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Lucille Ball: Genius or Overrated?


AndreaDoria
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On the "Golden Age thread, TopBilled said:

 

 

But apparently Phil [silvers] was not a traditional comedian but rather a comic actor, and his off-camera/off-stage demeanor was rather serious. A few years back, I had read that about Lucille Ball, too.

 

I've heard that about Ball and noticed how dry and  humorless she seems in interviews.  I've never been a big fan of  slapstick, physical comedy so I wasn't a loyal watcher of  "I Love Lucy," although I do chuckle at some of her more famous scenes.  It was my favorite show when I was a little girl but, as I got older, it seemed more and more irritating to me until I just saw a repetitive show about a spoiled self-centered woman who acted like a child. (Blasphemy, I know!)

 

It always surprises me to hear women comedians say that she was their greatest inspiration, when there were women like Carol Burnette who had a much wider range and could ad-lib comedy when needed.

 

I guess Lucy was the best at what she does and if that's your thing then you will love Lucy.

 

I know we have some huge Lucy fans here -- so defend!

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I wouldn't say that I'm her biggest fan but I do enjoy her movies and I've seen all her TV shows except for the unfortunate venture with John Ritter at the end of her career. However, there is no denying that she knew how to act funny. She committed to her bits but seemed to know when to pull back. And she headed her own studio and knew good talent. You may not enjoy her antics as Lucy Ricardo and other characters, but there's a lot to admire about her.

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There's a comment by Dick Cavett floating around on the internet, probably from some print article, where he complained that Lucy was not very spontaneous when she was a guest on his talk show. In fact, I believe he went so far as to say she was the most unfunny guest he ever had on his program. But maybe she was having an 'off' day or maybe Cavett was overly critical.

 

This said, my understanding of her is that all her best work-- the funny bits writers invented for her to do on her various sitcoms and specials-- it was all spelled out. In Coyne Sanders' book, there is a comment that supposedly when she received a teleplay, she would scan it not for dialogue but for what they called the 'funny business' in the stage directions. She liked to perform stunts and play active scenes that would make the audience laugh. It was her particular brand of entertainment, and it was a formula that was very successful for her over the years.

 

If they wrote, Lucy gets stuck on the ledge with Superman, that is exactly what she did, without ad libbing, because she trusted the concept as written on the page, and the laughs came from the concept. As for her being an interview guest on talk shows, well it just wasn't a format that she did well. But she is judged for the things she did well in other formats. I'd like to see Cavett do all those successful weekly shows, running a studio and overseeing a television empire-- oh, and raising two teenagers at the same time. Who can be hysterically funny on a talk show with all that in the back of her mind.

 

And getting back to Phil Silvers as relates to this topic, he guest-starred in an episode of The Lucy Show in the 60s. (Season 5, Episode 13, available on Hulu.) He plays an efficiency expert that monitors Lucy's progress on an assembly line at a toy factory. Yes, it's a recycling of the chocolate candy assembly line plot from I Love Lucy. But it's interesting to watch, because we have two pros like Phil & Lucy who are acting out a madcap comedy scene (instead of improvising it), and it's precisely timed and played. All of Lucy's work was well-rehearsed. And the episode with Phil seems especially well-rehearsed. They were perfectionists who delivered the goods. 

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It's not a case of "either, or" with Lucille Ball. She was simply good at what she did, which was entertaining people. She continues to entertain today, mainly through I Love Lucy. As some evidence, most of my college students could not identify pictures of major stars like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, or even Ronald Reagan (You can't identify a President???). But most of them identified Lucille Ball (with John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe also recognizable to many of them).

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Heh......

 

The sad thing about most comedians( or comediennes  in Lucy's case) is that most people (who don't know any better) expect them to ALWAYS be "on".  Not realizing there is a difference between being genuinely funny and being very good at comic delivery.  The difference between Lucy and say, her good friend BOB HOPE was that Lucy was funny in a television situation comedy , whereas Hope had years of stage experience in comic delivery. MUCH different from the delivery done on film for a television show.  And Hope WAS considered as being very funny during interviews.  I suppose after that many years of delivering comic material over and over again for several perormances, you do develope and acquire both a knack for impromptu comedy, and a large "vault" of material from which to draw. 

 

I once saw Ms. Ball on local movie host BILL KENNEDY's show for an interview, and she wasn't all that funny either.  However, i DID laugh when she, at the spot Kennedy brought up Desi Arnaz, said that "Desi is a loser!"  She explained what she meant, as many would think of Desi otherwise due to his personal success with the "I Love Lucy" show and DESILU, but she was more or less referring to his inability to hang on to that which should be most important to him.  In both life AND business.

 

It's funny too, that you brought up a comparison to CAROL BURNETT as an influence.   Carol has often over the years claimed Ball as a HUGE influence on her, and also had a years long and close friendship with Lucy.  Which is to say, If some young and "up and coming" comedienne claims "Carol Burnett was a HUGE influence on me.."  You could say that vicariously, Lucy was too.

 

 

Sepiatone

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I am not a fan of slapstick comedy so I Love Lucy was never must-see-TV for me but I did appreciate the terrific rapport of the 4 stars.  From an historical perspective, I have always marveled at what a production visionary Desi Arnaz was.  As I got older, I wasn't crazy about the character of Lucy Ricardo always playing "the fool" to her wiser spouse though I could still appreciate the talent of Lucille Ball. Frankly, I have always much preferred Lucille Ball, film actress (save, Mame!) to her TV personna.  She is absolutely wonderful in Five Came Back, Lured and The Dark Corner.

 

As for Lucille Ball being humorless and cranky in "real life," that is no surprise.  Many, many comedians are the direct opposite of the "happy go lucky" characters they play.  I've shot a lot of comedians and when the camera is off, they generally go silent and sulky.  They are, after all folks, ACTORS and no one should expect their actual personalities to mirror their film/TV images.

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I think Lucy is a major comedienne, but I also think a fair amount of credit should go to Desi Arnaz, who helped make "I.L.L." the success that it was. At a certain point on "The Lucy Show", with Desi not there guiding, Lucy floundered.

I interrupt this very interesting thread to hopefully finally put an end to at least ONE of my major "grammar peeves".----

 

The word EuginiaH really needed to use up there was "FOUNDERED"  which can mean many things, but in this case, can also mean: "to fail utterly; collapse"

 

Unless she meant to imply that Ms. Ball dove into the water and lay on the bottom on her side.

 

I don't think so.....:D

 

Sepiatone

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I interrupt this very interesting thread to hopefully finally put an end to at least ONE of my major "grammar peeves".----

 

The word EuginiaH really needed to use up there was "FOUNDERED" which can mean many things, but in this case, can also mean: "to fail utterly; collapse"

 

Unless she meant to imply that Ms. Ball dove into the water and lay on the bottom on her side.

 

I don't think so.....:D

 

Sepiatone

That was PRECISELY what I meant, Sepiatone. ;)

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I think Lucy is a major comedienne, but I also think a fair amount of credit should go to Desi Arnaz, who helped make "I.L.L." the success that it was. At a certain point on "The Lucy Show", with Desi not there guiding, Lucy foundered.

But she had Gary (second husband Gary Morton) to help guide her productions at that time. While Gary was not the visionary Desi was, I think he had good instincts. And he anchored Lucille and her children tremendously during those years. If you look at The Mothers-in-Law, a fairly decent sitcom Desi did in the late 60s with Eve Arden & Kaye Ballard, it is clear that without Lucy he was not going to have a long-running hit.

 

The Arnazes had developed a formula, but she could carry on with top writers, a new husband and big name guest stars (and she knew it). But the reverse was not true-- Desi could not really carry on successfully in the business without her. It's a star-driven medium, and she was the star.

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The way I look at Lucille Ball ;     she was  quite a talented all around performer who struggled for a long time in Hollywood , trying to make a name for herself and also find that certain  image that she could best project. As has often been said, the studio bosses recognized her talents but never quite knew what to do with her, how to cast her. Her career could have gone in several directions,  for example I believe she could have been a very good serious dramatic actress.  She didn't start out to be a comedienne. But in the 30's and 40's  she was cast in a number of films working opposite the comics of the day, just being the attractive straight girl character.  So she learned from those experiences and started to play more  of the comedic parts. I believe Carol Lombard was a big influence on Lucy at that time.  Lucy really got more into comedy with some of her work in radio. One of those popular radio shows evolved into TV's "I Love Lucy". By that time Lucy (in her 40's) had the comedy bits down, and she loved doing the pratfalls that worked so well on TV.  Her husband Desi was the very savvy businessman and Lucy learned a lot about that as well.  When they later separated Lucy was a very capable businesswoman herself. She always was a hard worker, when I watch some of her later tv shows I marvel at her physical performances and energy, she was in her late 50's early 60's.  She was undeniably a pioneer, and  a huge influence on later comediennes , Carol Burnett just being one of many.   I'm not sure if I would call Lucy a "genius" but very few people worked harder at their    craft and achieved the success that Lucy did. She should  never  be thought of as "overrated".

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Whether it's a matter of opinion as to who you find funny or not funny (I love Lucille Ball, but can't stand Phil Silvers, for example), I don't think that matters in terms of Lucille Ball.  Lucille Ball was definitely not overrated and deserved every success she had.  She worked hard to get where she was and she was genuinely talented.  To criticize her because she wasn't funny or wacky in interviews is not fair.

 

Growing up in Jamestown, New York, Lucille Ball had one dream: to be an actress.  She, (with her brother and cousin) would put on plays and regularly visited the small local theater with their grandfather.  When Lucy was 15, her family moved and she entered a new high school, which she hated.  She kept running away, to Chicago, Cleveland, anywhere she could go.  Eventually her mother decided that if her daughter was intent on running away, that she'd at least guide her onto a path.  Knowing of her daughter's desire to be an actress, her mother enrolled her in a prestigious Dramatic Arts school in New York City.  Lucy started school there, but quickly found herself overwhelmed and struggling.  The star student in her class was Bette Davis.  Lucy's instructor even went as far as to write to Lucy's mother and inform her that she was wasting her money and that Lucy wasn't suited for a career in acting.  Lucy ended up leaving the school, but she stayed in New York City, determined to make it as an actress.  She struggled to find work in order to have money for food and shelter.  She eventually found work as a model, modeling hats and fur coats.  She ended up coming down with rheumatoid arthritis.  It took her two years to recover from this illness.  

 

In 1930, she returned to New York City and managed to find work in a few small plays around town.  She also became the latest Chesterfield cigarette girl.  In 1933, she was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout who was looking for a new crop of Goldwyn Girls to portray slave girls in Eddie Cantor's latest film, Roman Scandals.  She moved out to Hollywood.  In Roman Scandals, Cantor needed a girl for a physical comedy stunt.  The stunt involved mud and none of the girls would do it.  However, Lucy would.  She didn't care and she just wanted the work.  So she got the stunt.  After Roman Scandals, Lucy appeared in tons of uncredited roles which segued into small bit parts.  She portrays a model in Roberta and a flower shop clerk in Top Hat (just to name a few of her small roles).  In her autobiography, Love Lucy, Lucy states that she took on any role the studio would offer to her, stating that no matter how bad the film was, there was always a learning opportunity.  She would never turn down a chance to learn.  

 

After a few years of small parts (but nothing that was going to be her big "break"), Lucy scored a supporting role in the A-list production, Stage Door, with Katharine Hepburn and her friend, Ginger Rogers.  Her work in this film led to better roles in bigger pictures.  Lucy got her first starring role in the B-list film, The Affairs of Annabel.  She also made a sequel, Annabel Takes a Tour.  There was supposed to be a series of 'Annabel' films, but co-star Jack Oakie made salary demands after the second film and the studio decided to suspend plans for the series.  While the 'Annabel' films were not A-list productions, they did allow for Lucy to perform more physical comedy, work that she enjoyed.  She also proved herself an adept dramatic actress with roles in films like The Dark Corner, Lured, Five Came Back and The Big Street.  

 

In the 1940s, Lucy left RKO and signed a contract with MGM.  It was MGM's hairstylist, Sydney Guilaroff (sp?) that gave Lucy her trademark red hair that she'd have the rest of her life.  She appeared in many Technicolor MGM films during the early 1940s, but none of these roles launched her onto the A-list.  She did score supporting roles in big productions, like in Without Love with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  

 

By the late 1940s, Lucy turned her attention to radio.  She was heard every week in CBS' series, My Favorite Husband with Richard Denning.  This show is pretty much the radio precursor to I Love Lucy as Lucy's character, Liz Cooper, was very similar to Lucy Ricardo.  My Favorite Husband also had the same writing staff that Lucy would later bring to I Love Lucy.  In fact, many of I Love Lucy's earlier plot lines were revised versions of My Favorite Husband episodes.  

 

By 1950, television was becoming the next hot thing and CBS wanted to bring Lucy's successful My Favorite Husband to television.  Lucy agreed, however, she insisted on real-life husband Desi Arnaz co-starring with her.  CBS refused, stating that American audiences wouldn't approve of a marriage between a white American and a Latino.  Lucy and Desi produced a pilot episode, but CBS was not impressed.  Undeterred and determined to prove the network wrong, Lucy and Desi worked up a vaudeville routine (including elements from their pilot episode) and took the act out on the road.  Their act was a great success and CBS agreed to pick up their show.

 

In 1951, Lucy and Desi went to work on their new series.  Desi knew that Lucy's talents were best showcased when she performed in front of a live audience.  He had a soundstage retrofitted with bleachers and other necessary equipment to hold an audience of 300 or so people.  He was also dissatisfied with the current kinoscope process for television production.  It was blurry and poor quality.  CBS wanted Lucy and Desi to move to New York and perform their show live so that the majority of the country would get the best quality.  Those on the West Coast would have to settle for the blurry, poor quality feed.  Desi said no, he and Lucy wanted to stay in California.  He suggested filming the series on 35mm film, like what is done in the film production.  CBS balked at the increased cost and Lucy and Desi offered to take a cut in pay to accommodate the increased production costs.  Desi worked with the Academy Award winning cinematographer, Karl Freund, to figure out a lighting concept for the stage and to also develop a camera that could pick up the same scene from three different angles but also not impede the audience's view of the action.  The filming techniques that Desi and Karl Freund developed are still in use in television production today.  

 

I Love Lucy was a phenomenon in the 1950s and Lucy and Desi were the biggest stars in the country.  While Desi's amazing business acumen played a major role in getting I Love Lucy on television (and making him a television pioneer in his own right), it was Lucy that was responsible for much of its success.  Her amazing sense of timing and expressive face could make even the most mundane action funny.  She was smart to surround herself with writers that were skilled and most importantly, knew how to write for her.  She was trusted her writers and never played the diva role.  If they wrote some preposterous bit of physical comedy, Lucy would perform it without hesitation.  How many actresses would allow for honey to be poured on their hair? Or dance with five dozen eggs down their blouse? Lucy was the first person to admit that she wasn't funny.  She needed her writers to write for her.  

 

However, I don't think Lucy's lack of a naturally comedic personality should be held against her.  Not everyone would be able to carry out these wacky schemes and make them believable.  While it is unlikely that I would ever end up falling into a starch vat at the laundry, it makes sense how Lucy got there.  Of course, this is a testament to the writing staff's skills as storytellers, but Lucy deserves credit for making each step believable.  With every reaction, hand movement, etc. Lucy deserves the credit for bringing Lucy Ricardo to life.  She was also benefited by having such a fantastic supporting cast, like Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley.  I agree with other assessments, that after Lucy and Desi divorced, the quality of her later television shows weren't quite as good as I Love Lucy.  The Lucy Show is still entertaining.  Desi produced the first season, because she wanted to ensure Lucy's show would be a success.  She also still had many of her I Love Lucy staff employed on this show as well.

 

Regardless of how someone feels about Lucy's style of comedy, she deserves every bit of acclaim that she has received.  She worked her way up from nothing to being a beloved icon of television.  How many people can say that their show has been on the air, somewhere in the world, for over 60 years without ever leaving the air? CBS would have never given Lucy a chance if she hadn't proven to be talented on My Favorite Husband.  She would have never gotten the role on the radio show if she hadn't proven that she could carry a radio show, via all her film work.  After Desi's semi-retirement in 1962, Lucille Ball became the first female executive at a major studio.  She was the one responsible for bringing shows like Star Trek to air.  Lucille Ball is the one who discovered Carol Burnett.  When Burnett ended up being offered the chance to create a one-shot variety show (for CBS before her long running variety series), she had to find a "big" star to appear.  Lucy jumped at the opportunity to support Burnett.  Lucy is also the one who encouraged TCM's Robert Osborne to pursue a career in writing about movies and stars.  

 

I Love Lucy and always will.  She's a role model for never giving up and is an example of where you can get if you're willing to work hard for it.  

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 To criticize her because she wasn't funny or wacky in interviews is not fair.

 

Lucy is often held up as the greatest comedienne of all time and I happen to think that to deserve that title you need to be actually funny in more than just one aspect.  Lucy delivered the goods as a comic actress in the broad, style of her shows . I personally find them tedious, but I recognize that others loved the shows.  Fine, but I don't think her body of work holds a candle  to Betty White's talent and wit, Gracie Allen's lovability, Madeline Kahn's unique characters,  Lily Tomlin's originality, Mary Tyler Moore's subtle  believability, etc. 

 

Yes Lucy was big in early television and she and her husband were rich,  powerful people in those years. Like most actors with long careers, we can say  she worked hard all her life.  None of that makes her the  funniest woman ever.

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Lucy is often held up as the greatest comedienne of all time and I happen to think that to deserve that title you need to be actually funny in more than just one aspect. Lucy delivered the goods as a comic actress in the broad, style of her shows . I personally find them tedious, but I recognize that others loved the shows. Fine, but I don't think her body of work holds a candle to Betty White's talent and wit, Gracie Allen's lovability, Madeline Kahn's unique characters, Lily Tomlin's originality, Mary Tyler Moore's subtle believability, etc.

 

Yes Lucy was big in early television and she and her husband were rich, powerful people in those years. Like most actors with long careers, we can say she worked hard all her life. None of that makes her the funniest woman ever.

I adore Gracie Allen (I never resist responding to a post that mentions Gracie Allen), but just imho I think she and LB did completely different comedy. Gracie's skill was in "illogical logic" and did not do slapstck. But both women were excellent at their craft. I don't have a vote on who was the all-time best...

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I just watched Lucy and the Efficiency Expert on Hulu, the episode with her and Phil Silvers. Just as great as I had remembered it. These shows were so well-written and played. 

 

My personal favourite sitcom of hers is the next one, Here's Lucy, because while she was still doing the scatterbrained routine that made her famous, she was humanised more due to the interactions with her own real-life children as the kids in the series. Plus, I think by that point, she and Gale had truly perfected their comedy partnership.

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I adore Gracie Allen (I never resist responding to a post that mentions Gracie Allen), but just imho I think she and LB did completely different comedy. Gracie's skill was in "illogical logic" and did not do slapstck. But both women were excellent at their craft. I don't have a vote on who was the all-time best...

Yeah, you said it.  It IS an "apples and oranges" discussion when attempting to compare the two wonderful ladies.

 

I'm also willing to bet the two also had a mutual admiration for one another, and were probably friends at some point.

 

It's a testament that even in these times, I occasionally run across some mid 20's and younger men and women, who somehow, somewhere got exposed to the work of these two outstanding comediennes (of course, I LOVE LUCY is STILL always on TV somewhere, and their learning of Gracie is still somewhat of a mystery) and will say things like, "I wish there were women on TV and in movies NOW who were as funny as they were!"

 

Both my daughters adore Gracie too.  They're in their 40's and got to know Gracie when in the early days of cable in our area, the fledgling NICKLELODEON showed old BURNS AND ALLEN reruns.  They fell in love with her right quick, and each now possess several DVDs of old shows and watch them regularily.

 

Sepiatone

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Yeah, you said it.  It IS an "apples and oranges" discussion when attempting to compare the two wonderful ladies.

 

I'm also willing to bet the two also had a mutual admiration for one another, and were probably friends at some point.

 

It's a testament that even in these times, I occasionally run across some mid 20's and younger men and women, who somehow, somewhere got exposed to the work of these two outstanding comediennes (of course, I LOVE LUCY is STILL always on TV somewhere, and their learning of Gracie is still somewhat of a mystery) and will say things like, "I wish there were women on TV and in movies NOW who were as funny as they were!"

 

Both my daughters adore Gracie too.  They're in their 40's and got to know Gracie when in the early days of cable in our area, the fledgling NICKLELODEON showed old BURNS AND ALLEN reruns.  They fell in love with her right quick, and each now possess several DVDs of old shows and watch them regularily.

 

Sepiatone

Gracie of the movies was more of a "dumb broad" character but if you listen to her on her tv show, her misinterpretations could be really clever. There were great writers on that series, including George Burns and his brother Willie. Even though Gracie needed writers, the writers needed her to pull the material off.

 

Getting back to Lucy, I remember reading a quote from Desi, "If anything happens to her we're all in the shrimp business!"

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Gracie of the movies was more of a "dumb broad" character but if you listen to her on her tv show, her misinterpretations could be really clever. There were great writers on that series, including George Burns and his brother Willie. Even though Gracie needed writers, the writers needed her to pull the material off.

 

Getting back to Lucy, I remember reading a quote from Desi, "If anything happens to her we're all in the shrimp business!"

 

To me comparing comics is more challenging then comparing actors.  If I had to relate this to another profession I would choose Director;   How much of the final 'product' is the comic or director responsible for.

 

I feel there is a difference between a comic ACTOR verses a stand-up comedian that writes the majority of their own material.   Also how naturally funny someone is,  is best determined by interviews or other non-scripted type shows (e.g.  You Bet Your Life).  

 

Lucy was one of the top comic actors but only so-so as a ad-hoc type comic.    I also love Lucy in non comic acting roles.   I watched The Dark Corner again last night on MOVIES-TV and with each viewing the film gets better and better.    Also saw Stage Door when TCM showed this a few weeks ago.    Wow what a film.    Right up there with The Women as it relates to a group of gals being, well a group of gals!

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The two comediennes had one thing in common: a brilliant sense of timing.  That is a gift that can't be taught, IMHO, whether timing one-liners or a slapstick pratfall.

 

I agree that both Lucy and Gracie had a brilliant sense of comic timing.   That is an acting skill each had in spades.  

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I think Lucy is a major comedienne, but I also think a fair amount of credit should go to Desi Arnaz, who helped make "I.L.L." the success that it was. At a certain point on "The Lucy Show", with Desi not there guiding, Lucy floundered.

Desi was actually quite funny. I've watched I Love Lucy for many, many years and just recently started to pay more attention to Desi's antics, facial expressions, etc.

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