The baby blue, mascara spiked eyes widens, the head tilts, the electric orange curls bob, and the wide, lipsticked mouth takes another teaspoon full of “Vitameatavegamin syrup.” The ever popular TV show, I Love Lucy, is back on the air with a new season of drama packed episodes. Ready to record the commercial that will propel her into show business, Lucy Ricardo downs the nutritional syrup, unaware that the product contains twenty-four percent alcohol. As she advertises the virtues of the product, her awareness slowly drifts away, and her face slips into a stupefied straight stare. The innocent, child-like Lucy is thoroughly drunk – and very funny. One of the most beloved housewives in media history manages to make a complete fool of herself once again and successfully enrages her husband.
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Lucille Ball was a comedienne, film, television, and radio actress, and the star of I Love Lucy. In 1951, the first episode of I Love Lucy, “Lucy Thinks Ricky is Trying to Do Away with Her” aired on public television; it became an instant favorite for viewers around the nation. What Lucille Ball achieved, however, had much more lasting impact. On top of being the “first woman in television to be head of a production company,” Lucille Ball became a pioneer that brought about the “Golden Age of Television.” Due to the success of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball managed to establish television as a viable medium of entertainment in an era where media is dominated by filming industries; before I Love Lucy came about, television was mostly used as a means of keeping in touch. Not only did Ball change the face of television, she paved the path for future female actresses. Lucille Ball’s unique sense of humor, acquired through her own experiences, shaped the modern world of entertainment and left an irreplaceable mark on society.
Unlike her famous situation comedy alter ego Lucy Ricardo, Lucille Ball was not at all naive and clumsy. “By the time I Love Lucy went on air in 1951, Ball was over forty and had been in show business, playing mostly glamour roles, for twenty years.” Lucille Ball was born on August 6th, 1911 in Jamestown, New York. She lost her father, who was a mining engineer, at the age of four. Her mother, who was a concert pianist, encouraged her into the field of entertainment. At the age of 15, Lucille Ball pursued her dreams of becoming a part of vaudeville in John Murray Anderson Dramatic School. But unfortunately for her, by the time she hit New York City the era of vaudeville was over or as Ball said it “Vaudeville was dead, but I didn’t know it!” Forced to live on doughnuts and coffee, Ball managed to make ends meet as a model and showgirl. Unsatisfied with her current living style, Ball managed to pull some string with an old friend and hooked up with an agent looking for support actresses in comedy routines and plays. Over the course of the next few years, Ball worked on many productions such as Room Service with the Marx Brothers. She was willing to work all sorts of parts that other female actresses did not want to take. “They knew I’d run, I’d scream, I’d fall – I’d do what I was asked to do.” () Because of her willingness to learn how to act, she landed parts in The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and most male comics. Some of the unconventional parts that Ball took caused her to have a much more unconventional sense of humor in her later works. This marked a period of tremendous growth in Ball’s comedic style and image. She was becoming someone recognizable and likeable – a personality “type.”
Lucille Ball’s first major recognized work came in 1947. She was chosen as the lead actress for a radio show called My Favorite Husband, which was sponsored by CBS. Her experiences on My Favorite Husband contributed greatly to Ball’s style of humor and I Love Lucy. Through the radio show, Ball learned the basic elements of timing her lines to laughs coming from a live audience. She also developed a combination of “slapstick with both sexuality and domesticity.” () This set Ball apart from most previous American women film comedians; it was common for women in slapstick to be a support “prop”, victims of male-initiated comedy, or “star grotesques who had neither conventional sexual allure nor the prospect of social normalization through marriage. ” () Lucille Ball became one of the first female comedians to have connections with the domestic – Ball gave off the similar feeling of being a part of the family.
In 1940, Lucille Ball fell in love and eloped with touring Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. They moved in together, married, and began a sequence of events that led to I Love Lucy. Because of the couple’s busy careers, they were frequently separated month at a time. Their marriage slowly fell apart. At that time Lucille Ball was offered by CBS to transfer her radio show My Favorite Husband to television. Ball, seeing this as an opportunity to patch up her marriage, brought her husband into the television show as the male lead. Thus I Love Lucy debuted on CBS in October 1951 and became an instant sensation. “Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration in January 1953 drew twenty-nine million viewers, but when Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky in an episode broadcast the next day forty-four million viewers (72% of all U.S. homes with TV) tuned in to I Love Lucy.”
I Love Lucy is arguably the TV show that had most influence on modern television media culture. Television in the 1950s was purely a domestic medium – always showing images of marriage and family. The story of I Love Lucy reflected the couple’s own family life in the funhouse mirror of a sitcom premise. Lucy, played by Lucille Ball, is a “frustrate housewife who longs to escape the confinement of her domestic role and participate in a larger public world,” especially that of her husband Ricky, the leader of the Tropicana nightclub. Conflicts arise when Lucy’s desire to go beyond the roles of a housewife clash with Ricky’s equally passionate belief of a traditional housewife. This dynamic is established in the very first episode – when Lucy disguises herself as a clown and sneaks into Ricky’s nightclub act. In all the consequent episodes following, Lucy rebels against the restrictions placed on the lives of domestic women, the boring routines of cooking and housework, taking care of the children, and the financial dependence upon the husband. Each episode centers upon Lucy’s acts of rebellion – taking jobs, performing at clubs, making money-making schemes, or trying to fool Ricky – are all in attempts to expose the absurd restrictions placed on women in a male-dominated society. Sadly, because of the era, her attempts are forever thwarted in every episode. By entering the public domain, Lucy inevitably makes a mess of things and is forced to retreat and return to the status quo of domestic life that is picked up in the next episode. However the message left by Lucy remains in the consciousness of viewers for the times to come. Ball’s style of comedy played a great role in conveying this message to the general audience. As a mere comedian – from the perspective of an outsider – such a message would probably not get much consideration. However, Ball’s type of domestic comedy allowed to her to much more than an outsider; in fact, the character Lucy is considered by many people as part of the family. Ball was able to get past the emotional barrier that many other comedians could not. Lucille Ball’s use of quick witted situational ironies combined with her position as an “insider” allows the much male-dominated audience to slowly accept the idea of women playing a more active role and having more power in society.
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On top of fighting for women rights, Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy reached many milestones that became pivotal in shaping modern television. Programs before I Love Lucy were aired live from New York City studios to Eastern and Central time zone audiences. It was captured by kinescope for the viewers in the West Coast. Kinescope pictures’ quality was dramatically less than films. However, Ball and Arnaz took advantage of the movie industry filming techniques and captured their series on film. CBS allowed the couple to go through with their idea; in exchange for a cut in their salary, Ball and Arnaz gained one hundred percent ownership to the series. The idea of reruns had not been established or tested during her time, but Ball bet on the inevitable growth of television and ended up with huge returns – an investment that quickly turned Ball and Arnaz into the first millionaire television stars.
Lucille Ball has certainly left her mark on our society. Not only is she a pioneer in the struggle for equality amongst men and women, she shaped modern television into what we know today. Her title “Queen of Comedy” is well deemed. Along with her “Living Legend Award” and “Legacy of Laughter Award,” Lucille Ball paved the path for future female comedians to take stage. Anyone who has ever seen I Love Lucy will forever remember Ball’s signature laugh and her clumsiness which often times lead her into silly situations. Lucille Ball will forever be glorified in the hearts of Americans.
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