No doubt about it: Shout! Factory and Paul Brownstein Productions are the Criterion (and the criterion) of classic television. They've consistently compiled some of the best and most entertaining TV shows, supplementing them with gobs of fascinating, useful extras, all appealingly packaged in a perfect balance of the hip and the historic.
Here's Lucy is no milestone of TV comedy, but Shout!/Brownstein have done such a marvelous job with this title that its appeal will stretch well beyond merely those who love Lucy. Indeed, there's something for everyone in this supplement-packed collection, a must-have for any serious student of television comedy.
Here's Lucy was Lucille Ball's second sitcom after I Love Lucy/The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1951-60) and her divorce immediately thereafter from Desi Arnaz. In The Lucy Show (1962-68), the suddenly single Lucy was teamed with mostly straight man Gale Gordon (as curmudgeon Mr. Mooney), whom Lucy had worked with on radio, in "My Favorite Husband." When Ball sold her interests in Desilu, the production company/studio she formed with Arnaz, the still popular Lucy Show became, for business reasons alone, the only slightly revamped Here's Lucy (1968-74). Gordon, who also appeared in the ill-fated, ill-advised Life with Lucy (1986), played a similar character in Here's Lucy. All told, Ball had starred in half-hour sitcoms virtually non-stop for nearly 25 years.
This reviewer never much cared for The Lucy Show. Where I Love Lucy's Lucy Ricardo was scheming and naive, The Lucy Show's Lucy Carmichael too often was an idiot and a ding-a-ling, at times unbelievably stupid and infantile, in scripts that relied heavily on the broadest of slapstick. The show's switch to color only made Ball's antics even sillier. Middle age, that shock of famously Henna'd hair and a three-pack-a-day raspiness ("Mwaaaaaaaa!") -- all in living color -- had turned the Lucy character into something of a bumbling banshee. (As for that raspiness, Ball must have favored the company of fellow smokers. Ball and frequent co-star Vivian Vance succumbed to smoking-related illnesses, while Gordon, Arnaz and second husband Gary Morton all died of lung cancer.)
To this reviewer's surprise, Lucille Carter in Here's Lucy is a bit more mature and less frenetic. Perhaps it was because Ball herself was getting older (she was 63 by the time Here's Lucy ended), perhaps it was the growing maturity of sitcoms around her (All in the Family and, especially, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, both also on CBS) that gave way to a lower-key, more sedate Lucy. And unlike The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy is often very funny.
Looking back at these episodes, one can appreciate the performance aspect of these shows. Sitcoms today are still shot in the same manner DP Karl Freund and Desi Sr. had devised for I Love Lucy years before. But as Desi Arnaz, Jr. points out in one of the myriad commentary tracks with sister Lucie Arnaz, gone is the tension of the live, almost real-time performance of these shows. He complains bitterly, and justly so, about going to the taping of one half-hour sitcom, where filming ended up taking five hours, with the studio audience trapped for the duration like POWs. (Arnaz doesn't name the show, but it sure sounds like Friends.)
In Lucy's day, he rightly argues, there was a respect for the studio audience -- the cast and crew owed them their best performance, with shows more like live plays filmed in little more time than the 30-minute slots in which they eventually aired. Because of this, now more than ever, it's easy to appreciate the meticulous comic timing of both Ball and Gordon, and the degree in which both feed off the audience.
The show was something of an effort by Ball to pass the baton onto her children, teenagers Lucie and Desi Jr., who play her TV children on Here's Lucy. Some of the episodes in this collection focus mainly on them, such as an episode where Donny Osmond develops a crush on Lucie Carter. The show is interesting partly because so much of both the writing and Arnaz's performance reflect Ball's style during I Love Lucy earliest days. As Lucie says throughout her commentary, Here's Lucy was nothing if not an incredible training ground for young talent.
One of the quainter aspects of the show is that Lucille Carter, mother of two, is a widow, a concession to prudish TV standards that would not have allowed the character to be divorced, even though any adult watching the show would surely have known about Ball's own divorce from Desi Sr. Indeed, one suspects some viewers probably wrongly assumed that by his absence Arnaz himself (or maybe Ricky Ricardo) was dead.
One might argue that the original I Love Lucy jumped the shark when William Holden set Lucy's nose on fire that fateful evening in 1955. Hollywood stars gave I Love Lucy a shot in the arm ratings-wise, but eventually dominated all of Ball's shows. By the time Here's Lucy went on the air, however, times had changed and the reverential treatment stars received in I Love Lucy scripts gave way to stories that made hay of the darker aspects of their public image. When Lucy met Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the show's writers had a field day, stuffing it with references to the famous couple's fights and drinking binges. An episode with Shelley Winters finds her devouring a whole turkey. Though such shows strain all credibility, it's impossible to deny the fun of watching the cast rent rooms from Jack Benny's Palm Springs "home," and Jack hosting a busload of tourists (charging them for a cheap buffet dinner), including Jackie Gleason in his Ralph Kramdem persona. More so even than either of Ball's previous shows, Here's Lucy is crammed with in-jokes.
The ding-a-ling Lucy still peeks through several early episodes, which play like dusted off Lucy Show scripts, especially "Lucy and Sammy Davis Jr.," which requires Lucille to behave like a complete moron. But shows featuring Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon (Lucy "stumps the band" and has dinner with Johnny and Ed at the Brown Derby) and others are actually quite good. These shows make great use of the Lucy character's awkward, fevered energy around celebrities, signature shtick of Ball's that none did better.
The shows and their famous guest stars are as follows (* notes episodes with commentary by Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.):
Disc 1: "Lucy Meets the Burtons"*, "Lucy and Johnny Carson," "Lucy and Carol Burnett" (with Carol Burnett commentary), "Lucy and Lawrence Welk" (with guest star Vivian Vance), "Lucy the Fixer"*, "Lucy Visits Jack Benny."
Disc 2: "Lucy and Sammy Davis, Jr.," "Lucy and Miss Shelley Winters," "Lucy and the Generation Gap"*, "Lucy the Crusader" (with Charles Nelson Reilly), "Lucy and the Little Old Lady" (with Helen Hayes), "Lucy and Donny Osmond"*
Disc 3: "Lucy Sells Craig to Wayne Newton" (with Wayne Newton commentary), "Lucy the Matchmaker" (with Vivian Vance), "Lucy and Ann-Margret"*, "Lucy and the Used Car Dealer" (with Milton Berle), "Lucy the Skydiver," and "Ginger Rogers Comes to Tea."
Disc 4: "Lucy and Flip Go Legit" (with Flip Wilson), "Lucy Joins the Air Force Academy (Parts 1 & 2)*," "Lucy and Jack Benny's Biography"*, "Lucy is Really in a Pickle"*, "With Viv as a Friend, Who Needs an Enemy" (with Vivian Vance)*.
Video & Audio
Here's Lucy looks brand new, with a sharp image and superb color. The show looks far superior to its original syndicated version, and the episodes are unedited and not time-compressed. Animation buffs will want to check out Jim Danforth's delightful stop-motion Lucy, in animated titles that open each show (and which blows a kiss to Lucy's second husband, Gary Morton). The ton of material on each disc is carefully organized and menu screens are easy to navigate. There are no subtitle options. My only complaint here are Lucie Arnaz's spoiler-filled audio introductions to each episode -- viewers may want to turn off the sound before each episode.
Shout!/Brownstein have done an incredible job here (working with the Lucie and Desi Jr. and the Lucille Ball Productions Archives), packing Here's Lucy with more extras per episode than just about anything on DVD.
Disc 1: Lucy Blooper Reel #1, Lucy Meets the Burtons Rehearsal Footage, Lucy Meets the Burtons Behind the Scenes Footage, Lucy Meets the Burtons Original Episode Ending, Lucy Meets the Burtons Script for Alternate Opening Scene (this is hard to read, even on a big TV), Johnny Carson Rehearsal Footage, and Jack Benny's Carnival Nights, excerpts from a March 20, 1968 special which can be played with or without the Lucie/Desi Jr. commentary. The rehearsal and behind-the-scenes footage of these and other episodes is a revelation. Though directors like Jerry Paris work with the actors and cameramen, it's absolutely clear that Lucy's in charge, during rehearsals and production. She knows this type of show inside and out, and unhesitatingly asserts her authority, yelling "Cut!" when someone blows a line, and thinks nothing of grabbing guests the likes of Richard Burton and correcting their blocking or reading of lines. What she lacks in tact is made up by many years of experience; no one knew this type of show better than she.
Disc 2: Lucie's Pepsodent Commercial ("it's the only toothpaste with zerconium sillicant!"), CBS Promo #1 ("We bought this on eBay!" notes Lucie Arnaz), Lucy and Sammy Davis, Jr. Rehearsal Footage (with Desi Sr. making a brief appearance; this footage can be played with or without commentary), Buddy Hackett at Rehearsal, Gary Morton's Audience Warm-Up, Sammy Davis, Jr. Bloopers, and Lucy Introduces the Cast. Morton's and Lucy's interaction with the studio audience is the best stuff here. There's footage of people lining up outside Paramount's Stage 24 where Here's Lucy was filmed; shots of Lucille Ball's beloved mother, Dede (or DeeDee); Morton's mostly unfunny stand-up; Ball's energetic gallop before the show, and on and on. Great stuff!
Disc 3: Extras begin here with Lucy's Blooper Reel #2 and CBS Promo #2. Next are excerpts from an Ann-Margret Special, which can be played with or without a commentary by Lucie and Desi, Jr. The eight-minute excerpt, from the December 1969 Ann-Margret: From Hollywood with Love, features Lucy singing harmony and dancing (quite well) with Nicole Kidman's role model. Lucy the Skydiver Rehearsal Footage was shot for a never-finished documentary on Ball, and features fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of a technically complex episode mixing studio and second unit footage.
Disc 4: Lucie and Desi Jr. as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo at the Thalians Ball (with or without commentary), Lucy and Jack Benny's Biography Rehearsal Footage, Jack Benny bloopers, TV Syndication Tape, Sales Tape Bloopers with Bob Hope. The Thalians Ball footage, shot on prehistoric videotape, also features Ruta Lee (as Ethel) and Shecky Greene (as Fred) in a performance for that charitable organization. Desi Jr., as he would later do in The Mambo Kings (1990) does an uncanny imitation of his father. Ball is presented an award by Sammy Davis, Jr. and gives her heartfelt thanks. The syndication sales footage is full of useful info as Lucy and Lucie pitch the show to local stations (its 144-episode run averaged a 34 share and a 23.2 rating, numbers almost impossible to achieve today). They also promise tapes "specially edited for six interior minutes!" (The Shout! Factory shows are complete.) The sales bloopers seem derived from some Bob Hope special; Lucy gets cottonmouth and does a riff of her Vitameativegemin commercial.
The commentary tracks are great when Lucie and Desi Jr. talk about working on the show or reminisce about their parents. Some shows, however, have long stretches where they have little to add.
Here's Lucy is a lot funnier than this reviewer had remembered, and the extras are invaluable fun that really get inside the working methods of a classical three-camera sitcom. In short, Here's Lucy -- Best-Loved Episodes from the Hit TV Series is itself one of the best DVD releases of a TV show this year.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.