There are two reasons that everyone knows about I Love Lucy, and who the Ricardos and Mertzes are. That’s saying a lot, because the show ran from October 1951 to May 1957, which is outside of the lifetime of everyone back to Gen-X as well as the very ass-end of the Boomers. It was followed up by a three-year run of hour-long episodes which everyone remembers as “When the Ricardos and Mertzes moved to Connecticut.”
The youngest people who might remember catching a first-run episode as an adult are all now 82-ish, although realistically speaking the oldest people who might have seen it first run could have been born even before the Civil War.
And yet, here we are, 70 years after the show first premiered and, like I said, we all know who the Ricardos and Mertzes are, we know the show’s catch-phrases (even if one of them never happened) and we only know those for two reasons.
Those reasons are Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the husband-and-wife couple who created the show along with their core writing team, managing to create a studio, DesiLu Studios, along with it, as well as an entirely new way of shooting TV sitcoms.
Calling both of them far-seeing visionaries and simultaneously brilliant creatives and businesspeople is to understate their talents. Because of the three-camera style that Desi created, allowing the audience to actually see the actors and vice versa, as well as shooting on film to be edited later, the show escaped the fate of a lot of other shows at the time.
In the early 50s, most TV was produced in New York, and it was performed live in front of a studio audience. This was a direct holdover from radio, which had been done the same way, and in fact most of the original TV Networks had started out as radio networks instead.
The problem with the live broadcast was that video tape still didn’t exist, so there would have been no records of those broadcasts made unless someone pointed a film camera at a TV monitor and recorded. This was called a kinescope, and the results were rather crappy, to say the least.
Meanwhile, the Ricardos were creating 35mm film originals of their shows in which the audience was live but the broadcast was not, then editing them to be shown later. This upped the quality overall tremendously from the get-go.
But, more importantly later on, it gave the show another super-power. With 180 episodes in the can, this meant that the show was imminently syndicatable, meaning that it could be sold to other networks or local stations for a fee to be rerun forever.
Running 180 episodes 5 days a week meant that the entire series would cycle over 36 weeks which, ironically, was about how many weekly episodes each season of the original series lasted. More importantly, this is about nine months, meaning that the show could be set up to broadcast every month outside of summer, which was already rerun season for other shows and time of lowest viewership of the year.
This is exactly how subsequent generations discovered the show, because it became ubiquitous and, far from diluting the brand, actually made it stronger.
Other shows tried to follow suit, but very few of them had the same staying power.
But innovation and business acumen were not the only things that sold the series and made it so beloved and iconic. At the center of it all were the great talents on display: Lucy, Desi, Vivian, and William, aka Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred. Add to them the behind-the-scenes writing team of Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, plus producer Jess Oppenheimer, and it was TVs 1950s dream team.
Not that there wasn’t friction backstage, and the morning after their last shoot day together in 1960 on the follow up series the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Lucy filed for divorce from Desi.
Incidentally, although this is probably well-known, Lucille Ball herself, as then-head of DesiLu Studios, singlehandedly saved Star Trek from being a single-season failure and kept it going long enough to itself make it into syndication with 79 episodes which, run at two per week, would cover a 39 week cycle, making Saturday and Sunday showings or two episodes back-to-back on either
day a programming no-brainer.
Anyway, because of Lucy and Desi and their combination of savvy and “take no bullshit” attitude, they created a juggernaut that kids born now, 70 years after the series premiered, will be familiar with it when they start to hit kindergarten in the mid to late 2020s.
This is all summed up in a single moment in Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant writing and directing tour de force, now available on Amazon Prime.
I won’t call it a biopic because it does not cover the life story of either Lucy or Desi. Rather, it wisely focuses on one very hectic week in their careers early in the show’s run. I have no idea whether events were compressed into this time frame to create dramatic tension, but I really don’t care. The structure and conceit work brilliantly.
The present story takes place during a single week of preparation for shooting an episode, from Monday morning’s table read through to the actual shoot on Friday. From the beginning, it’s framed with clips from a presumed documentary interviewing the much older Carroll, Pugh, and Oppenheimer, probably at some point in the future but most likely prior to Oppenheimer’s death in 1988 — although Carroll and Pugh made it into the 21st century, so a second viewing might reveal that even the interviews were “shot” at different times.
The second framing device to the main story comes from and is motivated by the story, and involves a trio of brief flashbacks to Lucy’s career from presumed big break to disillusion to deigning to do radio to being brought to TV, all while Desi can’t get any acting jobs, so has to resort to being a bandleader.
The main story, as mentioned, is a week in the life of I Love Lucy, and it packs a hell of a lot into five days. Yeah, it’s a work week, not a calendar week.
As for Lucy and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, it starts off with a double thanks to the media. First, she sees some scandal rag story about Desi having an affair with some woman while he’s supposed to be off on a boat playing poker with the boys.
Second, though, and the one that the show’s producers as well as the network and the sponsors take note of, is Walter Winchell planting the rumor that Lucy is a Commie.
That’s not something that one wanted to be called in 1951, especially not working in Hollywood. It’s also a major misrepresentation of testimony Ball had just given to the House Unamerican Activities Committee — which was a group never more deserving of self-examination.
Anyway, she was cleared in those hearings which found that the only reason she had registered to vote as a member of the Communist Party — in the strictly U.S. political party sense — was because she had checked the wrong box on the voter registration form.
Congress officially cancelled that registration and that should have been the end of it, and, indeed, the story vanished from the news for the next few breathless days, but there’s still the whole Desi adultery thing, and Lucy deals with it by suddenly micromanaging production, insisting that things be done her way in this episode, all while kind of making Desi look weak in front of the cast and crew.
William Frawley, aka Fred Mertz, turns out to be her strongest ally here, as he takes her for a drink, calls her out on how she’s treating Desi, and wants to know what’s really going on, although she insists that it’s all about making this episode the best that it can be.
But, prior to all of that, early on in the film, Desi makes the announcement that Lucy is 12 weeks pregnant, and they want to write it into the show. Both his own producer and the network execs are appalled. There’s no way, in the early 50s, that they can show a pregnant woman on screen.
I mean, really, it’s going to make everyone wonder how she got pregnant, and that can only lead to unsavory thoughts, right? There’s not a lot of suspense here, since we all know exactly what happened on the show, how Lucy told Ricky during his night club act that she was expecting, and how the “Birth of Ricky, Jr.” episode was the highest rated TV episode ever up until that time.
However, thwarted by the timid executives around him, Desi dictates a quick telegram to the head of show sponsor Philip Morris — someone who is never supposed to be brought in on creative matters — basically saying, “Here’s the storyline we want to do, but all these CBS Execs are saying that we can’t. I will abide by whatever decision you make.”
It’s the first (but not the last) time that we see Desi and Lucy play absolute hardball. The payoff comes with a five-word telegram in response that happens to arrive at exactly the right moment, and it is hilarious.
Anyway, Sorkin sets all of these threads in motion and then weaves them through each other brilliantly, so that we’re tracking development of the script, interactions of the cast and crew, friction between Lucy and Desi, fear over Lucy and the Red Scare, wondering how her pregnancy is going to be allowed, seeing exactly how Desi — her real-life husband — was finally allowed to play her husband on the show, and more.
Sorkin’s concept of putting a five-day clock on it — what we refer to as an “Option: Time-lock” in the script structuring biz — is actually quite brilliant because, of course, on that fifth day, everything from the first day comes crashing back, including a revelation almost immediately pre-show that one of the New York rags has run with a headline declaring that “Lucy is a Red!”
Now the main question people probably have about the show is the casting, and whether Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem manage to pull their roles off, and all I can say is, “Oh, hell to the yes.”
In fact, everyone does, even Jonah Jameson as William Frawley. You’d think that he wouldn’t be able to vanish into the role because he’s so well-known, but you’d be wrong.
It’s the same for each of the leads playing a recognizable actor. They may not look exactly like who they’re playing, but they sound incredibly like their characters and somehow manage to embody their mannerisms.
This even extends to something you might have noticed IRL if you’ve watched a lot of Lucy talk show interviews and compared them to the show. Lucille Ball had two different voices — her offstage interview voice and her on-camera Lucy voice. So did Desi.
Kidman gets that, and it shows. Most of the time, she’s talking like the Lucy with the slightly upstate New York accent that isn’t well-known from her show, but any time we see her through the camera lens within the lens of the film itself, she sounds exactly like the TV Lucy we all know and love.
Bardem does the same thing, although we don’t get a lot of his TV turn as Ricky. Again, for both of them playing their offscreen personas, it’s more about body language, movement, and nuance. Off-screen Desi is much less animated and accented than onscreen Ricky, who exaggerates his gestures and turns up the Cuban in his voice to 10. Likewise, Lucy’s voice goes up in pitch noticeably within the show and takes on a more naïve and youthful cadence — the one we all know and love.
We get the same contrast between the on- and off-screen Frawley and Vance, with real life Frawley being a lot less gruff than TV show Fred, and real life Vance being more down-to-earth than her somewhat anxious counterpart of Ethel.
It’s really a film that the whole family can enjoy despite the R rating because, well, everyone loves Lucy. And really the only thing in it you might want to shield your tots from are uses of variations of the word “fuck” and one very buttoned-up and in the dark sex scene.
Well, that, and all of the smoking, but that’s part of the ironic point. The series, after all, was sponsored by a big tobacco company, and in the original runs, the show would cut away only to have Lucy and Desi pop up to do a Philip Morris commercial in character and costume, on the set of the show.
Talk about product placement! It’s all quite surreal and probably totally unbelievable to modern eyes.
Otherwise, it’s a wonderful peek behind the scenes of TV of the era, a power couple behind it, and the offstage issues they had to deal with.