. [Ball] was tough and shrewd” rather than childish and innocent.[15] While Arnaz’s alcoholism had damaged the reputation of Desilu productions, Ball’s presidency revived Desilu with shows like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. In 1967, she sold Desilu to Gulf + Western for seventeen million dollars, which effectively “solidified Ball’s place as Hollywood’s richest woman.”[16]

 

Lucy Ricardo’s submission to her husband Ricky is especially jarring when compared to Ball’s personal career success, but the character and its many reincarnations are more complex than they may, at first, seem. Historian Cary O’Dell deems Lucy Ricardo “the personification of the pre-feminism feminist.”[17] She was a housewife, but she always wanted more; her husband held her back from her aspirations of fame and fortune.[18] As the character progressed through different incarnations of the show, Ball “poetically… mirrored the progress of women during the latter part of the twentieth century.”[19] Lucy Ricardo was a not-so-typical housewife, but Lucy Carmichael of The Lucy Show was a widow with two children living with her divorced friend Vivan Bagley (played by Vivan Vance, best known as Lucy’s sidekick Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy). Finally, Lucy Carter worked at an employment agency in Here’s Lucy, and Lucy Barker owned a business in the short-lived Life with Lucy. O’Dell sees Lucy’s long career of portraying progressively more independent women as part of her unique “everywoman appeal.”[20] She “delighted in violating the boundaries of femininity,” and, unlike Gertrude Berg, was able to do so with praise from fans and critics.[21] It is important to note, however, that I Love Lucy is obviously Ball’s most memorable and most beloved program. While the reincarnations of Lucy Ricardo were increasingly independent, Ball will be forever immortalized as the clumsy, foolish, but lovable housewife Lucy Ricardo.


[1] Jess Oppenheimer with Gregg Oppenheimer, Laughs, Luck… and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lucille Ball, Love, Lucy (New York: Putnam, 1996), 194

[4] Oppenheimer, Laughs, Luck… And Lucy, 133.

[5] Ibid., 135-136.

[6] Ball, Love, Lucy, 217.

[7] Ibid., 239.

[8] I Love Lucy, “Ricky Needs an Agent,” season 4, episode 29, aired May 16, 1955 (CBS), as seen on Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/watch/438053.

[9] Susan Murray, Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars: Early Television and Broadcast Stardom (New York: Routledge, 2005), 178.

[10] Ibid., 167.

[11] Geoffrey Mark Fidelman, The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999), 200.

[12] Ball, Love, Lucy, 194.

[13] Murray, Hitch Your Antenna, 180.

[14] "Arnaz Quits Presidency Of Desilu; Former Wife, Lucille Ball, Gets Post," Wall Street Journal, November 9, 1962, 18.

[15] O’Dell, Women Pioneers, 32.

[16] Ibid., 33.

[17] Ibid., 34.

[18] Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave, Women in Comedy (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1986), 271.

[19] O’Dell, Women Pioneers, 34.

[20] Ibid., 35.

[21] Susan Douglas, Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Times Books, 1994), 50.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.