“I Love Lucy” in the Movies

If anyone has paid attention to my blog, they may have noticed that I have an affinity towards Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy, and anything and anyone Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy-adjacent. With today (March 2nd) being Desi Arnaz’ birthday, I thought it’d be the perfect time to launch a new blog idea that I had. This came to me the other day after I recognized yet another character actor in a film who appeared in one or more I Love Lucy episodes. It is not surprising that so many character actors appeared in both film and I Love Lucy, because Lucille Ball herself consistently worked in movies up until her legend-making turn as Lucy Ricardo in the greatest sitcom in television history–I Love Lucy. I know it’s quite the claim, but I stand by it.

Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers in “Stage Door.”

Lucille Ball had appeared in over seventy films prior to moving to the small screen in 1951. She had been in movies for about 20 years by that point and while she was regularly cast in films and appeared in A-list productions, she never quite crossed over into A-list movie star like her peers, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn. She made her first (uncredited) film appearance as a slave girl in 1933’s Roman Scandals with Eddie Cantor. It would be a few years before Lucy would receive an on-screen film credit. In 1937, she finally got her shot at a good part when she was cast in the A-list production, Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. Lucy played the supporting role of Judith Canfield, a fellow aspiring actress who lives the boarding house with Hepburn and Rogers.

In 1938, Lucy got her shot at a starring role when RKO gave her the lead role of Annabel Allison, in The Affairs of Annabel. I think this is a very charming film and features Lucy as an exasperated actress whose agent (played by Jack Oakie) keeps getting her involved in all kinds of crazy situations–all in the name of publicity for her latest film. That same year, a follow-up film, Annabel Takes a Tour was produced. RKO originally intended to turn ‘Annabel’ into a movie serial a la the Maisie (starring Ann Sothern) and Torchy Blane (starring Glenda Farrell) film series, but only two films were ever produced. I have read that Jack Oakie wanted too much money to continue in the series and the idea was scrapped. It’s a shame too, because even as early as 1938, Lucy showed that she had talent for physical comedy. RKO continued to cast Lucy in leading roles in a variety of B-pictures, leading to her earning the nickname, “Queen of the Bs.”

Lucy and Desi in the early years of their marriage.

In 1940, Lucy was cast in the Broadway adaptation of Too Many Girls, which had been a bit hit on the New York stage the year prior. Some of the original cast members were coming to Hollywood to appear in the movie adaptation. One of these cast members was a young 23-year old conga drummer and orchestra leader named Desi Arnaz. He would be making his film debut. There is a funny story about when Lucy and Desi first met. In her autobiography, Love Lucy, Lucy says that she was instantly head over heels in love with the handsome Cuban Arnaz. Desi on the other hand, took a little more convincing. In his memoir, A Book, Desi says that he was not into Lucy at all when he first saw her. She had just come from filming a fight scene with Maureen O’Hara in her film, Dance Girl Dance, and looked a mess. Her dress was torn, her hair mussed, and she was sporting a huge fake black eye. Later, when they met again at a cast party, Lucy had cleaned herself up and Desi was smitten. By the end of the year, on November 30, Lucy and Desi were married.

Fast forward 10 years. Lucy’s film career is really going nowhere and she has transitioned into radio. She starred on the popular CBS radio show, My Favorite Husband, with Richard Denning. Desi was on the road with his orchestra constantly. Lucy and Desi were on the verge of divorce due to not seeing one another and various other issues along the way. They decided that to save their relationship, they would try and find a project to do together. CBS wanted to move My Favorite Husband to the new medium of television. Lucy was interested, however, she wanted Desi to play her husband. CBS balked, stating that nobody would believe the All-American (read: white) Lucy was married to the Cuban (read: Latino) Desi. Despite them actually being married in real life. To prove that they were a marketable team, Lucy and Desi had the writing team (Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr. and Jess Oppenheimer) from My Favorite Husband, put together an act that they can take on the road.

Married couple Desi and Lucy on the road trying to sell America on them being a believable married couple.

Lucy and Desi’s act ended up being used in I Love Lucy during the first season. Their act consisted of the “Professor” bit from Season 1, Episode 6 “The Audition,” and the “Cuban Pete/Sally Sweet” number from Season 1, Episode 4, “The Diet.” Lucy and Desi’s show was a smash-hit and they were given the go-ahead to put together a pilot. The pilot episode obviously sold and I Love Lucy was born. Throughout the entirety of her decades’ long television career, Lucy always remembered how nice the character actors were to her when she was starting out in movies. She used her television stardom to give jobs to those who she’d worked with (or was acquainted with) prior. No doubt, the actor who benefitted most from Lucy’s generosity was William Frawley.

By 1951, Frawley was pretty much out of pictures as he’d gotten a bad reputation due to his alcoholism. When he got word that Lucy and Desi were looking for someone to play Fred Mertz in their new television show, he reached out. Lucy was immediately on-board, stating that “he was Fred Mertz. Period.” CBS wasn’t sold on the idea, as they didn’t want to take a chance on a known alcoholic. Desi Arnaz, trusting Lucy and his gut, felt that Frawley was perfect for the role. He made a deal. If Frawley was unable to work, be on-time for rehearsals and performances, or be unable to perform due to alcoholism, Desi would have him written off the show. Frawley agreed and to his credit, he made good on his end of the deal. And with that, Frawley would eventually earn a spot in the echelon of television legends.

Vivian Vance was discovered on stage in La Jolla, California. She was appearing in the play, “The Voice of the Turtle.” I Love Lucy‘s director, Marc Daniels, had heard about Vance and suggested that he and Desi drive down to La Jolla from LA and check her out. They did and Desi hired her on the spot. Lucy hadn’t met Vance and wanted either Bea Benederet or Barbara Pepper for the role of Ethel Mertz, Fred’s wife. Lucy was friends with both Benederet and Pepper. However, Benederet was already attached to another television show and Pepper was a known alcoholic. With William Frawley already cast, CBS didn’t want to take a chance on another alcoholic. Desi told Lucy that Vance was perfect for the part. She trusted him and Vance turned out to be one of Lucy’s lifelong best friends.

Vivian Vance and William Frawley as everyone’s favorite neighbors and landlords, the Mertzes.

With the legendary cast set, I Love Lucy was ready for production. In almost every one of the 180 episodes (plus hundreds of additional episodes of Lucy’s The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy programs), numerous character actors who Lucy had worked with (or knew about) were cast in small roles in various episodes. Lucy’s status as an actress also made her (and Desi) acquainted with larger stars as well. By the fourth season, when the Ricardos and Mertzes travel to Hollywood, I Love Lucy was such a massive hit that movie stars were coming to Lucy and Desi wanting to be on the show; or, Lucy and Desi were big enough stars by that time that they also carried considerable sway to get these stars to appear on their show, in exchange for publicity for an upcoming project.

With this feature on my blog, I am going to highlight films who contain an actor with a connection to I Love Lucy. Whether it is a more obscure actor, e.g. Eduardo Ciannelli, who appears as the villain, Johnny Vanning, in Marked Woman (1937), but more importantly played Mr. Martinelli the owner of the pizza restaurant in I Love Lucy, Season 6, Episode 5 , “Visitor From Italy” or a big star like Charles Boyer, who appears as himself in Season 5, Episode 19, “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” I’m going to try and cover it all. Obviously, if Lucy herself is the only link, that seems a little too obvious, but who knows, maybe I’ll go with it.