By the late 1940s, Lucille Ball’s movie career was going nowhere. After a few years as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO, she moved to MGM. Despite being at the more glamorous studio known for “having more stars than there are in heaven,” Lucy wasn’t one of them. The biggest impact MGM had on Lucy’s career was setting Sydney Guilaroff up to do her hair for DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). He dyed her hair its signature shade of red. The red hair eventually became her trademark and she would wear it for the rest of her life. However, despite her new vivacious hair color, MGM was not giving her any roles that would catapult her into super stardom. Lucy was also in her late 30s, not old obviously, but definitely not the age of ingenue. After fifteen years in the business, it was looking like Lucy wasn’t going to make it as a movie star.
Also toiling away at MGM was silent comedy legend Buster Keaton. Buster had been a superstar back in the 1920s with his groundbreaking silent film classics such as The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr (1928), and Sherlock, Jr. (1924). He was known for his expert stunt work, impeccable timing, hilarious gags using props, and of course, being “The Great Stone Face.” In the late 1920s, MGM offered Buster a contract with their studio, which he signed despite the protests of colleagues such as Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin. Both men warned Buster that he’d be signing away all creative control if he were to sign a studio contract. Unfortunately for Buster, Lloyd and Chaplin were correct. Buster’s career was effectively ruined after signing on with MGM. The Cameraman (1928) is arguably his last, great film.
Buster ended up being tasked with making some truly terrible films in the 1930s. The direction of his career, along with pain emanating from a previously undiagnosed broken neck (broken during Sherlock, Jr.), and the breakup of his marriage to Natalie Talmadge led to him becoming an alcoholic. He languished for a while, but thankfully pulled it together by the 1940s. MGM also gave him a gig as a gag writer. He would write gags for the Marx Brothers’ last three films: At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store. He also wrote gags for In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Easy to Wed (1946) co-starring Lucille Ball.
It was during the 1940s when Buster, seeing Lucy’s potential for physical comedy, began coaching her on how to use props and how to do pratfalls without getting injured. Buster was an expert on the latter, having been literally thrown around the stage as a child during his parents’ vaudeville act. It was during one of these throws where Buster acquired his nickname, “Buster.” Buster also coached Lucy on how to keep a straight face during her comedic bits, a quality that suited her well as a key part of her “Lucy” character’s comedy is that she fully believes in any stunt she cooks up. Whether it’s Lucy Ricardo deciding to “soak up local color” in a wine vat in Rome, or pretending to be Ricky’s hillbilly date, one thing is for certain, when Lucy wants something, that woman does not screw around. She gives 110% percent each and every time.
Buster was known for his impeccable timing and he recognized this quality in Lucy as well. In the late 1940s, Buster was working at Columbia Studios starring in a series of comedic short films, and he recommended Lucy for a contract. She was given a three picture deal. Her first film under her new contract was Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1948) co-starring a then up-and-coming William Holden. He was two years away from his breakthrough, star-making role in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In ‘Richmond,’ Lucy was given the opportunity to show her physical comedy chops, including a scene where she deals with a typewriter ribbon that comes unspooled, and later a scene on a jackhammer. Her next film, The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), teamed Lucy with Eddie Albert. This film features a funny scene where Lucy and Eddie get drunk on wine while hiding in a wine barrel. Lucy’s last film in her picture deal was The Magic Carpet (1951), and the story behind that movie is stuff of legend and worth discussing in another blog entry.
At the same time Lucy was making films for Columbia, she was also appearing on CBS’ radio show, “My Favorite Husband.” This show had the same writing staff as I Love Lucy, and as a result, many of the season one I Love Lucy plots are re-hashed versions of some “My Favorite Husband” plotlines. Lucy’s radio show was very popular and successful. CBS, recognizing the potential in the new burgeoning medium of television, wanted to bring “My Favorite Husband” to the small screen, with Lucy and her radio show husband, Richard Denning, reprising their roles. However, Lucy wanted her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz to co-star with her. Desi was a bandleader with his Desi Arnaz Orchestra and as a result, was always on the road. Lucy wanted him closer to home and thought that a television show would be the perfect vehicle for both of them. However, CBS didn’t want the Cuban Arnaz playing All American Lucy’s husband, thinking that the audience wouldn’t “buy” it–despite them actually being married in real life.
To prove to CBS that the American public would accept them as a couple, Lucy and Desi decided to put together a vaudeville act and tour the country. The success of the tour would dictate whether Americans wanted to see Lucy and Desi together as a couple. Lucy and Desi enlisted the writers from “My Favorite Husband,” Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer, to put together a couple comedy bits. In one of the bits, Lucy plays “The Professor,” a cellist who wants a job in Desi’s orchestra. Not seeing her potential, Desi insists that she audition. This act would later find its way into the sixth episode of I Love Lucy, titled “The Audition.”
While Lucy rehearsed the comedic cello bit, Buster coached her on how to use the cello prop to get as many jokes out of it as possible. The cello itself was over 90% of the comedy of the sketch. He worked with Lucy on how to handle the props, the timing, everything. Part of Buster’s advice to Lucy was that she needed to treat the cello as if it were a Stradivarius and guard it with her life when she’s not using it. She couldn’t risk anyone messing around with it, since the entire act is built around the cello. A friend of Desi’s, Pepito Perez, had customized the particular cello that Lucy was using. Lucy borrowed for it the vaudeville act, the eventual pilot episode, and for the aforementioned episode of I Love Lucy. The cello had a compartment in the back which held a stool, a plunger, and other props needed for the act. Without one of these props the act would have been ruined.
Buster’s coaching paid off, the vaudeville tour and subsequent pilot were a massive success and CBS bought I Love Lucy which went on to make megastars out the entire cast, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley, but especially Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball became a superstar. She took her stardom and built an entire 30+ year career on playing her “Lucy” character. Buster Keaton’s mentorship was a big factor in Lucy’s success and it’s not hard to see his influence. He would appear with Lucy on various television programs throughout the rest of his life. There is no doubt that Lucy and Buster had great mutual respect for one another. I Love Lucy was reported to be one of Buster’s favorite television programs.