All was not well on the set of I Love Lucy‘s sixth season. While the show was still a monster hit, there were battles being waged that threatened to undermine the series’ success once and for all. What had begun as an attempt by a Hollywood starlet and her bandleader husband to “save” their marriage was failing to achieve its goal.
This tension can be seen throughout the final season, finally available on DVD. The Ricardos and the Mertzes are in plotline limbo. Instead of an overriding story, like a trip to Europe (Season Five) or a brief move to Hollywood (Season Four), Ricky (Desi Arnaz), Lucy (Lucille Ball), Fred (William Frawley), and Ethel (Vivian Vance) are back home in the city. This means it’s time for more sublime slapstick, famous guest stars (Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Superman George Reeves), and ploys only Lucille Ball could conjure.
In addition, Little Ricky, the child whose third season delivery was the birth felt round the television world, was no longer just a parental prop. Portrayed by pint-sized powerhouse Keith Thibodeaux, he was afforded more screen time while Ricky had less. This may have been just as well: his new reality wasn’t as carefree as it once was.
Along with the usual family fracases, the sixth season came up with a big change. By 1957, suburbia seemed the answer to the metropolitan miseries of the big cities. People were looking for quaint cottages “in the country” to satisfy their need for a slower, simpler life. Following the trend (that would eventually find its fulfillment with the marvelous Dick Van Dyke Show), the show moved to Connecticut.
The final episodes, starting with “Lucy Wants to Move to the Country” and ending with the final half hour version of I Love Lucy, “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue,” gathered unexpected energy. Within the cosmopolitan country dynamic, the show found silly and satirical stories. In order to pay for their new living arrangement (the Mertzes came along as well), the families go into the poultry farming business. This leads to one of the classic episodes in the Lucy canon, “Lucy Raises Chickens.” While Fred finishes repairing the enclosure, Lucy and Ethel jump the gun and buy hundreds of newborn peeps. Since it’s cold outside (the heater has yet to be installed in the coop), they decide to put the chicks in Ricky’s den. Naturally, a certain small boy finds the foundlings fascinating, and before you know it, our whacky redhead is running from dozens of baby birds. It’s a surreal and satisfying sight.
The new surroundings provide new neighbors. Lucy becomes chummy with self-described socialite Betty Ramsey (Mary Jane Croft). She and her henpecked husband Ralph (the inimitable Mr. “YEEEEEEESSSSS?” Frank Nelson) are perfect foils, challenging Lucy and Ricky’s sense of famous-people’s privilege. The Ramseys use their friendship with the Ricardos to boost their own status, creating a lovely little tension between the couples.
Other tensions emerge as well. At the very end of Season Six, “Country Club Dance” considers female jealousy occasioned by the dishy Diana (Barbara Eden). When she arrives for the annual local shindig, the previously pooped out men (who won’t dance with their dissatisfied spouses) perk up for the glamour gal. Furious, the ladies decide to doll themselves up, and we get another hilarious set piece as Lucy and Ethel (and now Betsy too) overdo the ravishment, looking ridiculous in the process. On the commentary track for this episode, Eden recalls that appearing on the show was both intimidating and exhilarating. The stars were supportive and, aside from the ongoing feud between Vance and Frawley, everyone seemed to enjoy working together.
Still, Season Six was inconsistent. In their commentary, writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Schiller confess it was hard to find plotlines for Little Ricky. He appears repeatedly as a chip off the old conga block. Over the first third of the season, he learns to bang the skins like his old man (“Little Ricky Learns to Play the Drums”), performs live on stage (“Little Ricky’s School Pageant”), and suffers through his first bout of pre-performance jitters (“Little Ricky Gets Stage Fright”). When this concept turns old, he gets a pet. Fred the dog saves the day on many occasions during Season Six’s final weeks, keeping Little Ricky’s focus off the adults.
In the end, the grind was just too great, though I Love Lucy was still the number one show when it closed up shop. Lucy and Desi would continue working together for another three years, taping comedy specials with a smorgasbord of famous faces. It is clear, even as far back as Season Four, that I Love Lucy needed the famous to shore up against the disintegrating relations among regular cast members. Vance and Frawley hated each other, refusing to do scenes requiring any kind of physical contact. The collapse of Lucy and Desi’s marriage took years. That these sad stories underlay such great comedy is part of I Love Lucy‘s enduring legacy. Fifty years later, the truth is apparent in every minute of this final, fascinating season.