The Lucy Show (1962-68) went through multiple format changes through the years: widow Lucy Carmichael (Lucille Ball) had two children that gradually disappeared into a black hole a la the "Chuck Cunningham Syndrome"; her best friend Vivian Bagley (Vivian Vance) also gradually vanished; Lucy and, improbably, her banker nemesis Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) each moved to Southern California, reuniting so that Lucy could wage her slapstick on Hollywood's elite while getting Mr. Mooney into all kinds of embarrassing situations. When Ball sold Desilu Productions to Gulf + Western in 1967, to retain ownership of her ongoing sitcom she changed formats yet again, and The Lucy Show became Here's Lucy. But the differences were slight, and it was pretty much business as usual until it all ended in March 1974.
The Lucy Show - The Official Fourth Season (1965-66) is generally regarded as about the point where Ball's slapstick fell into creative decline. The original writers, Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn Davis, Bob Schiller, and Bob Weiskopf - all veterans of I Love Lucy - were replaced by others, briefly including Elroy Schwartz (producer Sherwood's brother), and Garry Marshall and his partner, Jerry Belson. Ball's ex-husband Desi Arnaz was no longer a guiding hand, and the show's new producers and writers gradually dumbed-down Lucy's character almost to the point where, at times, she behaved mildly retarded. The reliance on big-name guest stars was crowd-pleasing but conversely creatively stifled the show as well, much as it did I Love Lucy once that series went Hollywood.
And yet I was pleasantly surprised by this season's shows, which had me laughing out loud at least once or twice per episode. It holds up better than I remembered it when The Lucy Show was widely syndicated throughout the 1970s and it was the only thing on TV during lunchtime.
The Lucy Show - The Official Fourth Season is yet another superbly-produced DVD set thanks in part to the cooperation of the Ball estate. The transfers are excellent and there's a veritable mountain of great extra features.
The fourth season of The Lucy Show is nearly unrecognizable from the first, though the format changes were gradual and Ball was forever front-and-center. Vivian Vance, growing weary of playing essentially the same character for more than a dozen years and wanting to move back home to Connecticut, was phased out during the previous season. Ball experimented for quite a while to find her replacement. Near the end of season three the great Ann Sothern, a longtime friend of Ball's and whose The Ann Sothern Show was produced by Desilu, made several appearances as "Countess Framboise" and had great chemistry with Ball, but Sothern rejected the idea of joining the series with the same second-fiddle billing as Vance. She wanted and deserved equal billing with Ball, who refused.
Next came another big '30s star, Joan Blondell, who appears in two Season Four shows. Blondell's character, a neighbor of Lucy's, was more like Vivian Bagley but also comes off as rather abrasive, and Blondell and Ball supposedly didn't get along. Lucy finally settled on longtime radio actress Mary Jane Croft (as Mary Jane Lewis), who had appeared with Ball at various times in the past, most notably as Betty Ramsey on the Connecticut-based I Love Lucy episodes. Croft was a good choice for several reasons: she was the right age, petite and still attractive, unfazed if a little bit flighty, and she wasn't trying to compete with Vance's beloved sidekick while in many ways contrasting her. And Croft was content with being billed only in the closing credits. The opening titles show only images of Ball, though Gale Gordon is announced as her co-star in those episodes in which he appears. (Ball adored Gordon but seems to have had a history of under-appreciating her female co-stars.)
As the season begins, unseen older daughter Chris is in college while her younger brother, Jerry (Jimmy Garrett), is shipped off to military school in the season opener. (Garrett appears in one more Season Four show then disappears for good.) During that episode there's a brief reference to Vance's character who, according to Lucy, has happily remarried. Also left behind is Lucy's house in Danville, New York. She's packed up and moved into a new apartment in Hollywood.
In an only-in-TV-Land coincidence, Lucy's Danville banker and nemesis, Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) has been transferred to the very same Beverly Hills bank where Lucy keeps her new account, and before long she's working as his secretary. It may be unbelievable, but worth it: Gordon was The Lucy Show's secret weapon, a guaranteed laugh-getter.
The season's shows are generally funny if one can forgive Lucy (Carmichael)'s extreme stupidity and this season's frequent teetering toward outright fantasy, in episodes like "Lucy, the Robot" and "Lucy, the Superwoman," which approach a Gilligan's Island level of silliness. Ball turned 55 near the end of the season and was showing her age - she defiantly keeps showing off her skinny legs, like Paul Newman always finding an excuse to take off his shirt in his later films - but her good timing and willingness to subject herself to the most outrageous broad slapstick stood her in good stead with her audience. The show stayed in Nielsen's Top Ten and ended the season at #3 - actually beating out the first three years.
Besides Ann Sothern and Joan Blondell, guest stars this season include Harvey Korman, Jimmy Piersall, Howard Morris, Mel Tormé, Keith Andes (in several episodes as Lucy's neighbor-boyfriend), Danny Thomas, Clint Walker (twice), Jack Cassidy, Ross Elliott, Milton Berle, Lloyd Corrigan, Wayne Newton, Jamie Farr, Larry J. Blake, Douglas Fowley, Willard Waterman, Art Linkletter, Doris Singleton, Mickey Rooney, Jane Kean, Jan Murray, John Howard, Kirk Douglas, Vince Edwards, Bert Freed, Edward G. Robinson, Reta Shaw, Johnny Grant, Tommy Farrell, Dean Martin, Bob Crane, John Banner (as Sgt. Schultz), and Jay North.
A frail William Frawley makes a brief cameo in "Lucy and the Countess Have a Horse Guest." He died four months after it aired. Make-up man and Lon Chaney historian Michael F. Blake (the son of Larry J.) is in there somewhere in "Lucy the Choirmaster." And Robert Stack, Bruce Gordon, Steve London, and Walter Winchell all reprise their roles from The Untouchables (a Desilu show) in the penultimate episode.
Video & Audio
As with all of the (official) Lucy-related DVD releases, The Lucy Show looks splendid in its original full-frame format, strong color and sharpness throughout, with 26 episodes spread over four single-sided, dual layered DVDs. Episode titles with brief descriptions and airdates are offered as part of the packaging. The English-only mono, which is not subtitled per se but is closed captioned, sounds great, too.
Some wonderful stuff here. In addition to the usual text and still extras, including production notes, guest cast biographies, and "vintage" opening and closings, are several amazing pieces of film. The best is "The Magic of Broadcasting," excerpts from an Arthur Godfrey special partly documenting life on The Lucy Show set. Ball talks about the show in voice-over while the full-color footage (shot by Lee Mendelson's company, he of Peanuts fame) reveals the cast rehearsing on various sets, Lucy fretting in her dressing room, performing before a live audience, etc. It's really amazing stuff. (It also explains how action on two different sets is presented before a live audience: a lightweight partition hides the actors on the lighted set until their cue.) "Lucy Behind the Scenes" is essentially raw behind-the-scenes footage from "Lucy at Marineland" where, on location and somewhat out of her element, she struggles for laughs while in a tank with a pod of dolphins. She's obviously wet, unhappy, and a bit spooked by her marine mammal co-stars, but gamely soldiers on.
Ball makes a tit-for-tat appearance on a Danny Thomas special, "Wonderful World of Burlesque," in which Ball does a wire act a la Peter Pan on what looks like the Phantom Stage at Universal. She seems to have brought her owned canned laughter - it's the same audience-sweetening guffaws and "oh-oh!"s heard innumerable times on I Love Lucy.
Of less interest but still welcome is audio of Ball and Gordon doing a sketch on behalf of a Desilu sponsor, Beatrice Foods, and audio of Gordon cautioning Californians not to drink and drive, in a series of PSAs for AAA.
The Lucy Show holds up much better than I had remembered it, and even this season, not one of Lucy's best, maintains a surprisingly high comedy batting average. That coupled with strong transfers and great extras make this a can't-miss. Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.