A lot of fuss is being made about the 100th anniversary of Lucille Ball’s birth.
And I certainly can’t argue with that.
But I must confess – and please give me a second to duck after I say this:
I’ve never been a huge fan of hers.
But I also would never dispute that she deserved a lot of respect and still does.
I did enjoy watching “I Love Lucy” when I was a kid – especially the Hollywood episodes. Haven’t seen them in years, but I suspect they still hold up. After all, they were made when it was extremely rare to see movie stars appearing as themselves on TV. And doing a TV sitcom? Whoa!
Then, too, Ball had worked with a number of these people before in movies before she hit it big as Lucy Ricardo – people such as William Holden (“Miss Grant Takes Richmond”) and Harpo Marx (“Room Service”). And it's always a pleasure and a privilege to watch old show-biz pros work.
I'll also readily admit to shedding a tear whenever I see that nightclub scene where Lucy Ricardo tells Ricky she's pregnant. And I can laugh with everyone else at the Vitameatavegamin bit, and one or two of the other classic scenes.
But I somehow can't bring myself to rush to the TV set whenever an "I Love Lucy" repeat is airing.
Yet I respect the amount of work and dedication it took for Lucille Ball to get where she did.
She did have a substantial movie career before Lucy Ricardo came along, even getting top billing, but it took many years for lightning to strike, and when it did, she was ready.
And let’s not forget that she was no slouch as a dramatic actress. Her role as a callous showgirl in “The Big Street” seems to be the example most often cited, but in some ways I prefer her coolly understated work as the faithful secretary to Bradford Galt, the detective played by Mark Stevens in “The Dark Corner,” a movie that doesn’t seem to be much remembered today because Mark Stevens himself isn’t much remembered, but if you see it around give it a try – it also includes William Bendix and Clifton Webb, both of whom are usually worth watching.
When I was a kid I also enjoyed watching the “Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” on summer nights. It’s a tribute to the professionalism of Ball and Desi Arnaz that I had no way of suspecting that while they were making the “Comedy Hour” episodes their marriage was not only on the rocks but practically out to sea.
In later years, my family watched “The Lucy Show.” Arnaz and William Frawley were gone, but Vivian Vance stayed around for a while, and then came the great Gale Gordon as Mr. Mooney. Yet the “Lucy Show” I remember most is one I remember not because of Lucy but because of the guest star – Phil Harris, playing a once-great songwriter who is down on his luck. If you see the episode, you won’t be surprised to know that Lucy Carmichael helps him find his way again and reunites him with an old flame who still loves him. But you might be surprised by Harris’ humorous, understated performance – Ball lets him pretty much steal the episode.
Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Somehow I could never watch “Here’s Lucy.” In later years I think I watched the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton episode, but that’s it. (I was happy to read recently that Richard Burton was openly in awe of Gale Gordon, which says a lot about both of them.)
See, the problem I got into with Lucille Ball was the same problem I had with Bob Hope.
No one can ever dispute their brilliance or their work ethic.
But they both gained fame playing characters that didn’t age well – Ball as the ditzy schemer, Hope as the quick-witted coward who always tries to get the girl.
It was painful to watch them both in later years – Hope in his execrable TV specials and, even more painfully, Ball – and Gordon – trying to do slapstick in “Life With Lucy.” Very few older comics can get away with doing physical humor; it’s hard to laugh when you’re afraid that the folks you’re watching might actually injure themselves. (I think only Buster Keaton could get away with that sort of thing when he got older because he’d been doing acrobatic stuff since he was a kid and audiences somehow sensed that and knew he could take care of himself.)
Anyway, when all is said and done, I’m not a Lucille Ball fanatic and never will be. But she certainly deserves to be celebrated.
In the meantime I’ve been thinking about another performer who would have been 100 years old this year – born just six months before Ball.
And I hope to write about her soon.