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Lucille Ball / Lucy Reconsidered

by Cary O'Dell

Lucy in I Love Lucy Ask anyone who's a fan of I Love Lucy - and by that I mean everyone in the world - what the basic premise of I Love Lucy is and you'll no doubt always get the same handful of answers.

From the most casual fan (if there is such a thing) to the most die-hard Lucy-head, everyone will say something along the lines of:

--Lucy dreams up some hair-brained scheme
--Lucy tells a lie
--Lucy jumps to conclusions
--Lucy wants to get into show business (and fails)

And while these summations do have some ring of truth to them, these generalizations - as most generalizations inevitably are - are actually surprisingly simplistic.

I Love Lucy Comic BookAn episode-by-episode review of all 180 plots of the classic series (a content analysis as the highfalutin' academics might call it), in the end presents a very different image of this beloved series and a surprising reassessment of a central character we all thought we knew so well.

Yes, throughout its six years on the air, Lucy Ricardo frequently found herself embroiled in a wide variety of outrageous and hilarious mishaps. Who could name them all (or, for that matter, forget any of them)? But for all her comedic antics, it bears mentioning that many of Lucy's most memorable misadventures - in fact some of her most classic scenes - were seldom her fault or of her own making.

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Lucille Ball in I Love LucyAfter all, it's not her fault that the candy on the conveyer belt zipped by at lighting speed, or that the woman she was stomping grapes with in Italy suddenly turned homicidal, or that the Vitameatavegamin turned out to be ninety proof.

Taking into account these factors, our lovable Lucy therefore becomes less the victim of her own naivete or unfocused energy and more, simply, the recipient of bad luck and bad timing. Moreover, the series itself becomes more the story of a woman at odds with nature and with the environment around her than one about a woman at war with herself.

Lucy and Ricky RicardoWhat is also often (always?) forgotten is how frequently many of these Lucy calamities are the result of some hair-brained scheme or web of lies dreamed up by Ricky rather than by Lucy.

While Lucy was known to stretch the truth from time to time (she tried to pass her head off as a clay sculpture in one episode pass fake flowers off as real in another), there are innumerable times throughout the series when Ricky's lack of truthfulness results in utter embarrassment for his wife.

Consider the time Ricky made his wife think that a burlap sack was a haute couture gown or, in the episode 'Redecorating,' when he tricked her into believing she'd won a contest for a new furniture, or when he and Fred took the girls golfing and made up all sorts of silly terms and rules in order to get them to quit.

For Ricky, the shenanigans listed above are, alas, only the beginning. Throughout the series' run, Mr. Ricardo hatched a variety of plans, or undertook some action, that ultimately ended in disaster.

I Love Lucy photoFor example, in the episode 'Inferiority Complex,' in order to get Lucy to feel better about herself, Ricky invites a psychologist over to the apartment but throws him out when the doc's flattery of Lucy makes Ricky jealous.

In 'The Courtroom,' Ricky and Fred's male egos clash over a television set and the two couples soon find themselves facing off in court. Ricky meanwhile proves himself completely absent-minded in 'Ricky Sells the Car,' when he unloads the foursome's vehicle in California and plans for everyone to take the train back to New York. Unfortunately, he forgets to buy any tickets for the Mertzs!

Interestingly though, more often than not, Ricky's foul-ups or examples of his duplicity, usually undertaken to teach Lucy a lesson, often end with Lucy getting the last word and upper hand over her husband.

I Love Lucy cast photoFor example, in 'The Gossip' the boys bet the girls that they can't go without gossiping but when it appears that the girls are going to win the bet, Ricky and Fred have to devise a sneaky scheme to get them to lose.

In 'Lucy's Schedule,' Ricky gets fed up with Lucy's lateness and sets her on a tight regiment. When Ricky later brags to his boss that his wife is as well-trained as a seal (!), Lucy invites the boss over for dinner and proceeds to show him just what living on a schedule means. With Ethel's help, Lucy stages a lightening fast dinner party that completely embarrasses Ricky and proves her point. (This episode contains the much-love scene of Lucy catching dinner rolls in a baseball mitt as she yells into the kitchen, "Okay, Ethel, let's have those biscuits!")

In a later episode, 'Equal Rights,' the boys attempt to make a point to the girls by refusing to pay for their wives' dinner resulting in Lucy and Ethel having to wash dishes. But, Lucy and Ethel have the last laugh when the guys - in their own wild scheme - pretend to be robbers to scare the ladies but instead manage to get themselves arrested.

I Love Lucy photoIn the end, the ladies have to go bail the boys out of the clink. A line of Ricky's dialogue from early in this episode, "I'm not arguing about women's rights. I agree that women should have all the rights they want, as long as they stay in their place," if taken out of context seems like the lead sentence to some article slamming the sexism of early TV until you consider how the episode ends and how the wives end up with all the power.

Even that classic sitcom staple of jumping to conclusions is not on I Love Lucy just the purview of Lucy. Though, yes, our redhead did from time to time do her share of premature jumping - as in the time she thought Ricky was trying to murder her - no one in this series is immune to making wrongful assumptions.

In 'The Kleptomaniac,' it's Ricky who jumps to the wrong conclusion when he becomes convinced Lucy is stealing. Ricky makes another wrongful assumption in another episode when he becomes convinced Lucy is expecting. Meanwhile, the episode titled 'Ricky Thinks He's Getting Bald' speaks for itself.

I Love Lucy cast photoEven the Mertzs get into the act sometimes. In the episode 'The Black Eye,' the Mertzs think that Lucy's recent shiner means Ricky is abusive only to find out later that Lucy's injury was purely accidental. And everyone jumps to conclusions in a few episodes. In 'Too Many Crooks' a cat burglar named Madame X makes everyone suspicious of each other. In 'Oil Wells,' the Ricardos and the Mertzs engage in a comedy of errors when they buy stock in some supposedly oil-rich land in Texas.

In 'Lucy Misses the Mertzs,' the Ricardos move to the country and leave their best friends behind in the city. When both couples decide to go visit the other, both mistake the other for burglars.

Of course, a great many I Love Lucy episodes are based on the premise Lucy wants to get into the show and Ricky says no. This is the basic plot of the following episodes: 'Lucy Does a TV Commercial' (which contains the classic Vitameatavegamin bit); 'Ricky's Screen Test;' 'Lucy Gets Into Pictures;' 'The Audition;' 'The Diet;' and 'The Ballet.'

I Love Lucy castWhat is seldom noted about the series though is that for every time Lucy fails in show business (she was not a very good singer, various episodes prove that, and she only knew one tune on the saxophone, 'Glow Worm,' for you trivia buffs) there are an equal number of episodes where, in that great sitcom tradition, Lucy saves the day by performing and stealing the show.

In 'Lucy and the Dummy' (one of the series' Hollywood episodes), Lucy tries to pass off a life-size dummy of Ricky as the real McCoy for some MGM executives. While her dance duet with the prop is a flop, the suits find her so funny they offer her a long-term contract.

Also in Hollywood, in 'The Dancing Star,' Lucy brags to rival Carolyn Appleby that she knows Van Johnson. Not wanting to end up with egg on her face, Lucy has to track down Van and then, to prove to Carolyn that the two are friends, has to plead with him to be in a dance number with her. Van goes along with the ruse and then later when his real partner can't do the number, it's Lucy to the rescue!

I Love Lucy comic bookFinally, in 'Ricky Loses His Voice,' Lucy performs at the Tropicana's reopening after Ricky comes down with laryngitis. With the help of Fred and Ethel, Lucy is a hit and the club is saved!

As often as Lucy breaking into show business, or someone jumping to conclusions, etc., was employed as a plot device for I Love Lucy, many of the show's best installments pivot on none of these basic plotlines.

In 'Lucy Gets Homesick' in Italy, one of the most touching episodes of the series, the comedy comes not out of any of Lucy's hijinks but out of broken elevators, hard hotel beds and Lucy's attempt to talk transcontinentally with Little Ricky back home.

In 'Little Ricky Gets a Dog,' trouble arises when the Ricardo's new pet might get forced out of their no pets allowed building. In 'Lucy Hires a Maid,' the comedy is based on the hiring of a new and very overbearing housekeeper, not on anything Lucy does.

So what does all this mean? Are we to gather, from all these examples, that Lucy Ricardo was not, in actual fact, the wacky redhead we've all come to think of her as? Was she not madcap, just misunderstood?

Well, to a certain extent, yes. Over the years innumerable writers of innumerable essays have described Lucy with an endless list of unkind pseudonyms for dumb and crazy. But, as is so often the case with how people (especially women) were portrayed on early TV, what we have been told, and what we remember, isn't always how they really were.

Lucille Ball in I Love LucyOn I Love Lucy, rather than being the instigator of outrageous acts or the dreamer of pipe dreams, in actuality Lucy was far more likely to simply be the victim of circumstance or of her husband's Latin machismo. A more detailed reading of this series fully recasts Lucy Ricardo, in our collective memories, transforming her from a will-o'-the-wisp to stunningly resilient survivor.

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(1951-1957):
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