Love Lucy debuted on CBS in October 1951 and was an immediate sensation. It spent four of its six prime-time seasons as the highest-rated series on television and never finished lower than third place. Eisenhower's presidential inauguration in January 1953 drew twenty-nine million viewers, but when Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky in an episode broadcast the next day forty-four million viewers (72% of all U.S. homes with TV) tuned in to I Love Lucy. When it ceased production as a weekly series in 1957, I Love Lucy was still the number one series in the country. And its remarkable popularity has barely waned in the subsequent decades. Since passing into the electronic museum of reruns, I Love Lucy has become the Mona Lisa of television, a work of art whose fame transcends its origins and its medium.
Television in the 1950s was an insistently domestic medium, abundant with images of marriage and family. The story of I Love Lucy's humble origins suited the medium perfectly, because it told of how a television program rescued a rocky marriage, bringing forth an emotionally renewed and financially triumphant family. After a relatively successful career in Hollywood, Lucille Ball had spent three years with actor Richard Denning in a CBS radio sitcom, My Favorite Husband. When CBS asked her to move into television, she agreed--but only if her real husband, Desi Arnaz, were allowed to play her TV husband. Arnaz, a one-time contract performer at RKO Pictures, was a moderately successful musician and orchestra leader who specialized in Latin pop music. His touring schedule placed a tremendous strain on the marriage, and they wanted to be together in order to raise a family. The network and prospective sponsors balked at the casting of Arnaz, fearing that his Cuban accent--his ethnic identity--would alienate television viewers. To dispel doubts, Ball and Arnaz created a nightclub act and toured during the summer of 1950. When the show proved to be a huge success CBS agreed to finance a pilot starring husband and wife.
In 1951 agent Don Sharpe negotiated a contract with CBS and sponsor Philip Morris cigarettes for Desilu, the couple's new production company, to produce I Love Lucy. CBS and the sponsor insisted that the program be broadcast live from New York, to take advantage of network production facilities in what was still predominately a live medium. For personal reasons Ball and Arnaz wanted to stay in Hollywood, but they also wanted to take advantage of movie industry production facilities and to ensure the long-term value of their series by capturing it on film. Syndication of reruns had not yet become standard procedure, but television's inevitable growth meant that the return on serious investment in a television series was incalculable. The network finally agreed to the couple's demands, but as a concession asked Ball and Arnaz to pay the additional cost of production and to accept a reduced fee for themselves. In exchange Desilu was given one-hundred percent ownership of the series--a provision that quickly turned Ball and Arnaz into the first millionaire television stars.
I Love Lucy reflected the couple's own family life in the funhouse mirror of a sitcom premise. To this extent I Love Lucy resembled several other vaguely autobiographical showbiz family sitcoms of the 1950s, such as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-58), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66), and The Danny Thomas Show (1953-64). Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a young married couple living in a converted brownstone on the upper east side of Manhattan. Ricky is the orchestra leader for the Tropicana nightclub; Lucy is a frustrated housewife who longs to escape the confinement of her domestic role and participate in a larger public world, preferably to join Ricky in show business. They were joined by Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played Ethel and Fred Mertz, former vaudeville performers who are the Ricardos' landlords.
Conflicts inevitably arise when Lucy's fervent desire to be more than a housewife run up against Ricky's equally passionate belief that such ambitions in a woman are unseemly. This dynamic is established in the pilot episode--when Lucy disguises herself as a clown in order to sneak into Ricky's nightclub act--and continues throughout the entire series. In episode after episode Lucy rebels against the confinements of domestic life for women, the dull routines of cooking and housework, the petty humiliation of a wife's financial dependence, the straightjacket of demure femininity. Her acts of rebellion--taking a job, performing at the club, concocting a money-making scheme, or simply plotting to fool Ricky--are meant to expose the absurd restrictions placed on women in a male-dominated society. Yet her rebellion is forever thwarted. By entering the public sphere she inevitably makes a spectacular mess of things and is almost inevitably forced to retreat, to return to the status quo of domestic life that will begin the next episode.
It is possible to see I Love Lucy as a conservative comedy in which each episode teaches Lucy not to question the social order. In a series that corresponded roughly to their real lives, it is notable that Desi played a character very much like himself, while Lucy had to sublimate her professional identity as a performer and pretend to be a mere housewife. The casting decision seems to mirror the dynamic of the series; both Lucy Ricardo and Lucille Ball are domesticated, shoehorned into an inappropriate and confining role. But this apparent act of suppression actually gives the series its manic and liberating energy. In being asked to play a proper housewife, Lucille Ball was a tornado in a bottle, an irrepressible force of nature, a rattling, whirling blast of energy just waiting to explode. The true force of each episode lies not in the indifferent resolution, the half-hearted return to the status quo, but in Lucy's burst of rebellious energy that sends each episode spinning into chaos. Lucy Ricardo's attempts at rebellion are usually sabotaged by her own incompetence, but Lucille Ball's virtuosity as a performer perversely undermines the narrative's explicit message, creating a tension which cannot be resolved. Viewed from this perspective, the tranquil status quo that begins and ends each episode is less an act of submission than a sly joke; the chaos in between reveals the folly of ever trying to contain Lucy.
Although I Love Lucy displayed an almost ritualistic devotion to its central premise, it also changed with each passing season. The first season presented the Ricardos as a young couple adjusting to married life and to Lucy's thwarted ambitions. The second and third seasons brought the birth of Little Ricky and focused more often on the couple's adjustment to being parents--particularly the question of how motherhood would affect Lucy's ambition. The fourth season saw Ricky courted by a Hollywood studio. The Ricardos and Mertzes took a cross-country automobile tour and eventually landed in Hollywood, where Lucy wreaked havoc in several hilarious encounters with celebrity guest stars. During the fifth season the Ricardos returned to New York, but then soon left for a European tour--a sitcom variation of Innocents Abroad. The sixth and final season found the Ricardos climbing the social ladder as the series shifted toward family issues. Ricky bought the Tropicana nightclub, renaming it Club Babalu. Little Ricky (Richard Keith) became a five-year old, and plots began to revolve around him. Finally, the Ricardos joined the exodus to the suburbs, abandoning New York for a country home in Connecticut, where they were joined by the Mertzes and by new neighbors Betty and Ralph Ramsey (Mary Jane Croft and Frank Nelson).
The creative team behind I Love Lucy was remarkably consistent over the years. Writers Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll, Jr. had written My Favorite Husband on radio, and they accompanied Ball to television. Oppenheimer served as the series producer, while Pugh and Carroll were the writers. Together the three would sketch out episode ideas--many of which were based on scripts from the radio series. Pugh and Carroll would write the script, and Oppenheimer would edit it before production. This pattern continued, regular as clockwork, for four entire seasons in which the trio wrote each and every episode--an incredible achievement considering the pace of television production. In the fifth and sixth seasons Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf joined as a second writing team. Jess Oppenheimer left to take a job at NBC after the fifth season, and Desi Arnaz, who had served as executive producer since the beginning, stepped in to replace him as producer. While in production as a weekly series, I Love Lucy had only three directors: Marc Daniels (1951-52), William Asher (1952-55, 1956-57), and James V. Kern (1955-56). Much of the quality of the series is a result of this unusually stable production team.
The production process was unique for filmed television. Recognizing the economic importance of the work they produced, Arnaz and Ball still faced the difficulty that shooting the series on film generally meant shooting with one camera on a closed soundstage. But they also wanted to capture the spontaneity of Ball's comic performances, her interaction with other performers and her rapport with a live audience. Arnaz recruited famed cinematographer Karl Freund to help solve the problem. Freund was a respected Hollywood craftsman who had begun his career in Germany working with directors Robert Weine and Fritz Lang. In the United States he had a long career at MGM, where he shot several films with Greta Garbo and won an Academy Award in 1937 for The Good Earth. Freund adapted the live-TV aesthetic of shooting with multiple cameras to the context of film production--a technique already used with limited success by others in the telefilm industry. Freund developed a system for lighting the set from above, since it would not be possible to change the lighting during a live performance. With three cameras running simultaneously in front of a studio audience, I Love Lucy was able to combine the vitality of live performances with the visual quality of film. Although the technique was not generally used outside of Desilu until the 1970s, it is now widely used throughout the television industry.
During the network run of I Love Lucy, Desilu became the fastest rising production company in television by capitalizing on the success of I Love Lucy, which earned over $1 million a year in reruns by the mid-1950s. From this foundation Desilu branched out into several types of production, a process of expansion that began with an investment of $5,000 in 1951 and saw the staff grow from twelve to eight hundred in just six years. Desilu produced series for the networks and for syndication (December Bride, The Texan) and contracted to shoot series for other producers (The Danny Thomas Show). In October 1956 Desilu sold the rights to I Love Lucy to CBS for $4.3 million. With the help of this windfall profit, Desilu purchased RKO studios--the studio at which Ball and Arnaz had once been under contract--for $6.15 million in January 1958. The success of I Love Lucy created one of the most prolific and influential television production companies of the 1950s. By 1957, Arnaz, Ball, and the entire production team had grown weary of the grinding pace of series production. Desilu ceased production of the weekly series after completing 180 episodes. The familiar characters stayed alive for three more seasons through thirteen one-hour episodes, many of which appeared as installments of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (1958-1960).