My favorite TV show of all time is I Love Lucy. I have seen every episode, I have them all on DVD, and I can quote lines by memory. I have seen many of the documentaries and specials on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. So it should come as no surprise that I have also read a lot of books about Lucy as well.
Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball (2003) by Stefan Kanfer
This book covers Ball’s childhood and early days in the movie business. This background leads to her genius as a comic actress, which she did not start as in Hollywood. She was known as the “Queen of the B Movies” until she switched to television. It is a fascinating look at how she developed her talents and became known for being a comedienne.
Lucy & Ricky & Fred & Ethel: The Story of I Love Lucy (1976) by Bart Andrews
This one is interesting because it focuses on the history of I Love Lucy and all of its cast. It is fun to learn about how the show began. It almost didn’t include Ball’s husband Desi, because executives and producers didn’t think the audience would appreciate her Cuban husband. The show evolved from a radio show that Ball had been doing. The overall idea comes from Isabel Scott Rorick’s novel Mr. and Mrs. Cugat: A Record of a Happy Marriage. I own a copy of this novel, but I still haven’t read it.
It is also fun to note that William Frawley, who played Fred, and Vivian Vance, who played Ethel, couldn’t stand each other. I am sure that conflict and the many relationship problems Lucy and Desi had later on made working on the show stressful and may have contributed to some of the tension in the later years.
A Book (1977) by Desi Arnaz
I liked reading Desi’s autobiography. I couldn’t believe the sexual conquests he had had at such a young age. I still haven’t decided if they are fish tales made up to prove his machismo or if he really lived in such a sexualized culture. He is a remarkable person, nevertheless, due to his persistence, musical abilities, and what he endured after being run out of Cuba. Also admirable is his rise to fame through his hard work. Did you know that he is responsible for starting the Conga line craze in this country?
I do feel some sympathy for him. He had talent. He wanted to be a star. Yet he constantly lived in his wife’s shadow. That had to be hard for a man who lived in a time and grew up in a culture where men were supposed to be more important than women. I guess his subordination was juxtaposed in the show, a place where he could pretend to be in charge and the star.
My favorite Desi episode of I Love Lucy is “The Ricardos Visit Cuba.” Ricky finally takes the family to Cuba and introduces Lucy to everybody. At one point, Ricky plays and sings “Babalu” with little Ricky, and the music and drumming is phenomenal. That scene makes it very clear why Lucy fell so madly in love with Desi.
Love Lucy (1996) by Lucille Ball
This is Ball’s autobiography published posthumously. I absolutely enjoyed this book. I was fascinated by her tales of growing up in Jamestown, New York, and the tragedies she suffered as a young girl. However, she was always the performer, putting on plays and shows with her friends and family and of course always stealing the show. In the show I Love Lucy, she often jokes that her childhood nickname was “droopy drawers,” and sure enough, that detail is autobiographical. Many of the details of Lucy Ricardo’s life are identical to Lucille Ball’s.
I have many favorite episodes from the series. Of course, there’s “Job Switching,” when Lucy and Ethel end up working in a chocolate factory and eating more chocolate than they wrap. I also love “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which she accidentally becomes drunk on the disgusting Vitameatavegemin. Those are classic and always make me laugh.
But one that really had me laughing was “New Neighbors.” Ricky warns her not to bother the new neighbors as they move in, but she and Ethel can’t resist. So they go over and end up snooping through the apartment while the new couple is away. Lucy gets stuck in the closet when they come back. She overhears them speaking in Russian accents and plotting to blow up the city. She is frightened, and tries to sneak out under a chair’s slipcover. Of course, at one point the man sits on her. (And we know that the new neighbors are just rehearsing a play, not really double agents.) It really is a fantastic bit of physical comedy, at which Lucy was a pro.
Now, why do I love Lucy so much? Why do I have the words to the theme song memorized? Why, during the birth of my first child, did I bring Lucy videos to the hospital to watch? I am not sure, but I think I can identify with her frustrations with being “just a housewife.” When the show begins, she has no children, and yet, is expected to stay at home all day keeping house, anticipating Ricky’s arrival, and cooking meals. She is isolated and essentially suffering from the separation of the spheres, in which the industrialized and mechanized world removed most of the work from the home and allowed men to specialize in how to perform that labor, leaving women to stay at home with nothing to do and no skills to learn.
But Lucy wants to change all that. She believes she has show business skills, just like her husband. Consequently, each episode is a cartoonish attempt at fleeing the home to become a public star. She wants what her husband has, and allegorically, she can represent many of the women of her generation. Of course, each episode also ends with Lucy failing and ending right back where she belongs, with Ricky smiling condescendingly at his little wife, but the urge to change her circumstances is there. Hilarious or not, Lucille Ball tackled the desperation of a woman’s life and got it just right.
There’s one Lucy book that I own and haven’t read. It is Lucy in the Afternoon (1990) by Jim Brochu. I will get to it someday. I really will. I am not on a Lucy reading kick right now, but when the urge strikes me again, this will be the first book I pull out.
Certainly one of the greatest comic actors of our time — or any time.
Yes. I completely agree!
What’s not to love about Lucy? I would just add to your analysis at the end that Lucy’s comedy comes from trying to escape from domestic life. Looking at the historical context of the show, Lucy is of a generation of women who DID leave the home to work in the defense industries during the war. Many women of her generation worked in heavy manufacturing, farming, and even the armed forces to support the war effort.
Then their husbands, fathers and brothers came home, and they were expected to return to domestic work. Lucy represented all of those women who chafed at playing housewife after they’d proven themselves doing “men’s work.” And we love her for it!
Yes, exactly! And I think the show appeared enough years later that it didn’t offend anybody, but allowed them to just laugh, which is really sad in a way. It could’ve been more like a revolutionary call to take those jobs back, but I guess that comes another ten years later.
Great post and thanks for sharing a piece of you with “your love of Lucy.” She was such a comedic genius, that we often lose sight of how pretty she was. Your last book cover is a prime example as she is quite attractive in it. Yet, she also was a force to be reckoned and would not accept “no Desi” as answer from the network.The only comedian I have ever seen come close to her is Carol Burnett. “I love Lucy” as well. BTG
Thanks, BTG. She was a strong woman, and I think that comes through despite the supposedly submissive role she played in the show. We always knew who was really in charge, which I guess is where sexual innuendo comes in! Also, I wanted to tell you that I finally saw the movie of Les Mis last night. It was so moving and gorgeous and just perfect. I left the theater in tears and have spent the entire day humming the tunes.
I am glad you saw it. The music is so good in the play, it overshadows the storyline. The movie brought the social inequity home as well as letting us hear what the great music really means. As for Lucy, she like Barbra Streisand get dinged for doing as women what men have done – demanding excellence in the performance. I applaud her for standing up to folks to keep Desi, e.g. in the show. We are lucky to have watched her.
You are exactly right. The movie did bring out more of the social issues and made the story line more real to me than when I saw the play.
I’m forwarding to my college age daughter who also claims I Love Lucy as her favorite. It’s a laugh out loud show for her. I like it too and grew up on reruns.
BTW, I like your writing style…I think I’ve found someone who writes longer posts than me and that gives me comfort for some reason.
Ha! Those of us who write “long” need to stick together! I hope your daughter likes it. I’m glad to hear that she laughs out loud, too.
I have a friend who is crazy about her! I’m certainly sharing this to see what she thinks (:
Very cool. Thanks!
I loved your recap of the Lucy books; I’m a huge Lucy fan and grew up on the show! I’ve been looking for Desi’s book for a long time, my mom is very interested in reading it – she’s the one who got me hooked on I Love Lucy, and she’s been reading any Lucy/Desi material she can get her hands on. Wondering if you’d be interested in selling any of these books, specifically Desi’s? I’ve included my email in this post and would love to hear back either way. Thanks! 🙂
I’m not interested in selling them, but I know that your mom could probably find them on amazon. I think that’s where I found mine. Or try some used book stores. Good luck!