Q&A: Lucie Arnaz reflects on ‘I Love Lucy’ as TV sitcom hits big screen

August 5, 2019

October 3, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

Do you “pop” out at parties? Are you “unpoopular?” You’re gonna love this event.

Fathom Events and CBS Home Entertainment present “I Love Lucy: A Colorized Celebration” in movie theaters nationwide on Tuesday to mark Lucille Ball’s birthday. It’s your chance to laugh along with colorized versions of TV’s most influential sitcom, starring Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley.

“It’s never been on the big screen,” Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Ball and Desi Arnaz, told WTOP. “It’s a celebration of the art of comedy. It was a brilliantly written and produced show on so many levels that it deserves a party.”

The nationwide screening also includes the documentary featurette “Redhead Tales, Colorizing I Love Lucy,” showing how the episodes were meticulously colorized using actual costumes, sets, props and vintage material as a reference.

“The fact that it’s been colorized, a lot of young people have found it for the first time,” Arnaz said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s black-and-white or color. It certainly doesn’t impress me one way or another, but I find that a lot of other people are happy to see it colorized and it makes a new audience find a reason to watch it.”

The event includes a screening of five classic episodes:

1) “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1952)

Lucy angles her way onto Ricky’s special as a pitch woman advertising a medicine called “Vitameatavegamin.” She believes it contains vitamins, meat, vegetables and minerals. What she doesn’t know: It’s also 23 percent alcohol.

“The writers thought it out in advance,” Arnaz said. “They wrote out the routine brilliantly, she memorized it flawlessly and they did it in one take in front of an audience, no retakes. To watch her go from 0 to 100, slowly, meticulously and believably — that’s where the real art comes in. You never see her trying to be funny, you see her reacting to exactly what just happened. … We believe the situation because it was so brilliantly constructed.”

2) “Job Switching” (1952)

After Ricky and Fred get upset about the girls’ spending habits, Lucy and Ethel go to work in a candy factory while the boys do the housework.

“There’s two great scenes. The first one is where she’s trying to learn how to mush the chocolate around and it seems like great fun, but the other lady is stone dramatic with no sense of humor. … Lucy suddenly realizes there’s a fly. It flies around her head, to the right, to the left, then she tries to hit it and smacks the woman with chocolate on her face. The woman couldn’t believe the director was telling her she should slap Lucy back. Mom was like, ‘It’s OK, it’s pretend!’ … You can see the lady bite her lip trying not to laugh.”

It all builds to the iconic conveyor built scene where Lucy and Ethel struggle to wrap chocolate candies, inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936).

“They were inspired by remembering the comedy of Chaplin,” Arnaz said. “The greats steal from the greats. ‘Laverne & Shirley’ stole from ‘I Love Lucy.’ It’s a compliment. … That scene where she ends up with Ethel, thinking, ‘Oh, wrapping candies, that’s going to be much easier,’ that’s frickin’ brilliant. We can all imagine ourselves in that position. What would we do? The brilliance of that show is that you can always imagine yourself in her shoes. It’s not totally unbelievable how she gets where she gets, it just gets stretched to an enchanted sense of play, which is how my mom would describe that type of acting.”

3) “L.A. at Last!” (1955)

When the Ricardos and the Mertzes arrive in Hollywood, Lucy goes to the Brown Derby restaurant, where her sighting of movie star William Holden turns catastrophic.

“They were the No. 1 show for so long that agents wanted their clients on the show. It was a good guest gig to get. They could never come up with enough reasons for some celebrity to be at the Tropicana where Ricky worked or up in their apartment in New York. After several seasons, they thought what’s a different direction? Ricky gets a job in Hollywood, then there’s all these stars. It was just an opportunity to open up the stories to something they hadn’t done before and use all the people who wanted to be on that show.”

4) “The Million Dollar Idea” (1954)

Lucy and Ethel go into business making salad dressing based on the recipe of Lucy’s Aunt Martha. Their advertising on a local TV show looks like a success, but when Ricky finds that they’re losing money on each jar, the girls have to find a way to get their customers to cancel their orders.

“I was born six weeks before they started filming ‘I Love Lucy,'” Arnaz said. “I remember going down on set when I was about 6, but I watched these shows on television in reruns later like most of America. … I believe Martha’s salad dressing was the one they first showed to servicemen in the war. That hadn’t been done before. … I haven’t seen that episode in so long, that’s actually one of the ones I’m looking forward to seeing.”

5) “Pioneer Women” (1952)

Lucy and Ethel revolt over housework and want modern conveniences. Ricky and Fred bet that they can survive longer than the women without using anything invented after 1900, including electricity, resulting in a giant loaf of bread.

“I don’t think they looked at it in terms of gender dynamics in those days. I think they were looking for comedy and there was comedy in the fact that woman wanted more. Lucy for sure wanted more. She was a frustrated performer, she wanted to be on stage, she was gutsy, had a lot of chutzpah and if she wanted something she was going to find a way to get it. … Men and women have been going through that push-pull for a long time.”

First, we laugh at Ricky and Fred cooking overflowing pots of rice.

“The rice overflows and he has to get the big bowls and scoop out the rice,” Arnaz said. “If you remember, he falls down. I think he had planned to slip and look clumsy, but he literally slipped and fell and hurt himself. He fractured a couple of ribs in that fall, but he didn’t find out about it until the following two days after they filmed the show. He just kept on going because that’s just what you do. That’s what they did for their art.”

Second, a giant loaf of bread bursts out of the oven, crushing Lucy and Ethel.

“It never occurred to me until last Tuesday that the pan grew with the bread!” Arnaz said. “I watched that show for 68 years and that never occurred to me. It’s so brilliantly written that you don’t care. You suspend your disbelief. The prop department made real bread that long. How they did that, I have no clue. They got some baker to figure out a way and they pushed it from the other side of the scene. When the show was over, they sliced it up into hundreds of pieces, put peanut butter and jelly on it and served it to the audience.”

How do you narrow it down to just five episodes when they are all classics?

“One of the things that amazes me is that when I go back [and] pull out these episodes on DVD, I think, ‘Oh my god, there are so many other funny bits in other episodes that nobody ever mentions.’ We concentrate on the three or four most popular, but there were almost 200 shows. … There’s so many that are just really brilliantly laid-out comedic charades, mime bits they did. You’ll see that the physical comedy is just astounding.”

Today, the Writers Guild of America ranks “I Love Lucy” the No. 12 best-written show of all time, while the “Vitameatavegamin” episode ranks No. 2 all-time by TV Guide.

“This is truly one of the great comedy shows of all time,” Arnaz said. “It’s like studying Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton or Chaplin. That show was so well put together. It wasn’t just my mother’s brilliance or my father’s great straight man and their wonderful chemistry together, it was brilliantly written. They had two writers for four years, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis, who wrote all those shows. Then they added just two more for the rest of the shows, Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller. When you think of the shows today, most of them are written by committee; there’s an entire writer’s room contributing storylines and ideas.”

What advice can aspiring sitcom writers learn from “I Love Lucy?”

“They understood how to set up a problem within the first two minutes of the show. What do you need? What’s the need? I want what? And I can’t get it because? Boom, done, you’re in. They never made fun of anybody. It wasn’t humor that is current events humor. … It was just about friends, family and the kinds of wants and desires that everybody has through the decades for generations, so it still holds up today. We still laugh at it today.”

What made the title character so memorable?

“The Lucy Ricardo character is kind of childlike in the sense that she wants things and is told, ‘No, you can’t have that,’ for whatever reason. Then she tries to figure out a way to get around that, she gets into trouble, she has terrible predicaments happen, and at the end someone puts their arm around her, forgives her and tells her they love her. Isn’t that what we all want out of life? This unconditional love combined with as much laughter as possible.”

In addition to starring in the series, her parents owned Desilu Productions, but she said that her mother’s role as a studio head has been greatly exaggerated over the years.

“My father ran Desilu Productions,” Arnaz said. “My mother and father divorced in 1959 and she bought him out. She was then forced to be the head of the studio. Mostly she let the suits run the studio. … Eventually my father opted out and stopped running the studio and it was just one meeting that she was forced to run. She hated every minute of it. … They asked about budgets and the shows that would have to be eliminated and two of them were ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Mission: Impossible.’ She said, ‘I like those … do we have to cut those two?’ They said, ‘OK we’ll try,’ and the rest is history.”

She also wants to set the record straight about her brother Desi Arnaz Jr.

“A lot of people think Desi played Little Ricky. Not true. It was actually a young actor, Keith Thibodeaux. I did not make my debut on the ‘Here’s Lucy’ show. I made it on ‘The Lucy Show.’ I did little bit parts a couple times playing Cynthia, her daughter’s best friend. Then years later, when she decided to change her series, she invited my brother and I to play her children for real on the ‘Here’s Lucy’ show. That’s the six years I did with her.”

However, she admits that it wasn’t all sunshine and roses growing up, a bittersweet point she made in her Emmy-winning documentary “Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie” (1993).

“The reason I made [the film] was because I was constantly asked, ‘What was it like?’ … You hate to burst their bubble and go, ‘Well, it wasn’t exactly [funny]. My brother and I were home and my parents worked all the time. … We didn’t get to see our folks, so that sucked. Then there was divorce and what caused it, so that sucked. They were great people, incredibly talented people, geniuses in their own right. I truly believe they loved each other; they just had problems and no way to figure them out. We lived through that.”

Her advice for others? All that glitters isn’t gold.

“What I can tell people is that we lived very similar lives to your lives. Sure, they were stars and had a fancy house in Beverly Hills. We didn’t want for anything … except time. We wanted for time with our folks. Any child of two working parents, from a broken home or had alcoholism in their lives can identify with that. I just want to tell people to be grateful for what you have. The grass is not always greener. Be careful what you wish for. You don’t know what other people are going through. Everybody has their own story.”

Today, she’s happy with her own family.

“The big news is I just became a grandmother for the very first time,” Arnaz said. “I had two grand babies within a month of each other. My daughter Kate had a grandson and my son Joe had a granddaughter, so that has been No. 1 on my schedule. I’m very excited to be spending time with them. I’m still doing concerts, just got back from the East Coast. … That’s my world, enjoying life with my husband, enjoying my family, singing and dancing.”

Attendees will receive an “I Love Lucy” poster. If you can’t make it out to the theater, CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Entertainment will also release a DVD of “I Love Lucy: Colorized Collection” on Aug. 13, featuring 16 episodes.

October 3, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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