BOOTLEG FILES 124: “The Lucy Show” (1962-68 sitcom with Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance and Gale Gordon).
LAST SEEN: Some episodes are available for online viewing.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: At least 30 episodes are available from duped public domain labels.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A crappy show, coupled with copyright problems.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
BOOTLEG OPPORTUNITIES: Ba-ba-loo!
During the 1960s, “The Lucy Show” was among the top-rated sitcoms on American television. Today, though, the Lucille Ball series for CBS is barely recalled and it is not associated with the classics of 1960s TV. So how could a program go from top-of-the-list popularity to virtual obscurity?
For starters, “The Lucy Show” always lingered in the shadow of a true TV masterpiece: “I Love Lucy.” It is impossible to view “The Lucy Show” today without making comparisons to the earlier 1950s classic, and not just because of the presence of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in both shows. But even if “I Love Lucy” never existed, “The Lucy Show” would still fail to stand up on its own.
In this series, Ball plays Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two kids in suburban New York. She rents a room in her home to her friend, a divorcee with a young son. Vivian Vance is the friend, but her name here is Viv, not Ethel. In fact, Vance refused to do the show unless she was allowed to use her real name – the curse of Ethel Mertz haunted her, with fans stopping the actress in the street and in stores and calling her “Ethel” (to her constant disgust).
Desi Arnaz was present for the first season of “The Lucy Show,” but only behind the camera as the show’s producer. Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960s, but they maintained their partnership in Desilu Productions and Ball would not do the program without Arnaz’s producing support. Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh, two of the “I Love Lucy” script writers, were also behind the scenes. William Frawley had no role here, as he was co-starring on another TV show, “My Three Sons.”
The first season of “The Lucy Show” is pretty much “I Love Lucy” without Ricky and Fred. Lucy and Viv get into a seemingly endless skein of wild slapstick situations. In one of the first season episodes available in bootleg form, Lucy and Viv get stuck in a shower stall they are installing. The stall door jams and the faucets break off, which causes the women to nearly drown in the shower. In another episode, Lucy forces her way into Viv’s barbershop quartet. When it is discovered she has a weak voice, a nutty vocal coach (veteran funnyman Hans Conried) is hired to teach her musical projection. As part of the lessons, he instructs Lucy to inhale but forgets to tell her to exhale – she nearly turns blue and faints.
The problems here are considerable. Going beyond the obvious been there/done that element, the absence of male authority figures (Ricky and Fred) makes the actions of the women seem stupid. They are not trying to pull a fast one on their husbands, thus getting caught in their own chaos. Instead, they are just a pair of bumbling broads who cannot get their act together.
And, quite frankly, Ball and Vance were way too old for that brand of knockabout. Both women were 51 when “The Lucy Show” began and their ages clearly showed. Ball tried to hide the years with heavy make-up, which gave her a ghastly kabuki-type presence. Vance didn’t bother hiding her age, or her boredom. Viv was just a tired woman and Lucy was also not particularly lovable – in early episodes, she was peevish and caustic, which made her inevitable tumble into slapstick even more unamusing. The first season was a lopsided mess.
The second season picked up somewhat thanks solely to the introduction of a new character: Mr. Mooney, the endlessly agitated banker. Played by Gale Gordon, he offered the male foil/adversary that the dizzy women needed to make their efforts palatable. Gordon’s material was often weak, but he could milk his gags for all their worth. With flaring nostrils, a scowling lower lip, penetrating eyes and angry body language, he was the ultimate blustering bully. And needless to say, his character’s serious persona was endlessly assaulted by Lucy and Viv’s antics (Lucy was initially his client, then his secretary).
If the on-screen shenanigans seemed lame, the off-screen happenings were rich with drama. Desi Arnaz, sinking into depression and alcoholism, quit both the show and Desilu Productions, selling his shares to Ball. Ball, who was never the easiest person to deal with as an actress, was even more tyrranical as a producer. Her fights with cast and crew became legendary – her nasty mouth even made the steely Joan Crawford run off in tears when the movie icon was a guest on the show. Carroll and Pugh quit after the second season and Vance quit after the third (though she made a couple of guest shots towards the end of the show’s seven-year run).
With the fourth season, “The Lucy Show” switched formats radically. The setting changed from suburban New York to Los Angeles. Lucy’s kids were written out of the show, but she kept her job as Mr. Mooney’s secretary. Pneumatic character actress Mary Jane Croft replaced Vance as Lucy’s sidekick, but she was clearly a supporting character and rarely shared the spotlight with the red-headed star. Also, most of the physical slapstick was gone. Ball was clearly too old to keep up the stamina of the stunts, so the program began to become more situational in its plotlines.
From the fourth season onward, “The Lucy Show” began to rely very heavily on celebrity guest stars to fill the laugh quotient. Most of the bootlegs in circulation come from this part of the show’s run, and the quality of the shows vary from okay to terrible.
The better shows from this period include the episode “Lucy Meets Robert Goulet,” in which the normally stolid crooner shows an unexpected comic menace in a double role as himself (a hilarious self-parody) and as a gruff truck driver; “Lucy Meets Pat Collins,” in which Lucy and Mr. Mooney wind up in the nightclub act starring the once-popular “hip hypnotist”; and “Lucy Meets Paul Winchell,” which offers a truly surreal moment when the ventriloquist’s dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith come to life and throw spaghetti at each other before clobbering Winchell with a pie.
But for each passable show, there were plenty of failures. “Lucy and the Efficiency Effort” has guest Phil Silvers as a martinet manager and Lucy as his clonish aide (neither comic is even vaguely amusing); “Lucy and Carol Burnett in Palm Springs” has the funny women in an embarrassing Hawaiian-style musical number at a country club (the women clearly look like mother and daughter rather than contemporaries); “Lucy Gets Jack Benny’s Account” relies too heavily on Benny’s miser routine, which was stale long before he bothered to appear here; and “Lucy Meets the Law” badly wastes character actor Claude Akins as a police lieutenant who imprisons Lucy on a mistaken identity arrest.
As the show ran its course, Ball became a bizarre sight. Her character became increasingly spastic and spacey, her voice was raspier and raspier, and her penchant for mod clothing only accentuated her considerable age. She wasn’t a figure of fun, but rather seemed like the dizzy cousin of Bette Davis’ Baby Jane character. She grew old, but didn’t grow up.
And yet, “The Lucy Show” was consistently a ratings topper. Why? Perhaps people loved Lucy enough to overlook her shortcomings. Or maybe people had bad taste in the 1960s when it came to television. Whatever the reason, “The Lucy Show” was a consistent hit and it was at the top of the pack when Ball cancelled the program in 1968 after selling Desilu to Paramount Studios. Later that year, she returned with a retooled version of “The Lucy Show” called “Here’s Lucy,” which added her real-life kids Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. to the cast.
“The Lucy Show” remained in syndication for years, then vanished from the airwaves. For no clear reason, many of the episodes have circulated openly in bootleg format for years – on video, then DVD, then online. I recently picked up a three-disk DVD consisting of 30 episodes. The episodes are clearly taken from well-worn 16mm prints, complete with scratches and inconsistent color. If these 30 episodes are public domain, then it makes no sense how their copyrights were allowed to lapse while the rest of the series is copyright protected (and not available for commercial sale in any format). Those episodes, which include the Joan Crawford appearance plus star turns from Dean Martin, Robert Stack and the “Hogan’s Heroes” cast were (as I can recall) among the better offerings.
But really, it is not worth the bother to sort that out. If you love Lucy, you’ll hate “The Lucy Show.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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