Happy Birthday to Lucille Ball! We’re joining the True Classics gang in celebrating the life of this amazing lady, on the event of her 100th birthday!
Of course, “I Love Lucy” will always be a television classic. (Want to get the lowdown on the show? Read here!)
Yet because of the near universal affection people have for “Lucy”, Lucille Ball’s incredible talent is often taken for granted. It’s easy to remark how good she was at physical comedy, or how her vulnerability endeared her to a nation just learning to love the boob tube. But some of Lucy’s best roles were those in which, arguably, she was miscast.
When you think of Lucille Ball, do you think – “floozy”? Or “bad girl”?
Long before she was the star of “My Favorite Husband”, she was an easy-to-like “taxi dancer” in the Suspense radio play, “Dime a Dance”. Even in 1944, her flaming red hair was a plot point:
As “Queen of the Bs”, Lucy took on other tough roles where her beauty was emphasized. In the gripping 1939 adventure Five Came Back,, Ball plays Peggy Nolan, a gangster’s gal — or is she a lady of the night? — dolled up in black lace. Ball is riveting from the moment she arrives on the scene, as she smokes and slinks around, watching the people she’ll be flying to Panama City with. Radiating danger, Ball is every bit the femme fatale – even Peggy’s favorite flowers are questionable, overtly sensual. Directed by Mia Farrow’s father, John, Five Came Back is a tense character study of people under pressure. Solid performances all around, and there’s real heat in Ball’s exchanges with Chester Morris, the group’s tough, uptight pilot – so much that it’s almost a disappointment to discover Peggy’s fabled heart of gold:
In 1942′s The Big Street, Ball got to play a far more unredeemable woman, Gloria Lyons, a gorgeous but narcissistic singer. Lucy never looked more beautiful, but she is incredibly hard to love! Co-star Henry Fonda plays “Pinks,” a busboy and life-long doormat who adores the ungrateful Gloria, showering her with attention and support. The Big Street was based on a Damon Runyan story, giving its scenes in Miami a real oomph. But, although Ball loved this film, and performs wonderfully, it might be hard-going for the average Lucy fan. (She’s just so mean!)
The 1950s brought Lucy her greatest success. But just a few years later, when the ’60s rolled around, Ball was no longer playing a madcap, unusual housewife. Strangely, this trailblazing woman – who not only married a younger man and foreigner, but insisted that the two of them could star in their own series – was now cast as a “frustrated square”, a representative of the prevailing, “older” culture.
The Facts of Life, from 1960, was billed as a sex comedy, reteaming Ball with Bob Hope, her partner in romps like Fancy Pants – but it lacks the hip panache of Hope’s Bachelor of Paradise. Ball and Hope play long-time acquaintances, married friends who can’t stand each other but vacation together as part of two couples. What might have been scintillating in 1960 seems hopelessly tepid – The Apartment and Doris Day-Rock Hudson vehicle Lover Come Back are better date night material – but there’s an underlying depth to the story here. Other “sex comedies” may have had more sparks, but the two old hands here shine in a surprisingly mature handling of infidelity in marriage. Ball’s work is all the more impressive when you consider that it was filmed and released in the last days of her marriage to Desi Arnaz:
Fast forward to 1968, and Lucy is reteamed once more with Henry Fonda, in Yours, Mine and Ours, based on the true-life romance of Frank and Helen Beardsley, a couple who juggled twenty kids. While “I Love Lucy” writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll were used to punch up the script, based on Helen’s memoir, Ball is still typed as a bit of a middle-aged “square”, one who needs help from her daughters in dressing for a hot date. Fonda, of course, really is at his best playing a moralistic stiff, and in fine form here. As good as Ball is, she doesn’t have enough of a chance to cut loose. It’s a brightly colored, sometimes genuinely funny film, but some of the best moments come in the “candid” footage of Frank and Helen’s first date, walking around San Francisco. Still, as with the other roles, it’s hard to reconcile the traditional mother Lucy plays here, with the transgressive and hilarious persona the world loves best. But is that miscasting, or is it just proof that Lucille Ball was not only one of the best comedians of her era, but an underrated actor who could pull off far more diverse roles than she was ordinarily given?
Check out more about Lucy through the rest of her birthday blogathon here: