The Television Series of Lucille Ball, #2: The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (a.k.a. The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour)
(Note: This series ran as specials in the 1957-1958 season, and was shown as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse from 1958-1960. It was only in syndicated reruns that it was renamed The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.)
Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz
William Frawley as Fred
The further adventures of the Ricardos and the Mertzes, this time anchored in their life in suburban Connecticut (though at least half of the 13 episodes show the fab foursome in flashback — i.e., how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo met — or in an exotic locale other than Connecticut (Alaska, Japan, Las Vegas).
Desi Arnaz decided on an hour length for the series so that they could explore concepts that didn’t fit into the half-hour sitcom format. Sprinkled liberally with guest stars, à la I Love Lucy’s successful Hollywood shows, these longer shows were a mixed bag. Some were fabulous, some good, and some fell flat. Ratings for all, however, were excellent.
The very first episode, which aired November 6, 1957, ran overtime, a full 15 minutes longer than it should have been. Such was Desi’s clout at the time that he persuaded the sponsor of the show that followed it, U.S. Steel, to let the Comedy Hour run its extra 15 minutes into U.S. Steel’s show. Desi promised the big Comedy Hour audience would stay for The U.S. Steel Hour, and he was right.
The additional 15 minutes of footage from the first episode was never broadcast again, and was cut by CBS for syndication so the show would fit into an hour time slot. Most of the cut footage, which has recently surfaced, revolved around Lucy and Desi’s pal, Hedda Hopper, interviewing Lucy and Desi about how they first met. The story itself, involving a cruise to Havana, took place in flashbacks.
Lucy wanted Bette Davis to guest star in the second of the hour-long shows, but her price was too expensive and she wouldn’t come down. She was replaced by Tallulah Bankhead, who, though unnerving during the rehearsal period due to her fondness for alcohol, rose to the occasion and made her episode, “The Celebrity Next Door,” one of the series’ best. In this episode, Lucy enlists Fred and Ethel as maid and butler to impress Tallulah at dinner, but Tallulah is more impressed by maid “Ethel Mae’s” adoration of Bankhead.
The funniest episode of this limited series featured Danny Thomas and his TV family, from the Desilu sitcom Make Room for Daddy. In it, the Ricardos rent their house for the summer to the Williamses (Thomas, Marjorie Lord, Rusty Hamer, and Angela Cartwright), but end up staying in the cramped Mertz guest cottage when their trip is cancelled. Naturally, Lucy can’t help but interfere in the Williams household, and tries to get them to leave so she can have her house back. The result is a snowball fight/free-for-all which ends in a hilarious courtroom sequence, featuring Gale Gordon as the judge. The writing, performances (watch for the Mertzes in court), and plot all come together for a true hour of classic comedy.
“Lucy Wants a Career,” the ninth episode of the series, aired on February 9, 1959, and was the episode most like the original half-hour sitcom, I Love Lucy. Lucy, desperate to be in showbiz as always, finagles her way to becoming guest-star Paul Douglas’ assistant on his new morning show, and becomes a big success, but the extra hours and the long commute make Lucy realize she’d be happier at home. Well-acted and truly poignant at times, this was the series’ peak. The final four episodes, with the exception of “Lucy Goes to Japan” (thanks to guest-star Bob Cummings), run steadily downhill in quality.
The last episode of the series, “Lucy Meets the Moustache,” guest-starred Ernie Kovacs and his wife Edie Adams. By all reports, the Arnazes had already decided to divorce and were both emotional wrecks during the filming. Not one of the couple’s finer hours, there were still bits and pieces of the old Lucy and Desi magic, but by then the marriage could not be saved. Lucy filed for divorce the day after it aired (April 1, 1960), ending television’s Golden Age.