She loved being Lucy

The Guardian

Even in 1951, when ‘I Love Lucy’ made its TV debut, Lucille Ball looked like a parody of the 50s woman.John Waters, the director of Hairspray, has claimed Lucy as a gay icon: “At last, a female impersonator who dyed her hair orange, wore obviously false eyelashes and scary red lipstick at home, married a man of another race, got pregnant on television, hung out with her blue-collar neighbours, and ran away to pal around with Rock Hudson.”I don’t remember a Rock Hudson episode, but I do remember the excess, the over-the-top mugging that subverted domesticity and sent up the very idea of being a housewife. In one classic episode, Lucy baked a loaf of bread that expanded in the oven to become a kind of battering ram that threatened to break down the kitchen walls.Stefan Kanfer, who has also written a biography of Groucho Marx, calls Ball “the Marx sister”, a great clown who broke the barriers for the next  generation of female performers. He also reveals in this thoroughly researched book that Ball was a tactless diva who once ripped the false eyelashes off her supporting actress, Vivian Vance: “Nobody wears false eyelashes on this show but me.” That attitude reflected Ball’s business side as well as her vanity. In 1962, Ball became the first woman to run a major Hollywood studio when she took over Desilu, the television production company founded with her husband, Desi Arnaz. That combination of clown and the CEO made her a feminist icon as well as comedienne.

Kanfer traces Ball’s typical Hollywood star’s miserable impoverished childhood, in rural New York, with her main support a beloved grandfather who got involved in a freak shooting accident and went bankrupt. At 13, she lied about her age and tried out for a Broadway musical; she got in but had to go home when her age was discovered.A delicate teenager, she modelled for Hattie Carnegie, and then took off for Hollywood in 1933, where she shaved off her eyebrows, got her teeth straightened, and took elocution lessons. Ball made 35 movies at RKO studios, among them ‘Stage Door’ with Eve Arden and Katherine Hepburn.

Her 1940 marriage to Arnaz surprised her friends and studio bosses, who objected to this obscure Cuban band leader as her partner. Indeed, Desi turned out to be a womaniser and a boozer. But he also had an astute business sense, both about Ball’s career and about the future of television production; Desilu pioneered film and editing techniques, and championed the rights of writers and actors in ways that would revolutionise the industry. Arnaz understood the value of marketing, and licensed souvenirs of the programmes that were known as “Desiloot”. In 1957, Desilu bought the old RKO studios; by this time Ball’s TV career had eclipsed her time as a minor movie star.

Yet the enormous popularity of ‘I Love Lucy’ imprisoned Ball in a persona and an era. Future TV sitcom stars, like the cast of ‘Friends’, would be much more savvy about the problems of ageing and breaking away from an established character.After her divorce from Arnaz, Ball tried to reinvent the Lucy persona in the 60s, as a single working woman, but it was never a real hit. In the 80s, another revival, ‘The Lucy Show’, was panned by the critics. At one point,  Ball had a possibility of moving in another direction. Although she continued to receive honours, awards and adulation, Ball never tried to grow out of Lucy. Ball remains in the history of 50s popular culture and comic-strip heroines.Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, By Stefan Kanfer, Published by Faber, pp 320