The Talented Lucille Ball Part Two
After an uncredited stint as a Goldwyn Girl in Roman Scandals (1933), starring Eddie Cantor and Gloria Stuart, Ball moved permanently to Hollywood to appear in films. She appeared in many small movie roles in the 1930s as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures, including a two-reel comedy short with the Three Stooges (Three Little Pigskins, 1934) and a movie with the Marx Brothers (Room Service, 1938). She can also be seen as one of the featured models in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Roberta (1935), briefly as the flower girl in Top Hat (1935), and in a brief supporting role at the beginning of Follow the Fleet (1936), another Astaire-Rogers film. Ball and Ginger Rogers, who were distant maternal cousins, played aspiring actresses in the film Stage Door (1937).
In 1936, she landed the role she hoped would lead her to Broadway, in the Bartlett Cormack play Hey Diddle Diddle, a comedy set in a duplex apartment in Hollywood. The play premiered in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 21, 1937, with Ball playing the part of Julie Tucker, “one of three roommates coping with neurotic directors, confused executives, and grasping stars who interfere with the girls’ ability to get ahead”. The play received good reviews, but problems existed, chiefly with its star, Conway Tearle, who was in poor health. Cormack wanted to replace him, but the producer, Anne Nichols, said the fault lay with the character and insisted that the part needed to be reshaped and rewritten. The two were unable to agree on a solution. The play was scheduled to open on Broadway at the Vanderbilt Theatre, but closed after one week in Washington, DC, when Tearle suddenly became gravely ill.
Ball signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1940s, but never achieved major stardom from her appearance in the studio’s films. She was known in many Hollywood circles as “Queen of the B’s” – a title previously held by Fay Wray – starring in a number of B-movies, such as Five Came Back (1939). Like many budding actresses, Ball picked up radio work to earn side income, as well as gain exposure. In 1937, she appeared regularly on The Phil Baker Show. She once considered and auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara for Gone with the Wind (1939), but Vivien Leigh got the part, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.
When that completed its run in 1938, Ball joined the cast of The Wonder Show starring Jack Haley (best remembered as the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz, 1939). Here she began her 50-year professional relationship with Gale Gordon, who served as show announcer. The Wonder Show lasted one season, with the final episode airing on April 7, 1939. MGM producer Arthur Freed purchased the Broadway hit musical play DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) especially for Ann Sothern, but when Sothern turned down the part, the choice role was awarded to Ball, who in real life was Sothern’s best friend. In 1946, Ball starred in Lover Come Back. In 1947, she appeared in the murder mystery Lured as Sandra Carpenter, a Taxi dancer in London.
I Love Lucy and Desilu
With John Wayne in I Love Lucy, 1955
In 1948, Ball was cast as Liz Cugat (later “Cooper”), a wacky wife, in My Favorite Husband, a radio program for CBS Radio. The program was successful, and CBS asked her to develop it for television. She agreed, but insisted on working with her real-life husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. CBS executives were reluctant, thinking the public would not accept an All-American redhead and a Cuban as a couple. CBS was initially not impressed with the pilot episode produced by the couple’s Desilu Productions company, so the couple toured the road in a vaudeville act with Lucy as the zany housewife wanting to get in Arnaz’s show. The tour was a great success, and CBS put I Love Lucy into their lineup. The I Love Lucy show was not only a star vehicle for Lucille Ball, but also a way for her to try to salvage her marriage to Arnaz, which had become badly strained, in part because both had hectic performing schedules which often kept them apart but mostly due to Desi’s attraction to other women.
Along the way, she created a television dynasty and reached several “firsts”. Ball was the first woman in television to be head of a production company: Desilu, the company that Arnaz and she formed. After their divorce, Ball bought out Arnaz’s share of the studio, and she proceeded to function as a very active studio head. Desilu and I Love Lucy pioneered a number of methods still in use in television production today such as filming before a live studio audience with a number of cameras, and distinct sets adjacent to each other. During this time, Ball taught a 32-week comedy workshop at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Ball was quoted as saying, “You cannot teach someone comedy; either they have it or they don’t.”
Ball and Arnaz wanted to remain in their Los Angeles home, but the time zone logistics made that broadcast norm impossible. Prime time in L.A. was too late at night on the East Coast to air a major network series, meaning the majority of the TV audience would be seeing not only the inferior picture of kinescopes, but seeing them at least a day later.
Sponsor Philip Morris did not want to show day-old kinescopes to the major markets on the East Coast, yet neither did they want to pay for the extra cost that filming, processing, and editing would require, pressuring Ball and Arnaz to relocate to New York City. Ball and Arnaz offered to take a pay cut to finance filming, on the condition that their company, Desilu, would retain the rights to that film once it was aired. CBS relinquished the show rights to Desilu after initial broadcast, not realizing they were giving away a valuable and durable asset. In 1957, CBS bought the rights back for $1,000,000 ($8.53 million in today’s terms), which provided Ball and Arnaz the down payment for the purchase of the former RKO Pictures studios, which became Desilu Studios.
I Love Lucy dominated the ratings in the United States for most of its run. (An attempt was made to adapt the show for radio; the cast and writers adapted the memorable “Breaking the Lease” episode – in which the Ricardos and Mertzes fall out over an argument, the Ricardos threaten to move, but they are stuck in a firm lease – for a radio audition disc that never aired, but has survived.) A scene in which Lucy and Ricky practice the tango, in the episode “Lucy Does The Tango”, evoked the longest recorded studio audience laugh in the history of the show; it was so long, the sound editor had to cut that particular part of the soundtrack in half. During the show’s production breaks, Lucy and Desi starred together in two feature films: The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Forever, Darling (1956). After I Love Lucy ended its run in 1957, the main cast continued to appear in occasional hour-long specials under the title The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour until 1960.
Desilu produced several other popular shows, such as The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. The studio was eventually sold for $17,000,000 ($122 million in today’s terms) and merged into Paramount Pictures in 1967.