Welcome to my second entry for the Vintage Funny Women Awards. Each month I am taking a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite ‘Vintage Funny Woman’. Contact us with suggestions of future nominees; these may include anyone from Vesta Tilley to Marti Caine. Our first entry was Fanny Brice and this month I am looking at the first lady of TV comedy, Lucille Ball.
My first memories of Lucille Ball were from the repeats of ‘I Love Lucy’ shown each lunch time on Channel 4 whenever I was ill off school (I am sure they were on every lunch time when I was actually at school as well, but of course I have no definite proof of this). This crazy lady with a big mouth and eyes would make made faces and get herself into hilarious situations and I was mesmerised.
From the ages of four to six years old this is what I thought living in America was like: everything in black and white, with ladies in big circle skirts getting into scrapes whilst their despairing husbands went off to work. By the time I got to seven years old I had quickly realised America was actually more like a brightly coloured street populated with many races and fuzzy creatures learning how to count.
‘I Love Lucy’ was a comedy loosely based on her marriage with her then husband and co-star Desi Arnaz. Her character, Lucy Ricardo, was a stay at home mum but in reality Lucille Ball was a powerful business woman. A Four-time Emmy winner, Lucille Ball was not just a movie and television star, but also the first female head of a television studio, blazing a trail for all females in the business.
Lucille Desiree Ball was born in Jamestown, New York in 1911. Her father died when she was three years old so she was brought up by her mother and grandparents until her mother married again four years later. During this time her grandfather would take the family to see vaudeville shows and he would encourage the young Lucille to push herself forward for parts in school shows sparking her interest in performing.
At the age of 15, she was sent to the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City, training alongside Bette Davis. Ball’s mother hoped this would get her away from an unsuitable, older boyfriend even though they could not afford the fees. Ball found this an unpleasant experience as she would be told off for being “too shy” and has been quoted in saying: “The only thing I learnt at drama school was how to be frightened”. Determined to prove her tutors wrong, she flourished in a New York career in modelling until debilitating bout of rheumatoid arthritis set her back two years.
After her recovery, she returned to modelling in New York, this time under the stage name of ‘Diane Belmont’, and she started performing chorus roles on Broadway that sadly largely resulted in her being fired. Ball didn’t let this faze her and she decided to dye her chestnut brown hair blonde and moved to Hollywood to try to get work in the movies.
After appearing in a few ‘shorts’, she started appearing in a string of films which led to her unofficial title: ‘Queen of the B Movies’. Whilst filming the movie ‘Dance Girl, Dance’ she met a Cuban band leader, Desi Arnaz, who became her husband and business partner for the next 20 years, despite their friends’ early predictions that they would only last a few months.
Desi was ambitious and productive despite having to fight against the racism of 1940’s Hollywood had against Latin Americans; Desi and Lucy would become the first a power couple in the same vein of ‘Bradgelina’ today. In later interviews Lucille Ball would speak about her ex-husband with high regard, stating it was his forethought and business acumen that helped them achieve their level of success.
By 1942 Lucille Ball now had the red hair she would be known for but felt her career had stagnated, and so Desi suggested she tried broadcasting. Lucy got a part in a radio comedy called: ‘My Favourite Husband’ which was the template for what was to become ‘I Love Lucy’ on television but the network wanted someone other than Arnaz to play her husband, someone from North America. Ball turned it down flat and walked away from the contract.
For the next few months Ball and Arnaz worked on a script and performed it for live audiences in vaudeville until they felt it was ready to pitch to a network. CBS took them on as soon as they saw it, but this time on Ball and Arnaz’s terms: to shoot in Hollywood rather than the current home of television, New York and to shoot on real film, not the cheaper kinescope, resulting in both stars taking a pay cut. The most important condition was that all rights remained theirs under their newly formed production company Desilu Productions. Using film turned out to be a very clever stipulation as it meant that the film did not degrade in the same way as kinescope meaning the show could be syndicated and repeated forever-more earning the couple millions of dollars over the years.
The first ‘I Love Lucy’ aired on 15th October 1951 and these are some of my favourite moments:
This scene is where Lucy tries her hand at being the ‘Vegemeatavegamin’ girl for the TV sponsors on Ricky’s show. I first saw this when I was tiny and I still find it hilarious even if it is very silly!
In 1951 Lucy and Desi had their first child, Lucie Arnaz, when Ball was 39 years old which was considered very old and the risk of complications was very high – until now her career had come first and babies just had to fit in later. She had her baby practically on air as her planned caesarean was timed for the same day the episode when Lucy gave birth to baby ‘Ricky’ was aired. This was such a massive event that it attracted more television viewers than President Eisenhower’s inauguration ceremonies or the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Lucille Ball was a perfectionist, taking hours of rehearsal to get exactly the right comical expression or slapstick movement just right; rarely was anything adlibbed. For four seasons of the six years it aired, ‘I Love Lucy’ was the number 1 television show in the whole of America. But it couldn’t last forever; Lucy and Desi’s relationship was disintegrating and they could no longer play the happy couple on the screen. After 180 episodes ‘I Love Lucy’ came to an end but Desilu Productions continued producing programmes for other stars such as Dick Van Dyke as well as launching hits such as Star Trek and Mission Impossible.
Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960 and in 1962 Ball remarried, this time to a comedian called Gary Morton whom she stayed with until her death in 1989. There are many interviews on YouTube with Ball and Morton and she does seem incredibly happy and settled with him, unlike the fiery years she had with Arnaz.
After the divorce from Arnaz, Ball bought out his share of Desilu which made her the first woman to run a major television studio and when she eventually sold it in 1967 it made her $17 million. Ball made another two sitcoms in the 1960s, ‘The Lucy Show’ and ‘Here’s Lucy’ which had a modest success compared to ‘I Love Lucy’ but she remained in the nation’s hearts and in 1971 she was the first woman to win an International Radio and Television Society Gold Medal. She also received four Emmys and an induction into the Television Hall of Fame.
In her later years she made rare dramatic turn in a television movie, ‘The Stone Pillow’ and a short lived sitcom which was cancelled. She died on 26th April 1989 following complications during heart surgery.
Lots of footage can be found of the wonderful Lucille Ball on YouTube. Please vote her as your Vintage Funny Women or send me your suggestions for future nominations! Tweet @funnywomen and @MirandaDawe Next month I shall be putting forward my case for Marti Caine.