I Love Lucy was one of the few sitcoms that knew how to manage its guest stars, either in wonderful character bits or as themselves.
In the fall of 1954, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's genre-defining sitcom was beginning its fourth year. By then, I Love Lucy was the most watched series on TV, with Season Three's birth of Little Ricky the single most popular episode in the medium's young history.
After exploring just about every conceivable comic circumstance in its first seasons, the show was ready for new angles. As demonstrated by Paramount's new DVD release, I Love Lucy: The Complete Fourth Season, the writers were more than up to the task, taking Lucy and Desi's real life superstardom as fodder. The Ricardos and the Mertzes went to Hollywood.
I Love Lucy was always based in show business. Ricky Ricardo, brilliantly played by Arnaz, was a famous orchestra leader in New York. His best friends and landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance and William Frawley) were retired vaudevillians. Feeling out of the professional performing loop, Lucille McGillicuddy Ricardo spent all kinds of energy trying to be part of Ricky's show, and landing herself more often than not in bizarre situations.
Season Four begins with plots concerning Lucy's manic money-juggling skills ("The Business Manager") and attempts at playing "The Match Maker." But by the sixth episode, something surprising happens. Ricky is offered the role of Don Juan in a major MGM musical, and the rest of the season focuses on his screen test, casting, and the eventual trip to Hollywood.
The change from New York to Tinsel Town was a natural. I Love Lucy was one of the few sitcoms that knew how to manage its guest stars, either in wonderful character bits or as themselves (past seasons had seen Gale Gordon, Hans Conried, and Sheldon Leonard in key roles). And thanks to the encyclopedic extras included in this DVD set, we learn about the logistics of making guests an integral part of the Lucy dynamic. The writers knew that, no matter how recognizable the new actor was, the regulars were the show's true main focus. Everything needed to work together, not against each other, to make an episode successful.
By 1954, Lucy and Desi's famous friends were asking to appear on the show. Making Ricky a fledgling film star and relocating the series to Los Angeles (where it was produced, after all) satisfied everyone: it gave I Love Lucy a new and sensational storyline and granted celebrities a chance for face time.
Of course, the families had to travel to California, and getting there was half the fun. The set-up and travel portion (from Episode 13 to 17) gives us some classic comedy. The Mertzes and Ricardos end up at the worst roadside diner/hotel in the history of highway travel when they make their "First Stop," and visit "Ethel's Home Town" of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she, not Ricky, is treated like royalty. Both episodes feature some amazingly huge slapstick set pieces, like "Stop"'s surreal hotel room that literally shifts uncontrollably with every passing train. They also prove conclusively that no one did big, broad physical shtick better than I Love Lucy.
Once the crew reached the West Coast, light, the series blossomed, attracting some of the biggest names in the business. Classic moments with William Holden ("L.A. at Last"), Hedda Hopper, Van Johnson ("The Dancing Star"), Rock Hudson ("In Palm Springs"), and Harpo Marx turned watching I Love Lucy into certified stargazing. Some of the actors were shilling upcoming projects (Holden was promoting The Country Girl with Grace Kelly), while others, like Johnson, were taking part for the sheer joy of working with Lucy and Desi -- this according to the box set bonus material.
Many of the beloved bits that series fans recall - Lucy lighting a putty nose on fire, her stalking of Cornel Wilde, or playing mirror pantomime with Harpo -- come directly from her character's interaction with movie stars. But all this focus on fame has an odd side effect: Ricky drops out of the picture. Instead of being a foil for his crazy wife, he's cast aside to make room for big names.
This is partly because Lucy was always the show's center. No one remembers the episodes where Ricky, Fred, or Ethel is front and center. As viewers wanted to see more and more of that ditzy redhead, intelligent businessman Desi delivered (he founded Desilu with his wife, and practically invented the three-camera set up for shooting television comedy). Several shows in this season offer only the slightest of setups ("The Fashion Show," "The Tour") in order to get Lucy and a famous face together, so they might conjure some manner of comic magic.
Obviously, hilarity did happen, along with something more long-term. Season Four marks the moment when the sitcom arrived. When big screen stars were clamoring to be on one, the genre's importance was confirmed, as was television more generally. Before, TV was considered a lesser cousin to film. They were at odds with each other as to which was the more "legitimate" form of pop culture entertainment. Thanks to I Love Lucy, and the Tinsel Town trip of Season Four, they became equals.