Lucille Ball: Her prodigious gift for physical farce was never really maximized during her years in Old Hollywood, and it would take the young television medium to elevate this indomitable onetime showgirl to her well-earned position as an American icon.
Born in Jamestown, New York, on August 6, 1911, Lucille Desiree Ball nursed show business aspirations from her teens, and after an unsuccessful stint at New York City’s John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts, she determinedly pursued a modeling career with Hattie Carnegie. She received some Broadway chorus jobs by the early ’30s, and headed west to pursue film opportunities in 1933. After debuting in a bit part–as a blonde–in the 1933 Wallace Beery drama The Bowery, Lucy began surfacing in showgirl lines as a Goldwyn Girl in such Eddie Cantor musicals as Roman Scandals (1933) and Kid Millions (1934), and showing up in shorts such as the Three Stooges’ Three Little Pigskins (1934). Coming under contract to RKO the following year, she’d land increasingly larger roles in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicles Top Hat, Roberta and Follow the Fleet.
After holding her own as part of an ensemble cast that included Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in 1937’s Stage Door, RKO spent the balance of the ’30s spotlighting Ball in supporting roles in Having Wonderful Time, also with Rogers, and opposite the Marx Brothers in Room Service, both in 1938. It was during the filming of Dance, Girl, Dance when she met another stunning redhead, Maureen O’Hara, with whom she remained lifelong friends. Years later she said, “Maureen O’Hara is one of the people I love the most out of all the people I know.”
As the decade ended, Ball’s “B” leads in such fare as The Affairs of Annabel, Panama Lady, Five Came Back and the Garson Kanin-directed Next Time I Marry kept her in the public eye . But a role in RKO’s 1940 musical Too Many Girls would be impactful, as it also featured–in his screen debut–a young Cuban bandleader named Desi Arnaz; they would elope that year. Lucy’s RKO deal took her through the middle of the war years with Look Who’s Laughing, opposite a host of then well-known radio stars (Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy). 1942’s The Big Street, based on a Damon Runyon story, paired her with Henry Fonda and showed audiences that she could handle dramatic roles.
When she signed with MGM, the studio’s Technicolor camera tended to flatter her more than the actual material. Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) cast Ball with Gene Kelly and another MGM redhead, Red Skelton, Also in ’43, she was cast as herself in Best Foot Forward and in 1944, she tackled the war effort in Meet the People; and along with an all-star cast, Lucy was a magnificent lion-tamer in MGM’s 1945 extravaganza, Ziegfeld Follies. In Two Smart People (1946), Jules Dassin helmed a romance-tinged suspense film pairing her with John Hodiak. MGM continued to showcase her talents in Without Love with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, but the studio heads didn’t really seem to know what to do with her. Back in Technicolor, she starred alongside Van Johnson and Esther Williams in Easy to Wed, a remake of Libeled Lady, in the role originally played by Jean Harlow.
The balance of the 1940s saw Lucy’s most interesting efforts away from Metro, on loan for the film noir efforts The Dark Corner (1946), with Clifton Webb and William Bendix, and 1947’s Lured, where she was menaced by Boris Karloff. In 1947, she returned to her comedy roots in Her Husband’s Affairs with co-star Franchot Tone and then, Lucy worked with film and radio personality Bob Hope, starring in 1949’s Sorrowful Jones; the duo would make four features together. A Columbia Pictures pact that year gave her comic skills some additional reign in Miss Grant Takes Richmond, with love interest William Holden and The Fuller Brush Girl (1950) with Eddie Albert. In 1951, she appeared in a fantasy adventure, The Magic Carpet in Supercinecolor, a process that proved to be no threat to Technicolor.
That might have been the extent of Lucy’s legacy, had CBS not wanted to pursue converting her popular 1948 radio series “My Favorite Husband” to television. Seeing a means of stabilizing her turbulent union with Arnaz, she insisted that he co-star, playing a cabaret entertainer whose kooky and marginally talented spouse was always looking for her share of the spotlight. Dubious of the long-term prospects, the network gave Lucy and Desi unprecedented ownership interest and creative control.
The payoff for the couple would prove huge; I Love Lucy proved an instant sensation, remained so for its six-season run, and has stayed in syndication for the more than half-century since. Lucy and Desi leveraged their Desilu production company into a major provider of series fare, ultimately taking over the defunct RKO lot where she had once worked. Lucy would return to the big screen during the show’s heyday for a couple of co-starring vehicles with Arnaz, the amazingly appealing 1953 comedy The Long, Long Trailer and the comedy/drama Forever, Darling in 1956.
Ratings success, however, didn’t prove the hoped-for curative to their relationship; after the last of three seasons’ worth of Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour specials wrapped in 1960, the couple divorced. Lucy retained the presidency of Desilu until selling out to Paramount in 1967. Lucy remained a small-screen fixture through the ’60s via the successive CBS sitcoms The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, headlining a handful of feature films along the way.
The Facts of Life in 1960 and 1963’s Critic’s Choice paired her with old friend Bob Hope, of whom she once said, “You spell Bob Hope C-L-A-S-S.” The highly successful 1968 comedy Yours, Mine and Ours, a precursor of The Brady Bunch, reunited her with Henry Fonda, but her feature film days were waning, and around the time that Here’s Lucy wrapped in 1974, she made her last big-screen appearance–to mixed reviews–in an adaptation of the stage musical Mame.
She’d jump to NBC for a handful of specials over the next few years, but the output of the now-elder stateswoman of comedy was slowing considerably. The mid-’80s saw her returning to activity, portraying a homeless senior in the made-for-TV drama Stone Pillow, and giving situation comedy one final shot with 1986’s short-lived Life with Lucy.
A few weeks after her final public appearance at the 1989 Academy Awards ceremony, where she and Hope presented the Best Picture Oscar, Lucy succumbed to a ruptured aorta, passing away at age 77. Appropriately, Lucy left her fans with some very good advice when she said, “The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age!”
And now, enjoy Lucy and Desi’s antics in a not-too-long trailer from 1953’s The Long, Long Trailer: