Monday, December 25, 2017

I Love Lucy: “The Christmas Special" and “Lucy’s Fashion Show” (Desilu Studios/CBS-TV, 1955 & 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I did watch a couple of items on CBS television: tributes to their classic sitcoms, I Love Lucy from the 1950’s and The Dick Van Dyke Show from the 1960’s. The I Love Lucy special included the Christmas show originally aired December 24, 1956 but not included on the original package of I Love Lucy reruns and not seen again after its initial airing until the 1990’s, when CBS announced a much-ballyhooed “rediscovery” of the program and put it on. They showed it last night in a “colorized” version, which in some respects was hideous (particularly the lime-green uniforms given to Desi Arnaz’s band members) but at least was colorful, in sharp contrast to the dirty greens and browns that pass for “color” on TV and especially in feature films today. The reason this show was left off the original I Love Lucy rerun package was that it was at least partly thrown together from earlier episodes, presented as flashbacks: the frantic dash to the hospital for the birth of Ricky Ricardo, Jr. (when Lucy got pregnant Desi Arnaz, who produced I Love Lucy as well as co-starring in it, and his writers decided that instead of having her take a break at the height of her popularity to have her baby, they’d write her pregnancy into the show and have Lucy Ricardo have a baby as well — and there’s a humorous memo quoted in some of the biographies of Lucille Ball to the effect that the writers had to decide that the Ricardos’ baby would be a boy regardless of the sex the actual Arnazes’ baby turned out to be, and “if the Arnaz baby turns out to be a boy” — which he did — “people will assume the I Love Lucy producers are clairvoyant”), though they also shot some new material for this episode, including Ricky Ricardo, Jr. (Keith Thibodeaux, later known as Richard Keith) pounding away quite capably on a set of trap drums and a quite amusing ending in which, in order to preserve Little Ricky’s boyhood belief in Santa Claus, all four of the principals — Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley — dress in Santa suits, and a fifth Santa mysteriously appears. When they pull his beard, they can’t — indicating a) the beard is real and b) the writers are copying the famous gag from the film Miracle on 34th Street — and the fifth “Santa” mysteriously disappears as the four human ones look on in awe. I was rather thinking, given the penchant of Desi Arnaz for recruiting famous Hollywood stars to do cameos in the later stages of I Love Lucy, that it would turn out to be Miracle on 34th Street star Edmund Gwenn in a guest appearance in his most famous role (which would have been possible; he would live for two more years after this episode was shot), but no-o-o-o-o, apparently we were supposed to think he was the real St. Nick deal …

The other I Love Lucy episode they showed last night, “The Fashion Show” (originally aired February 28, 1955), was one involving the top Los Angeles fashion designer Don Loper (playing himself). with Lucy and Ricky staying in Beverly Hills and Lucy deciding, of course, that she just has to buy an original dress by Don Loper even though the minimum cost of a Don Loper creation is $500 (in 1955 dollars!) and Ricky will only budget $100 for it. Lucy and Ethel (Vivian Vance, but you probably knew that already) visit Loper’s studio — the colorizers really went crazy on this one, giving him a neon-bright pink-red couch and hilariously unmatching green cushions on it — and the show becomes an illustration of the old maxim that if you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford it. Lucy feels in the sleeve of the first dress Loper’s people show her, a frilly white number that looked to me like it was cut down from a wedding gown, for the price tag, only her wedding ring gets caught in it (heavy-duty symbolism here!) and she has a hard time extricating her arm from the dress without tearing it. Eventually she sees a relatively simple black item she likes, only it too is $500. Then Loper gets a visit from Gordon MacRae’s wife Sheila (playing herself), who announces that that very day they’re supposed to be having a fashion show at Loper’s at which the wives of famous movie stars will be invited to model — and when one of the wives (Frances Dee, long-time Mrs. Joel McCrea) cancels at the last minute, Lucy fakes a phone call to MGM to make it sound like her husband is starring in a big-budget remake of Don Juan (which, given Desi’s legendary off-screen antics in various women’s bedrooms, would actually have been not-bad casting for him!) so she’ll be invited to participate in the show. Only she goes into sticker shock when she finds out she’s not only expected to pay for the dress she’s going to wear, since Loper is altering it for her she can’t return it afterwards. So she deliberately gets herself sunburned so she’ll have an excuse not to participate — only it turns out Loper had already promised Lucy’s dress to someone else in the show but he’ll give Lucy the dress if she models a green (at least in this colorized version) tweed suit — which she does, albeit in excruciating pain as she tries to keep the suit and whatever she’s wearing under it from rubbing against the  burned parts of her body.

This was an ironic show because Lucy had started out as a fashion model; she’d worked shows in New York City and was there discovered by Busby Berkeley, who put her in the chorus for his final movie for Sam Goldwyn, Roman Scandals (1933), and “dressed” her — the quotes are genuinely merited — in one of his most audacious inspirations: she was totally naked except for a very long wig carefully coiffed to cover the “naughty bits.” Later she got an RKO contract when they were looking for girls who’d worked for Bergdorf Goodman in New York to play models in the big fashion show at the end of Roberta. Lucy hadn’t actually worked for Bergdorf but she had modeled in a show an outside promoter had put on there, and she figured that was close enough, applied for the job and got it. (I remember when Roberta was first revived theatrically in the late 1970’s, audiences gasped in recognition when she appeared — “That’s Lucille Ball!” went the murmur throughout the theatre.) The high point of this episode is seeing Lucy stumble through the task of runway modeling when we know this was something she could do perfectly; it’s one of the higher-rated I Love Lucy’s on and, though it may not be as legendary as the grape-stomping or “Vitameatavegamin” episodes, it’s still a lot of fun as well as a nicely nostalgic look back at Lucy’s past.