Sunday, 31 July 2016


2. "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do."


Lucille Ball is still the most important woman in Hollywood, nearly thirty years after her death. Her most famous TV show, "I Love Lucy" (1951-57), is shown every day, she is a role model for female actors and comedians, and is noted for owning the production company that produced the original "Star Trek" and "Mission: Impossible" series. She is also one of the most adept people there is at both physical comedy and facial expressions - if anyone accuses you of not being "ladylike," tell them to look up any of Ball's shows online, then tell them to fuck off.

This is enough to make Lucille Ball very important, but the way "I Love Lucy" was made, and the way she ran Desilu Productions, co-founded with their husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz, shaped how television works to this day, even down to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Lucille Ball had a reputation for funny parts in films, but with few opportunities for starring roles. The end of her contract with MGM, in 1946, led to more appearances on radio, and a starring role in the sitcom "My Favourite Husband" (1948-51). When time came to transfer the series to TV, with Ball's husband as co-star, and with the domestic situation was swapped Ball trying to prove her worth as a performer, by trying to insert herself into her husband's touring band, the most popular show on TV at the time was born.

Then the problems started. In 1951, most TV shows were still broadcast live on one cost of the US, with a "kinescope," a (usually blurry) copy of the show taken by filming a TV screen, shown on the other coast - this film would also be needed to register the show for copyright purposes, but nothing else. 

The cigarette company William Morris, as sponsor of "I Love Lucy," wanted the show live on the east coast, where its customers were, meaning Ball and Arnaz would have to move to New York. The answer was obvious, despite not being the done thing yet: film the show before broadcast. This also meant having to having to make the show to a higher standard - hiring a film soundstage, building proper sets, and shooting with three 35 mm film cameras simultaneously to capture a more natural performance in front of a live audience. Karl Freund, the lighting director on Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) and the Bela Lugosi "Dracula" (1931), was hired to create proper lighting for television, to produce a more professional product. 

Thrown into producing their own show, Ball and Arnaz took a pay cut to pay for all the above, formed the production company Desilu, and kept ownership of the finished shows. When Ball became pregnant in the second season of "I Love Lucy", first season episodes were shown again, to audiences as big as before, introducing the "repeat" as a viable business at home and around the world. With money pouring in, Desilu, with Ball as chief executive, bought RKO Radio Pictures, the studio of "Citizen Kane" and Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, in 1957 - the former RKO contract player now had Paramount Pictures as her next door neighbour.

In choosing to produce shows like "Star Trek," "Mission: Impossible," "The Untouchables," "Mannix" and "The Andy Griffith Show" (featuring Ron Howard's first acting role as a child), Lucille Ball, who became president of Desilu in 1962, after buying out her now ex-husband's share, was adept at choosing shows that, like "I Love Lucy," would bear repeat viewing, therefore justifying the spending of more money in making each show. Running your own company, while continuing to star in your own show, the follow-up "Here's Lucy" (1962-68), is common nowadays, even although most actors rent their studios, rather than owning one.

If this makes you want to look up Lucille Ball's work, I have done my job. "I Love Lucy" used to be shown on Channel 4 before "The Big Breakfast," indicating how long ago that was. You can find it online, proving the foresight in working that bit extra, and In keeping hold of the results too. Her reputation as a funny woman and actor has never been in doubt but, when you know that Paramount, which bought Desilu in 1967, hasn't released a film directed by a woman for two years, and won't be for the next two years either, any reminder of Ball's stature as a studio head should be welcome.

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