[8 May 2014]
Start ranking prominent female comedians of the last century, and Lucille Ball’s name is sure to be among them, usually towards the top. From 1951 to 1957, her groundbreaking sitcom I Love Lucy stayed at the top of the ratings for four of its six seasons.
Even today, Ball remains a massive draw for television audiences. As recently as last December, CBS aired a colorized version of the I Love Lucy Christmas special in primetime, which garnered 8.65 million viewers, beating out both It’s A Wonderful Life on NBC and the most recent Peanuts Christmas special on Fox. The fact that I Love Lucy remains so popular 57 years after it ended is a true testament to the star’s talent.
And make no mistake; it was Ball’s talent that kept audiences coming back for more. Desi Arnaz as Lucy’s persnickety husband, Ricky Ricardo, as well as Vivian Vance and William Frawley as the Ricardo’s landlords and best friends, Ethel and Fred Mertz, all deserve honorable mentions. They were invaluable characters, and each lent their own brand of comedic brilliance to their roles. But they all revolved around Lucy, and it was her outrageous antics, half-baked schemes, and zany characters that always drove the show forward.
Episodes of I Love Lucy are not hard to find. Individual packages of each season, as well as a box set of the entire series, are all available on DVD. Clips abound on YouTube. But a new collection of the first season just became available, released for the first time on Blu-ray and it’s called “Ultimate Season One” for very good reason. All 35 episodes here are presented in two ways: the syndicated broadcast version, with the well-known heart on satin-curtain openings and closings; and as they were originally broadcast, with an opening and closing vignette featuring Ball and Arnaz as stick-figure cartoons, additional scenes rarely televised for syndication, and all of the original commercials.
Certain episodes are presented yet a third way: the rerun broadcasts that aired during the second year of I Love Lucy while Ball was on maternity leave. These rebroadcasts sometimes added new scenes or dialogue that replaced original versions. This box set has included all elements for these episodes, meaning these “rerun” versions retain original dialogue and scenes from the original broadcast as well as any additional content added for the later version.
This means that you could potentially watch one episode of I Love Lucy three different ways and see something a little different each time. It’s truly a “completest” set. For I Love Lucy fans, there’s simply no other way to watch this show.
The commercials in particular are a fascinating glance back in time. Big Tobacco Company Philip Morris, “America’s most enjoyable cigarette”, sponsored I Love Lucy for three years. In fact, because advertising sponsorship could sink or swim a show back then, it was only due to Philip Morris that I Love Lucy was able to get on the air in the first place. Sponsors had enormous influence over the direction of a show. In the case of I Love Lucy, Philip Morris insisted that the show be set in New York City instead of Los Angeles, as originally planned.
These original commercials also lend a new context to the series missing from syndicated versions. In the famous Vitameatavegamin episode (contained in this season), Lucy tries to convince Ricky to let her perform in a television commercial. When he refuses, she guts their TV set and crawls inside, dressed in a bellhop hat. Holding a pack of cigarettes aloft, Lucy cries, “Call for Philip Morris!” and then promptly drops the cigarettes through the nonexistent “screen”, effectively ruining the illusion.
A bit obscure to modern audiences, watching the episode with the commercials intact sheds new light on the entire joke. The skit is a reference to Johnny Roventini, Philip Morris’ “living trademark”, who began most episodes of I Love Lucy dressed as a bellhop and yelling “Call for Philip Morris” in a haunting B-flat monotone.
In an era when any and all cigarette advertising is banned, the constant pall of smoking over the show’s proceedings firmly plant I Love Lucy in the time and place in which today’s aversion was originally conceived. In post-WWII America, nearly half of all Americans smoked, and the long-term health effects were just beginning to become apparent. Evidence suggests that tobacco companies knew about these risks long before the public did, and nonetheless tried everything they could to ensure their product stayed at the center of a daily routine.
In these commercials, it’s suggested, with the help various spokespersons, that the only real way to enjoy I Love Lucy is with a Philip Morris cigarette in your hand. In the show itself, Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred all smoke on occasion, and Ball and Arnaz even appear in their own commercial, Ball exclaiming, “Don’t say cigarette! Say Philip Morris!” Time and again, audiences are assured it’s a “scientific fact” that Philip Morris is the “only brand proved definitely less mild, definitely less irritating, than any other leading brand.”
This kind of propaganda, which only the tobacco industry is capable of, is what makes this new collection so intriguing, especially when a disclaimer now airs before each episode that reads: WE DO NOT RECOMMEND SMOKING, WHICH CAUSES LUNG CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES.
I Love Lucy has been treasured for years, but this is the first time since the show ended that it has been presented in a manner so thoroughly studied and examined within its historical context. And that’s fitting for a show that broke so much ground. It was the first show to feature a mixed-race marriage, starred the first Hispanic headliner on network television, contained the first time pregnancy ever featured on air (although not the word itself), and pioneered the multi-camera, live studio audience set-up that’s still in wide use today.
I Love Lucy is more than just a really, really, funny show – it’s an enduring piece of television history. And thanks to this new Blu-ray set, an entirely new generation of fans can love Lucy for years to come.