Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Century of Lucy

"The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age."

Lucille Ball (1911–1989)

Historians have called the 20th century "the American century" because of all the world–changing developments that took place here.

I think it could easily be called the century of Lucy.

Lucille Ball would have been 100 years old today, and I have to believe she is just about as popular now as she was in her lifetime. Good comedy never goes out of style or becomes obsolete, and Lucy is still making 'em laugh.

You could say that Lucy was an expert on comedy. She led some comedy workshops and worked with some of the most talented performers of her time — and she observed once that comedy was something that could not be taught. You either had it or you didn't.

It goes without saying that she had it.

It also goes without saying, I suppose, that there were many changes during Lucy's lifetime, but here is something that might put it all into some kind of perspective. The world in which Lucy was born had automobiles but no electric traffic lights. The first one was installed the day before her third birthday.

It is tempting to believe that Lucy was always the beloved figure that she is now — but it wasn't always easy. She faced many challenges in her life. She lost her father before her fourth birthday. For a time, she was cared for by her stepfather's parents.

There were several Lucys, actually. There was the Lucy who began acting in movies and radio when she was in her 20s and blossomed into a star in her 30s. There was the Lucy who was probably TV's biggest star when she was in her 40s. Then, in her 50s, 60s and 70s, she divided her time between television and the movies.

Eventually, it added up to one of the longest careers in show business history — not too shabby for a girl who became America's most popular TV star playing a wannabe actress.

She was one of those women who always looked younger than she was — and appeared to do so effortlessly, although it must have been harder for her to achieve as she aged. Few people probably knew that she was in her 40s when I Love Lucy was the top–rated TV show in America.

She was almost 40 when she had her first child, Lucie, in 1951, about three months before the debut of I Love Lucy. Her second child, Desi Arnaz Jr., was born a year and a half later, after the show was a bona fide hit.

In fact, Lucy's pregnancy was written into the script, and the pre–recorded episode in which her character gave birth to a boy aired on the very day she gave birth to her real–life son.

There were many elements of Lucy's life that she worked into her show. Lucy's marriage to her co–star, Desi Arnaz Sr., for example, was a rich source of material for the Lucy–Ricky relationship on I Love Lucy — although, in reality, it was a sensitive subject. Not because of the mixed–race aspect but because Lucy was actually six years older than Desi.

In those days, marriages between older women and younger men were not socially acceptable.

(There was an age discrepancy in my own family — between my mother's parents — that my parents didn't discover until both of my grandparents were deceased. The difference between them was only a little more than a year, but all their lives they claimed to have been born in the same year, whittling the difference to only a couple of months, which was socially excusable.)

Until they were outed, Lucy and Desi split the difference and told people they were both born in 1914.

Although the age disparity wasn't nearly as significant in the Lucy–Desi relationship as it is in some modern ones, the concept of cougar is far more acceptable now than it was in 1951. And, as I say, they had to be "outed" at the time.

Later in her life, Lucy spoke of how she missed the old studio system and felt that she owed a lot to it — because she didn't think she had much talent. I disagree. Her comedic gifts, as I say, are still making people laugh nearly a quarter of a century after her death. That's staying power.

I'm always interested in which I Love Lucy episodes are fan favorites. I believe you can learn a lot about someone simply by finding out which I Love Lucy he/she thinks was the best. There are so many options.

I've heard folks name the one where Lucy kept trying to tell Ricky she was pregnant. Or the one where Lucy and Ethel got jobs in a candy factory. Of course, there were many episodes that featured cameo appearances by the entertainers of the day when the Ricardos and the Mertzes went to California.

I guess my personal favorite, as I mentioned here a few months ago, was "Vitameatavegamin," but there were so many great episodes in that series that, as soon as I think of one I really like, I'm sure to think of two or three more that I think are equal to the first one.

If you are a Lucy fan, you'll have some opportunities to see her comic brilliance this weekend. In honor of her centennial, a weekend–long marathon of I Love Lucy episodes will be shown on The Hallmark Channel. And there are bound to be more. Check your local listings.

Lucy is remembered as one of TV's early superstars; her movies are seldom mentioned in conversations about her career. However, if you'd rather see her movies on her birthday, Turner Classic Movies will be showing them as part of its annual "Summer Under the Stars" celebration — with today dedicated to Lucy on the big screen. And TCM has some good ones lined up. This morning, you can see Ball with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in "Without Love." This afternoon, you can see Lucy and Desi in "The Long, Long Trailer." Tonight, you can see Lucy with Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in "Stage Door."

And there are several others on today's schedule as well. You just really can't go wrong with Lucy.

Speaking of Lucy's movie career, I think it would be a mistake to think that all of Lucy's talents were in comedy. A few years after I Love Lucy went off the air, Frank Sinatra wanted her to appear with him in "The Manchurian Candidate," but director John Frankenheimer wanted Angela Lansbury.

The future star of Murder, She Wrote got the part, and she was rewarded for her work with an Oscar nomination. But it is intriguing to speculate what Lucy might have done with the role of the manipulative Mrs. Iselin.

She might have won.