Seasons seven, eight and nine of I Love Lucy mark the tail-end of this pioneering sitcom’s life. Granted, Lucy and Ricky were obviously older adults by then. But even with the aging of the series and its stars, these factors did not prevent the series from remaining fresh and funny ’til the very end.
Also called the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hours, these episodes have not been syndicated to death on television over the years, unlike the earlier shows. So while the characters are familiar, these comedic situations are still relatively new, even for those already familiar with the program’s classic episodes.
As its alternate show title implies, these programs are 60 minutes long. The fact that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez can keep the laughs coming fast and furious for twice the usual length of your typical sitcom is truly laudable. Another advantage these latter programs have over the originals is that they’re not all claustrophobically filmed in Lucy’s small living space stage set.
Much like The Honeymooners, one of the I Love Lucy contemporaries, Ball and Arnez did amazing things with limited stage space. But during these extended stories, the cast gets transported to foreign lands, like Japan and Mexico, and more exotic locales, such as hunting uranium in Las Vegas and skiing in Sun Valley. These are like comedic movie shorts, rather than typical sitcom programs.
It’s obvious the series’ producers intended to fit as many celebrities on-screen as possible. Every show featured one or more guest star. But some of these famous ones were well beyond their prime by the late ’50s, when these shows were filmed, namely folks like Rudy Vallee and Maurice Chevalier. But Fernando Lamas still looked good skiing with Lucy during “Lucy Goes to Sun Valley”, and it was still believable when Fred Mertz drooled over Betty Grable’s legs during “Lucy Wins a Racehorse”.
Grable appears along with trumpeter / bandleader / husband Harry James in “Lucy Wins a Racehorse”, also one of this set’s funniest programs. Against Ricky’s wishes, Lucy wins a racehorse for Little Ricky in a breakfast cereal contest. The horse arrives at the house. Lucy is struggling to lead him upstairs as Fred and Ethel push from below, when Ricky catches them. When Ricky asks about it, Lucy answers, “What horse?” And when he restates that there is a horse in the house, she then answers, “What house?”
Although it may not be the funniest episode of them all, “Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana”, which opens season 7, tells the intriguing story of how Lucy and Ricky met. At that time, Lucy’s character was known as Lucy McGillicuddy. For serious fans of the show, this offers an essential bit of trivia.
Ball engages in plenty of physical comedy, her strongpoint, throughout. For instance, during “Lucy Wins a Racehorse”, she somehow finds herself racing her new horse at the track. During “Lucy Goes to Mexico”, Mrs. Ricardo morphs into a bullfighter. Back on the old show, you never would have spied Lucy in a bullring or a racetrack. Yet here she is navigating zany situations with large animals in the great outdoors.
Ricky’s jokes are more verbal than visual, mainly playing upon his Cuban accent for American audiences. For instance, the script has him saying the word “jealous” several times during “Lucy Goes to Sun Valley” because it always comes out “yellous” when he says it. Of course, it’s worth a chuckle every time Ricky’s eyes bug out at one of Lucy’s hair brained ideas.
With all of its star power, Ricky takes full advantage of his many newfound musical opportunities. He sings a duet with Chevalier, giving a song the Cuban treatment as Chevalier makes it French. He also has Harry James blow a wonderfully blasting trumpet solo on “Lucy Wins a Racehorse”. In a couple of places, the extremely young Little Ricky gets to show off his drumming skills. Like (TV) father, like son, I guess.
It would be great to hear what the I Love Lucy producers and writers had to say about making this show, because the writing is topnotch throughout out. Sadly, none of these participants are heard from during the various “Special Features” sections. Instead, the viewer gets deleted scenes, flubs, the original opening and closing, and three original Ford Motor commercials in the extras. None are hardly worth inclusion.
I was skeptical about the quality of these latter-day I Love Lucy episodes. After all, I’ve seen too many other sitcoms run out of original ideas after far fewer seasons than nine. But the entertainment value of this re-released set is a pleasant surprise. Like Muhammad Ali in his twilight years, this show relied on craftiness instead of high energy to make it work. What worked so well at the beginning, with just a bit of adjustment, was still working to perfection so many years later.