This post is part of a Loving Lucy Blogathon at True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, celebrating the 100th birthday of Lucille Ball.
For more articles from this site on the early film work of Ball, CLICK HERE.
When Carol Burnett spoke at the arts college where I was teaching, she stated her TV show wasn’t so much television as it was videotaped theatre: it was performed to a live audience in real time with very few closeups or retakes, etc.
Similarly, the comedy in I LOVE LUCY was also grounded in performance, with very little of the laughs generated by the filmmaking per se. The camera moves and editing basically supported the narrative and the performance aesthetics of each episode. A wise arrangement since key players had strong, established talents rooted in stage performance. William Frawley had started in vaudeville, where he introduced the song My Melancholy Baby. Before LUCY, Vivian Vance worked on Broadway, including three original Cole Porter musicals. And Desi Arnaz had taken his band on the road for years, performing in nightclubs and concert venues.
Aside from her early gigs as a model and chorus girl, Lucille Ball’s talent developed on the screen. Her considerable (and generally unsung) skills as an actress had been developed during her tenure at RKO, where she rose from walk-on parts to hitting flawless notes as the sexually-generous Peggy in the Nathanael West-scripted FIVE CAME BACK and the powerhouse stripper Tiger Lily in the Lesbian-directed, proto-feminist DANCE, GIRL, DANCE. Although she attributed learning comic acting to studying Carole Lombard’s screen comedies (very much in evidence by her animated hand gestures situated close to the head accompanying rapid, wide-eyed line delivery), Ball’s biggest lessons in physical comedy were from hands-on coaching at her next studio, M-G-M, by her coach, Buster Keaton.
Keaton had been under contract to Metro when one of his actions angered studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Mayer killed Keaton’s onscreen career (contrary to popular belief, the end of silent movies didn’t cause his disappearance from the screen — Keaton enjoyed success in sound films, but was blackballed from performing after disobeying his orders); yet he was kept under contract to work in various capacities around the studio. Ball was sent to him as part of her rotation in star-grooming, where Keaton instructed her in physical comedy including teaching her how to build props.
The Keaton aesthetic of wide shots that emphasized the physicality of humor was never used to Ball’s advantage during her M-G-M days. It would take Desi Arnaz’ innovation of photographing a live performance simultaneously by three movie cameras to merge these skills into the twenty-year-plus run of Ball’s several TV series, which were carried by the laughter-inducing qualities of Lucy’s performances.
With one exception: the 86th episode of I LOVE LUCY that aired on March 1, 1954, entitled “Home Movies”.
In “Home Movies” the medium was the message. The A-Plot / B-Plot setup was simple: Ricky bought a movie camera to record Little Ricky’s every move, regularly screening seemingly unending reels of home movie footage to the eroding support of his sole audience, Lucy and the Mertzes. At one evening’s show, when Lucy dozed off and the Mertzes sneaked out, Ricky was miffed and wouldn’t allow the rest of the gang to participate in the TV pilot he was filming. Wanting in on the show, Lucy used Ricky’s camera to shoot her own TV pilot with the Mertzes and then spliced it into Ricky’s pilot.
The result: Lucy Ricardo, Film Editor, created the first New Wave film of 623 East 68th Street.
Part Joseph Cornell’s ROSE HOBART, part AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS, the biggest laughs in this episode are generated by the edits of the movie-in-a-movie. The episode’s editor, Bud Molin, also cut Orson Welles’ Desilu-produced / Peabody-winning TV drama THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH which told its story via radical editing tropes such as jumpcuts, overdubs, swish-pans and animated still photos.
Heightening the experience were the Kuleshovian reaction shots of Lucy and Ricky as the film unreeled onscreen. Lit and framed in a way that tells us they could only have been shot after the audience had left, these frontal reaction shots are among the most in-your-face images of the entire series. Their reactions, cut in when they were, didn’t serve the purpose of audience identification with Ricky’s rage or Lucy’s contrition as much as using their faces as dialectic objects in the design scheme.
It’s a good thing this episode had such a maverick ploy: otherwise the script was one of the weakest in the series. The punchlines were conspicuously below-par while the narrative stakes weren’t nearly as developed as in other episodes. Combining these qualities with an alternative structure where the episode’s narrative and comedic peak is a lengthy non-dialog movie screening, it makes me wonder if there was a writers’ strike going on at Desilu.
Out of its entire six-year run, this LUCY episode was the biggest move outside the box: the Ricardos were design elements more than characters and the biggest laughs came from classic Soviet-style film techniques. Despite its sobriquet alluding to hearth and domesticity, “Home Movies” lived in the least familiar outpost of the Lucy-Desi empire.