A mildly amusing footnote in the long television career of Lucille Ball, Lucy Calls the President (1978) is an atypically topical one-hour comedy special Ball produced three-and-a-half years after the demise of Here's Lucy, the last of the three series that had kept Ball in primetime virtually non-stop since the early 1950s. Very much like an extended episode of her earlier hits, Lucy Calls the President is significant as a kind of last hurrah for the same group of people instrumental in the success of I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show. Though longtime collaborators like actor Gale Gordon, director Marc Daniels and writer-producers Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis would all return for Ball's ill-fated Life with Lucy (1986), this special poignantly marked the last teaming of Lucy with Vivian Vance, then suffering from cancer and who would pass away less than two years after this was made.
The show is unremarkable but pleasant, with a genuinely funny slapstick payoff at the end, though chances are only hardcore Lucy fans will want to see it. One incentive for less-interested viewers is the intriguing line-up of extra features. As usual, Ball's estate has provided distributor MPI and special features producer Paul Brownstein Productions with loads of worthwhile and rare material, including dress rehearsal video and other alternate footage, some of it presented split screen from different camera angles.
The teleplay is based on real events. In March 1977 the U.S. President began an unprecedented radio show, Ask President Carter, in which ordinary Americans were invited to call the White House and speak directly with the president. In the show, Lucy Whittaker (Lucille Ball) miraculously gets through and nervously complains about plans in her small Indiana community to tear down a children's campsite in order to build low-cost government housing. (This sure doesn't sound like the usual Lucy episode, does it?). As the president will be passing through Lucy's town, he invites himself over for a 30-minute visit the following day.
Naturally, panic sets in as Lucy scrambles to make her house presentable and later to cook dinner for the growing number of guests. Ed MacMahon, 12 years Ball's junior, plays Floyd, her husband, while Gale Gordon is awkwardly cast as Floyd's father and Lucy's father-in-law, Omar. Vivian Vance, as usual, plays Viv, Lucy's best friend, while two other Lucy series regulars, Mary Wickes and Mary Jane Croft (whose last acting role this also was) are Aunt Millie and friend Midge, respectively, the latter the wife of Mayor Wally Bowser (James E. Broadhead).
Steve Allen, playing himself, shows up to interview Lucy for his television program while Joey Forman has a small part as Secret Service Agent Thatcher, who is mistaken for a prowler and bonked on the head with a frying pan.
Despite the show's topicality, perhaps acknowledging the influence of Norman Lear-produced shows at the time, and a few insults about the Carter Administration from Omar, a straight-ticket Republican, mostly it's business as usual. Lucy and Viv have a food fight (with cake frosting played by Silly String), Lucy gets to play (badly) the saxophone, there's some funny business with Lucy being interviewed by Steve Allen - she's does amusing shtick nervously fiddling with a microphone - and I found myself actually laughing out loud at the climax, where all goes to hell in a hand basket.
However, in the three-plus years since her last sitcom, Ball had aged alarmingly. She was, admittedly, 66 years old at the time but looks a good ten years older, with baggy eyes and smoker's croak deeper than the voices of her male co-stars. She'd have been believable cast as Gale Gordon's wife but not as Ed MacMahon's, who was comparatively fit at this time. (Broadhead explains in an interview that MacMahon had recently lost 50 pounds dieting.) Lucy, on the other hand, looks like she could have been Ed's former kindergarten teacher.
Though obviously sweetened by a laugh track, the live, appreciative audience clearly is eating it all up, especially the scenes teaming Ball with Vance, which are touching as well as funny. Vance had a stroke in 1973 and though otherwise fine, the left side of her mouth is a little paralyzed, and the direction favors her right side throughout the show.
Video & Audio
Lucy Calls the President seems to have been the only Lucy project ever recorded on (4:3 standard size) videotape versus the multi-camera 35mm film system devised by Karl Freund and Desi Arnaz for I Love Lucy and used throughout Ball's long TV career. The use of videotape is initially jarring, with the show visually resembling a '70s Norman Lear show more than a classic Lucy one. However, the use of tape had one lasting benefit: all the rehearsal and multiple performances, from each camera angle, apparently still survive and some of that material turns up here as an extra feature. The 2.0 mono audio is adequate and optional English subtitles are included.
"From Rehearsal to Broadcast: Lucy Calls the President Lost Production Footage," presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, is fascinating stuff. Mainly, it offers a glimpse into the last-minute fine-tuning of shows like this, with the actors in costume finalizing their blocking and performances, leaving out only physical bits that otherwise might ruin their costumes, etc. There's not a whole lot of difference between this footage and the final product, but it's heretofore unseen, mesmerizing material. Broadhead, the only survivor among the main cast, appears in an introduction to the show and is back for the featurette "Working with Lucy," with the actor recalling performing with the cast and crew of this, Mame (1974), and Here's Lucy with impressive detail and warm affection. Also included is an audio interview with Steve Allen conducted by Lucy herself, as part of her CBS radio series Let's Talk to Lucy, this episode from January 14, 1965. (Amusingly, she can be heard lighting up and chain smoking throughout the show.) Finally, Ball's undated appearance on The Tonight Show, in what looks like a black and white kinescope, is included. It seems to date from about late-1968.
Thanks to an active estate eager to maintain the legacy of Lucille Ball, the comedienne's television work, regardless of the label releasing it, has consistently been given first class treatment and this is no exception, minor though this special is. For fans, Lucy Calls the President is enthusiastically Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.