Nonetheless, the later seasons of The Lucy Show are decidedly weak, often buoyed only by the big Hollywood stars Ball's show was able to draw, and by her obvious determination to be amusingly ridiculous. She was 55 years old in 1966, and so wealthy she easily could've retired had she wanted to. But there she is, week-in and week-out, doing outrageous and often very physical gags with a work ethic and commitment to the gag worthy of Keaton.
You won't be loving Lucy all that much watching The Official Fifth Season, but as with all other Ball-related DVD releases produced in conjunction with her estate (and its obviously well-maintained archives), the video transfers and extra features are splendiferous, plentiful, and often fascinating. As I've said in other reviews, if only all classic TV releases were this good.
While I found most episodes disappointing, the extra features really compensate in this instance. In particular, the set includes a long-lost prime time special, Lucy in London, a program that aired just once and was quickly forgotten, along with a documentary about its unique production. By themselves, they validate the entire set. More on that below.
By this point The Lucy Show had mutated into something as gaudy and artificial as Ball's famously hennaed hair. The series began well, with widow Lucy Carmichael (Lucille Ball) and her two children sharing a New York State home with best friend Vivian Bagley (Vivian Vance) and her boy. Lucy sparred with her banker, originally played by the great character actor Charles Lane but soon replaced by Ball's favorite foil, Gale Gordon, as blustery tightwad Mr. Mooney.
Over time, Lucy Carmichael's two kids faded into oblivion, Vance left the show, making only rare guest appearances thereafter, while Lucy moved to Hollywood and went to work for Mr. Mooney (who'd conveniently, independently relocated there himself, at the exact same time). So instead of a sitcom about two middle-aged, man-hungry girlfriends with kids in picturesque Danfield, New York, The Lucy Show was now about two middle-aged rivals with no kids, working at a bank in movie star-infested Beverly Hills.
But the real problem was that, in an attempt to keep coming up with wacky situations for Lucy to find herself in, the show's writers subtly but ruinously altered Lucy's television persona. On I Love Lucy and the early seasons of The Lucy Show, Ball's character was naïve and occasionally foolish, her ambition to break into show business or find loopholes around her limited resources inspired crazy schemes that always ended in disaster.
On later seasons of The Lucy Show, however, she's unpardonably stupid. This is exemplified in "Lucy and John Wayne," also the name of a 1955 I Love Lucy show but which had an entirely different plot. In the earlier episode (and the one preceding it) Lucy, ever on the hunt for nifty Hollywood souvenirs to take back home to New York, notices that John Wayne's footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater have become loose, and with Ethel's (Vance) help steals the concrete slab, hiding it in her hotel suite. Improbable, perhaps, but given the public's (then and now) obsession with celebrities and collectibles, not entirely unreasonable.
In The Lucy Show version of "Lucy and John Wayne," Lucy's friend Mary Jane (Mary Jane Croft) invites Lucy to visit her at the studio where she works, and where Lucy finagles her way onto the set of John Wayne's latest movie. Forgetting that the production of a movie Western isn't remotely like what's depicted here (e.g., a lengthy saloon brawl is filmed in a single, uninterrupted take), the script requires Lucy to behave like a total moron. She spoils take-after-take with her idiocy, screaming, for instance, when a stuntman throws a fake punch Duke's way, and Lucy absurdly thinks the movie cowboy is not only doing it for real, but that he's a bona fide bad guy threatening her all-time favorite actor. In another show, Lucy comes to believe Mr. Mooney has turned into a chimpanzee. Further evaporating any credibility: one episode has Lucy trapped in a submarine, while another, through a clerical error, has her drafted (just in time for Vietnam) and forced to join the Marines!
Executive Producer Lucy deserves most of the blame, especially for replacing longtime writers/collaborators Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn Davis, Bob Schiller, and Bob Weiskopf, all veterans of I Love Lucy, with lesser talents like "executive writer" Bob O'Brien and Elroy Schwartz.
What makes these The Lucy Shows almost bearable are the guest stars: George Burns, Jack Benny (sort of), Ed Begley, Paul Winchell, Don Beddoe, Pat Priest, Carol Burnett, Dan Rowan (Dick Martin having co-starred in The Lucy Show's first year), Jim Nabors, Joseph Ruskin, Morgan Woodward, Pat Collins, Phil Silvers, Ruta Lee, Mel Tormé, Vivian Vance, Roy Barcroft, Burt Mustin, Claude Akins, Don Rickles, Tennessee Ernie Ford, (the late) Robert Easton, and Sheldon Leonard. Actors Ball used again and again also appear, including Mary Jane Croft, Roy Roberts, Sid Gould, Herb Vigran, Mary Wickes, Iris Adrian, and Lucie Arnaz. Also, a very young Joe Pesci appears, unbilled, in the episodes "Lucy Gets a Roommate" and "Lucy and Carol in Palm Spring."
Video & Audio
As with all (official) Lucy-related DVD releases, The Lucy Show - The Official Fifth Season looks splendid in its original full-frame format, strong color and sharpness throughout, with 22 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.
The real prize here in Lucy in London, a rather amazing television special filmed entirely in England. The approach both jarringly and refreshingly breaks from The Lucy Show's tired format and her unfortunately stupid characterization, even though in the special Ball again plays Lucy Carmichael. A week before the one-hour special aired, The Lucy Show ran "Lucy Flies to London," a typically dumb show with Lucy trapped on what turns out to be a commuter flight with Mr. Mooney. The special, however, is another matter entirely.
Instead of what you might have expected - something like Lucy disguising herself as a Buckingham Palace guard in order to meet Richard Burton, for instance - the show instead is a rather hip musical-comedy fantasy. With only one day to see the sights, Lucy allows tour guide Anthony Fitz-Faversham (Anthony Newley, about the time he was making Doctor Dolittle) to whisk her around London in his motorcycle sidecar. Around town she meets Shakespeare in the Park actor Peter Wyngarde (Peter Wyngarde) and visits Madame Tussauds, the famous wax museum, where Wilfred Hyde-White appears as a guide and James Robertson Justice as his boss. (Note: The IMDb incorrectly lists Robert Morley as appearing in this. He doesn't.)
The show is notable for integrating exceptionally well its aging comedienne into surprisingly hip material. Lucy goes Mod for one number but mostly the material works really well. Her musical interaction with the Dave Clark Five and Newley is charming instead of embarrassing, partly because of the mix of great talent involved, notably composer/arrangers Irwin Kostal and Phil Spector, choreographer David Winters, and I Spy DP Fouad Said. Perhaps director Steve Binder and writers Ron Friedman and Pat McCormick should have been doing The Lucy Show all along.
This is paired with a half-hour documentary about the making of the special, which is enlightening and entertaining on its own, and which is supported by rare outtakes. Also included are clips from the 1967 Emmy Awards, from a 1966 network affiliates presentation, and Ball's appearance on Victor Borge Comedy Theatre; 25 Years of Savings Bonds, a blooper reel, promos, vintage openings and closing, and the usual assortment of interesting production notes, guest biographies, and photo galleries. A mountain of material, this.
So it's for these extras and the fine video transfers rather than the season itself that this reviewer Highly Recommends The Lucy Show - The Official Fifth Season.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.