There are few great female comedians, for the simple reason that women like to look pretty. Comedy requires the performer to abandon most notions of refinement and sometimes to take a pie in the face. Lucille Ball was without question one of the century's great clowns, and she still appears in nightly reruns of I Love Lucy, her mouth half stuffed with candy in one episode, her lips puckered and goofy (after she's taken a spin in the starch vat at the Speedy Laundry) in another.
Lucy had many mentors. In his later, alcoholic years, Buster Keaton championed her. At RKO, Ginger Rogers's mother advised Lucy to have her teeth fixed, wear dresses instead of pants, and read English literature to improve her vocabulary, lending truth to the Hollywood cliché that behind every successful actress there's a hairdresser and a mother (the chief hairstylist at MGM turned her into a redhead). Yet there seems to be little doubt that she pushed herself to her most original stunts and expression in the context of her personal and creative collaboration with her husband, Desi Arnaz, whom she trusted completely. "She thought he was just brilliant," according to her cousin Cleo. He was. He hired Karl Freund to use the then revolutionary multi-camera format before a live audience; he persuaded the sponsors to shoot the show on film stock rather than broadcast it from New York; he breezily got the two of them ownership rights in one negotiation, and in another he persuaded the reluctant advertisers to make Lucy's pregnancy part of the show. The 179 episodes of I Love Lucy represent the couple's greatest achievement. It's there that we can see the lopsided, Chapliny grin and Lucy's repertoire of expressions of greed, fear, and surprise as Desi's accented voice calls, "Loosie!" and says, "You got some 'splainin' to do."
Originally I Love Lucy was going to be about a movie star married to a Cuban bandleader. But soon they realized, as Lucy explained, "The general public doesn't think that movie stars have any problems. They think it's just party after party." And so Lucy was defined as a housewife who wanted to get into show business. Although there was some jockeying for power between the two (Desi wanted top billing; at one point he whined, "Why don't we compromise and make it alphabetical?"), Desi recognized his wife's centrality and once said to everyone on the set, when she tripped on a cable, "Amigos, anything happens to her, we're all in the shrimp business."
The story of their marriage is charming, moving, and ultimately tragic. Lucy was a dogged trier; she'd been trying to make it for years, first as a model and then as an actress, but she had never got past being "queen of the B-pluses," despite her willingness to do almost anything (including sleep with a married top studio executive). She endured sprained wrists, paralyzed eyeballs when a wayward wind machine propelled a cloud of talcum powder into her face, and bruises from several tons of avalanching coffee beans falling on her during a chase scene.
As Stefan Kanfer writes in Ball of Fire, she married Desi, who was six years younger, for love, and she wrangled him onto the show so that they could spend time together (their work often put them on opposite coasts) and try to start a family. (She'd had several miscarriages, and one of them had made it into the papers. Fans of her radio show wrote 2,867 letters of consolation. She answered every one.)
Desi had the rare ability to find his wife beautiful while encouraging the full extent of her comic talent—which required her to risk humiliation and exposure. (And then, as now, comedy doesn't get the respect that drama does: Lucy felt that Katharine Hepburn, the epitome of "class" in too many senses of the word, snubbed her. "Oh, they don't want to have anything to do with me," Lucy complained.)
So much of what worked was their intimate banter and their outright use of their lives onscreen. They scheduled the cesarean birth of Desi Arnaz Jr. for the night "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" aired, and Desi Jr. reportedly found it confusing to grow up watching his parents and "Little Ricky" on the air. In one episode Lucy Ricardo looks at a picture of herself and Ricky as a young couple and asks what became of them. "Haven't you heard?" Ricky answers. "They lived happily ever after."
Lucy took great chances, wanted many of the things we all want, and got everything she'd wanted and then some, all at once and late. She was in her forties by the time they got their TV show on the air, had their two children, and became rich and famous. (The couple was so popular that Marshall Field's changed its open-late night from Monday to Thursday, hanging a sign that said WE LOVE LUCY TOO.)
The central question, of course, is why it all went so bad, and Kanfer is better on the screwball comedy of the marriage than on its sad end (after nineteen years). I've never been overfond of biographies or memoirs of the more stringently truthful kind, but that's only to say I find life repetitive, indirect, and obscure. Kanfer chronicles the divorce, laboriously tells us about Lucy's repeated efforts to work on her own, but never really elucidates the losses of their later lives. In fact, the late photos of them say more than does the last third of the book. Do all great collaborations eventually fall apart?
To answer that for this particular collaboration, we'd have to understand the failure of the marriage, and perhaps that's a job for Tolstoy more than for any biographer. We learn that in 1956, after the producer and head writer, Jess Oppenheimer, left the show, Desi told Lucy, "We have two alternatives. Now that we have two wonderful children, after waiting all these years, it'd be a shame not to be able to spend more time with them, enjoy watching them grow. Desi will be two and a half and Lucie four this summer. We could teach them to fish, ride a horse, and I could take all of you to Cuba to meet your thousands of relatives. What do you think?" Lucy answered, "You said we have two alternatives. What is the other one? ... How do you quit a number-one show?"
It's impossible not to wish that Lucy hadn't taken just that one more risk.