The Biopic Blogathon: “Gentleman Jim” (1942)

The real James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett

James John “Gentleman Jim” Corbett was a competitive boxer best known for beating the famed heavyweight world champion, John L. Sullivan. Despite having only fought in about twenty matches, Corbett went up against the best fighters the sport had to offer. He was famous for his technique, which involved actual skill and practice, in lieu of sheer brute force. His refined conduct inside and outside the boxing ring led to the media referring to Corbett by the nickname, “Gentleman Jim.” At the end of the nineteenth century, boxing was still illegal in about half of the states in the union. The brutal nature of the sport led to it being considered immoral. However, Corbett’s genteel behavior and adoption of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules 1 (still in use in boxing today) led to the sport becoming more acceptable, especially among the women who flocked to his matches in droves. Corbett was one of the first modern sex symbols in the sports world.

1 The Marquess of Queensbury Rules were drafted in 1865 and established a code of ethics that fighters must follow at all times during a match. It wasn't enough to win, a fighter also had to play by the rules. There are a multitude of rules, including boxing ring regulations, proper gloves and shoes, 10-count before declaring KO, referee given power to end bout, and other rules. 
Despite what the poster might have you believe, Flynn does not have a mustache in this film.

In 1942, about ten years after Corbett’s passing, Warner Brothers set out to create a biopic of his life after having purchased the rights to his story from his widow. To star in the film as the first sex symbol of modern day boxing, Warner Brothers cast (who else?) Errol Flynn. Of all the stars in their stable, Flynn is the perfect choice to appear as the refined, lithe, attractive “Gentleman Jim.” Flynn himself was a boxer before Hollywood and was a natural athlete. To hone his boxing skills and to properly portray the real-life Corbett’s footwork technique, Flynn took extensive lessons. He rarely used a double during filming.

Flynn’s James “Jim” Corbett is presented as a brash young man with a “cock of the walk” type attitude. Working as a bank teller in San Francisco alongside his best friend, Walter (Jack Carson), he very easily ingratiates himself into the Olympic Club, a very elite club and gym for the upper crust. A young woman, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) comes into the bank one day to get some change for her father’s card game and meets Jim. Hearing that she’s on her way to the Olympic Club, Jim very graciously (lol) offers to accompany her to the club. Soon he manages to invite himself on a lunch date with Victoria and before he knows it he’s in the club showing off his boxing technique to the members of the club. The members are impressed and much to Victoria’s chagrin, Jim is invited to become a member of the club.

Alexis Smith and Errol Flynn as Victoria Ware and Jim Corbett. This picture nicely sums up Victoria and Jim’s relationship throughout most of the film.

Victoria and Jim have a very funny love-hate relationship throughout the film. Victoria finds Jim’s cockiness and forward behavior very off-putting. On his first day as a member, Jim has himself paged all over the club, “Paging Mr. Corbett,” to make him appear important to the other members of the club. His arrogant behavior irritates the other members of the club, but they put up with it because of his ability. Victoria heckles Jim throughout the film. She cheers for his opponents, boos him when he enters the ring, and mocks his behavior. Victoria’s dad looms in the background laughing at Victoria and Jim’s flirtatious, yet faux contemptuous behavior toward one another. “You two are the funniest couple” he says. However, despite how much Victoria pretends to be irritated by Jim, there’s a definite vibe that she’s got a crush on him. And who wouldn’t? Look at the man.

Jim also has a hilarious Irish family who provide some comic relief for the film. His father, Pat (Alan Hale) and mother, “Ma,” are both Irish immigrants who run a stable in the working class area of San Francisco. After a few prominent boxing matches, Jim’s star rises and he arranges for his family to move to the upper crust Nob Hill neighborhood. Pat and Jim’s brothers run a saloon that Jim purchases for them. The family is hilarious. One of their running gags is their heated arguments, which culminate with them taking the fight outside–“The Corbetts are at it again!” is heard a few times in the film. It is interesting how Jim is the only member of the family to speak with an Australian accent, but we’ll let that slide.

Alan Hale as Pat Corbett and Errol Flynn as his son, Jim.

Much of the film involves Jim’s power growing as he takes down one acclaimed boxer after another. During his first major bout, there’s a funny scene where his opponent’s son asks his mother why his dad doesn’t look like [Jim] in his underwear. The mother responds, “he did, once.” Jim wins the match and attends a party in his honor. However, he learns about the snobbery of the upper crust when his friend Walter is kicked out of the party due to not following dress code and drunkenness. My favorite part of this scene is where Walter starts drinking a man’s cocktail and the man says “hey that’s my drink!” Walter says, “it is? Then this must be mine!” as he grabs another drink and knocks it back. Upset over the treatment of his friend, Jim bails and they continue the celebration.

Jack Carson, William Frawley and Errol Flynn as Walter, Billy Delaney, and Jim Corbett

The celebration ends the next morning in Salt Lake City when Jim and Walter wake up. They discover that during their drunken evening, Jim had won $10 in a fight and gained a manager, Billy Delaney (William Frawley). Delaney is “strictly big time” (he says) and is soon booking Jim into more prestigious fights. Jim’s prizefighting career culminates with a huge 60+ round fight against the reigning heavyweight world champion, John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond).

Ward Bond and Errol Flynn as John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett

At the risk of spoiling the film, Jim emerges as the victor of the huge Corbett vs Sullivan match. At his celebration party, a humbled Sullivan shows up unexpectedly to cede his title to Jim. The scene is very poignant as Sullivan has to admit defeat and face the fact that he is no longer the greatest in the world. Jim, who idolized Sullivan when he was younger, gives the man a boost as he says that he’s grateful that he wasn’t the same Sullivan a decade prior. This moment humbles Corbett as he knows that there’s always someone waiting in the wings that is better. Soon Corbett will be humbled, just like Sullivan was that evening.

Finally, Victoria and Jim’s contentious relationship reaches its climax. Victoria continues to feign annoyance at Jim’s arrogance and he finally calls her out on it. He makes her admit that she doesn’t hate him as much as she lets on.

Alexis Smith and Errol Flynn as Victoria Ware and Jim Corbett– Geez, kiss already.

(After Jim kisses her while she berates him for being a “tin-horned, shanty Irishman”)

VICTORIA: Fine way for a gentleman to behave

JIM: Oh darling, that gentleman stuff never fooled you, did it? I’m no gentleman.

VICTORIA: In that case, I’m no lady.

(Jim and Victoria kiss again, this time as two people who have the hots for one another)

Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith as James “Jim” Corbett and Victoria Ware in “Gentleman Jim” (1942)

Like most biopics, Gentleman Jim strays from the truth a bit. The real “Gentleman Jim” was soft-spoken as he considered that more dignified. However, the casting of Errol Flynn brought about the “cock of the walk” attitude that definitely makes for a much more exciting film. Gentleman Jim was Errol Flynn’s favorite film of his career and it shows. This film is the peak of Flynn’s popularity and good looks. This film makes the best use of Flynn’s athleticism, good looks, charisma, everything. Alexis Smith was perfect casting. She’s formidable enough both in stature and personality to face Flynn. He is at his best when he has a strong leading lady to play against.

Swoon

My favorite parts are:

  1. When Jim falls into the San Francisco bay during an illegal fight and he completes the match in wet boxing pants.
  2. When Billy Delaney tries to maintain a quiet, relaxing environment for his prizefighter in the days leading up to the John L. Sullivan fight and his family bursts in and soon they’re singing and dancing an Irish jig. Billy Delaney says: “Look at those maniacs! What do you mean barging in here like a herd of wild elephants?” I love how Jim looks on in the background in amusement while Billy and Pat scuffle.
  3. When Ma Corbett corrects her family, saying “John *L* Sullivan,” emphasis in the L.
  4. The ending romantic scene with Victoria and Jim where they finally kiss. It’s about time, you know she’s been wanting to hook up with him since the beginning of the film.
  5. The very sweet scene between Jim and Ma where she worries about him fighting.

Now, time for my swoon moment:

YES!

Errol Flynn. Errol is my #1 favorite actor and this is the film that cemented that. He is hot hot in this film and is fantastic. He is one of the few leading men who take attention away from the leading lady. He is so gorgeous in this film and is just so much fun to watch. Aside from the film being genuinely a good film, he also provides plenty of opportunities for ogling.

In this film, we get to see:

  1. Flynn in wet, tight pants
  2. Flynn in short shorts
  3. Flynn in a tuxedo and top hat
  4. Flynn in a form-fitting union suit. HE EVEN MAKES A UNION SUIT LOOK GOOD.
  5. Flynn in tight pants
  6. Flynn with no mustache
  7. A lot of shirtless, Flynn action
“Give ’em room!”

Classics For Comfort Blogathon

I can’t think of anything more comforting than watching Eleanor Powell and her amazing dancing.

This year’s CLAMBA (CLAssic Movie Blog Association) Spring blogathon is dedicated to classic films that people may turn to in times of crisis, emotional distress, stress, or any other time when they might feel a little weary from the drudgery of day to day life. Right now, during these trying times, having something comforting to turn to, whether it be a movie, a pet, a hobby, etc. is more important than ever.

I find movies, especially classic movies, to be comforting. Not every film has positive subject matter, and not every film is uplifting, but they allow you to escape into a different world. Full disclosure: This is coming from someone who watches “Forensic Files” and “Unsolved Mysteries” to relax before bed. I have my “pet” movies that I revisit over and over again (The Long Long Trailer, Gidget, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, The Brady Bunch Movie, Singin’ in the Rain… ) but I’ve already written about those–sometimes multiple times. I will try to branch out and share my Top 5 favorite comfort films.

One of my favorite types of films is a tried and true romance. Not necessarily a rom-com (though occasionally those can hit the spot, depending on what it is), or a overly sappy romance (e.g. Nicholas Sparks), or some generic, non-offensive, completely predictable film (Hallmark Movies, I’m looking at you), but a real romantic film–“happily ever after” not guaranteed.

1) Summertime (1955). David Lean’s romantic drama is aesthetically a gorgeous film. Shot on location in Venice, Italy, the scenery and color is beautiful and very fun to watch. Katharine Hepburn stars as Jane Hudson (not that Jane Hudson), a single (gasp!) middle-aged secretary from Akron, Ohio. She has had a lifelong dream of going to Venice and has saved money for many years. Finally, she has enough money and travels abroad for her summer vacation.

Even the credits sequence is gorgeous!
Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) meets Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) in “Summertime.”

Upon arriving in Venice, Jane boards the local vaporetto (e.g. a waterbus that transports the public down the canals) where she meets two fellow American tourists. Jane and the three tourists are all staying at the same pensione (e.g. a boarding house that includes meals). At the pensione, Jane meets another American tourist, Eddie Yaeger (Darren McGavin), and his wife.

On her first night out, Jane goes out to dinner and spots an Italian man, Renato de Rossi, (Rossano Brazzi) watching her. The next day, Jane is window-shopping at an antique store and spots a red goblet. Interested in obtaining more information (and possibly purchasing) the goblet, Jane enters the store and discovers that the owner of the shop is Renato, the same man who was watching her the night before. Later that night, Renato finds Jane at her pensione and confesses that he finds her very attractive. She tries to ward off his advances, but ultimately agrees to attend a concert with him.

Jane and Renato’s romance is heating up!

Renato and Jane’s romance grows and soon find themselves completely enamored with one another. However, like so many romantic films, they reach an impasse when Jane finds out more about Renato’s past.

I love this film because Jane and Renato’s passion for one another is evident and who doesn’t love the idea of falling in love with a handsome stranger while on vacation? See Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun for another example of this storyline. I also liked the idea that Hepburn was playing a woman who was not only single, but didn’t seem to regret being single. She wasn’t a miserable “can’t find a man” spinster. This film is also where Hepburn picked up her lifelong eye infection after performing a stunt where she falls into one of the fabled (and notoriously polluted) Venice canals.

Another type of movie that I find comforting is an over-the-top melodrama. For me, over-the-top is something so outrageous, so absurd, that it seems like it could never possibly happen. But at the same time, with the right mix of people and the right situation, it could definitely happen. One of my favorite melodramas also combines another of my favorites: 50s-60s teen movies.

2) A Summer Place (1959) has everything one could possibly want in a good melodrama: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, adultery, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, a catchy title theme tune, love, the use of the word “convenience” for toilet… this movie has it all. And if that was not enough, the movie is photographed using the most beautiful color. Every scene is seemingly shot with gauze over the lens, giving everything a slightly hazy, ethereal look. This film also features two of my all-time favorite stars: Sandra Dee and Dorothy McGuire.

At the beginning of the film, we meet the Hunter family. Patriarch Bart (Arthur Kennedy), his long-suffering wife, Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire), and their teenage son, Johnny (Troy Donahue). It is quickly apparent that not all is well with the Hunter household. Bart, despite having been born to a wealthy family and seemingly had it all, has allowed his family’s Pine Island, ME estate to fall into disarray. Most of the blame for the family’s decline falls squarely into the lap of Bart’s alcoholism. To make ends meet, the Hunter family is forced to transform their private family home into an inn and rent rooms out to paying guests.

Johnny (Troy Donahue) and Molly (Sandra Dee) fall in love in “A Summer Place.”

One day, the Hunters receive a telegram from Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan) who along with his wife, Helen (Constance Ford) and teenaged daughter Molly (Sandra Dee), wants to rent out a room at the “inn” for the summer. The only hitch? Ken and Sylvia used to date twenty years ago, prior to their respective marriages and children. Ken at the time was a lifeguard on the island whereas, it is presumed that Sylvia must have come from “better stock.” However, the tables have turned and now Sylvia is seemingly lower class, whereas Ken is successful millionaire research chemist.

When the Jorgenson family is seen, it is obvious that Helen has some issues. “Some issues” is putting it lightly. Helen is one of the most prudish (even for 1950s standards), hateful women that I have ever seen in a film. She seemingly has an issue with everyone and anything that isn’t American, straight, puritan, and most importantly, White. Ken has an amazing scene where he rips his wife a new one. It is obvious that the Jorgenson union is going to be kaput by the end of the film.

What is this hat?

Upon arrival at Pine Island, Johnny immediately spots Molly. They are instantly smitten with one another, much to the chagrin of Helen. As a parallel to the budding union between the children, something is rekindled between Sylvia and Ken. Both are stuck in unhappy marriages and both want a new start. Sylvia and Ken find themselves confiding in one another, until their flame is reignited. At the same time, Molly and Johnny are finding themselves falling for one another. Jilted spouses Bart and Helen, find themselves on the outside, looking in.

I love this movie. I love everything about it. I never tire of it and look forward to reading the novel. There is so much drama to savor. Sandra Dee, despite being saddled with the goody two-shoes virgin image, is definitely NOT living up to that reputation in this film. One of Dee’s best qualities, in my opinion, are her eyes. Her fantastic large, brown eyes imbue Dee with a vulnerable quality. She seems to always have a wanting in her eyes. She just needs someone to take care of, and someone to take care of her. For whatever reason, Troy Donahue, despite not being that great of an actor I really enjoy. I don’t know what it is about him, but he has a quality that I find interesting.

Sometimes, all that will provide comfort is some good old fashioned eye candy. Just something to ogle for a couple hours. One such eye candy (for me) is Errol Flynn. During his heyday, he looks amazing in pretty much everything. Even in the 1950s, when Flynn’s bad habits were definitely catching up with him, though looking older than his age, he still possesses the panache and charisma of his youth. For this entry, I’m going to discuss my favorite Errol Flynn film.

This poster doesn’t do Errol Flynn or
Alexis Smith justice!

3) Gentleman Jim (1942) is a biopic that features Flynn as James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. At the beginning of the film, Jim and his friend Walter (Jack Carson) are attending an illegal boxing match in 1890s San Francisco. The match is raided by the police. Jim and Walter find themselves in the paddywagon with Judge Geary, a prominent member of the board of directors at the bank that employs both Jim and Walter as tellers. Jim is able to think quickly and saves his boss from embarrassment.

Later, through a chance meeting at his bank, Jim meets Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), the socialite daughter of Buck Ware, a wealthy upper-class member of the Olympic Club–the same club that Jim’s boss also frequents. Victoria has arrived at Jim’s bank to collect change for a local game at the club. After hearing Victoria state that she’s on her way to the Olympic Club, Jim charms her into letting him escort her and carry her heavy coins. Victoria, obviously interested in Jim (because duh! who wouldn’t?) and seeing his ulterior motives right off the bat, agrees to let him accompany her to the club. She even treats him to lunch and cigars. Later, Jim meets the Judge and other members of the upper class in the gymnasium.

Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith

Judge Geary and a renowned British boxing coach (who has been hired to evaluate prospects) see a lot of potential in Jim as a boxer. Both men are looking to make boxing respectable and plan to start a boxing club that use the Marquess of Queensbury rules (the same rules still in effect today in the boxing community). These rules were set up a few decades prior in London and were meant to make the matches more even and fair. The Judge and the British coach find Jim’s appearance and polished demeanor as the perfect image for their new fighter. And, if Jim’s good looks and charm weren’t enough, he’s also a good fighter!

Soon Jim gets to work training and quickly finds himself scheduled for his first fight, which he wins. Eventually, Jim gets a manager, Billy Delaney (William “Fred Mertz” Frawley) who books him into even bigger matches. After winning a series of fights, Jim finds himself booked for his biggest fight yet–Taking on the current heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond).

“GIVE ‘EM ROOM!”

I love this movie. I love sports movies in general, and especially boxing ones. Flynn is so freaking adorable and hot in all of his scenes. The man even looks good in a union suit! The absolute best Flynn scene is when he falls into the San Francisco Bay and pulls himself out of the water. Ooh la la. Alexis Smith makes a great foil for Flynn’s brashness. Their love/hate relationship is one of the highlights of the film. One of the absolute best parts of the film though is Alan Hale as Flynn’s father. He is hilarious in this movie. Ward Bond is also excellent as John L. Sullivan.

Another type of film that I find comforting is something that is so adorable and so sweet, that you cannot help but feel better. Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character, The Tramp, is so sweet and kind, you cannot help but root for him. In The Kid (1921), even though the audience knows that Tramp’s “son,” belongs to someone else, you cannot help but root for the two of them to stay with each other. They belong together–even if the Tramp can’t provide financially. What he lacks in financial resources, he more than makes up for it in love and kindness. One of the absolute best examples of this is present in my favorite Chaplin film.

4) City Lights (1931). This film is so freaking adorable and sweet, I cannot stand it. Fortunately, I was able to see it in the theater prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was even better on the large screen. To make the experience even better, I got to view a 35mm print. Anyway, I digress.

This is a great movie poster!

The film opens with a bunch of dignitaries and citizens assembling for the unveiling of a new monument dedicated to “Peace and Prosperity.” When the veil is removed from the statue, the Tramp is revealed to be asleep in the lap of one of the figures. After a few moments of hilarity, the Tramp escapes the angry crowd and runs into the city. While in the city, the Tramp encounters a blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. The Tramp is smitten with her, even after figuring out that she is blind. The blind woman mistakes the Tramp as wealthy when she hears a door open and shut on an automobile right as the Tramp approaches her to purchase a flower. She assumes that he’s just emerged from a chauffered vehicle.

Later that evening, the Tramp saves a drunk millionaire from suicide. The millionaire is grateful to the Tramp and declares him his new best friend. The millionaire takes the Tramp back to his home for champagne, and then for a night out on the town. They have a raucuous good time. The next morning, the Tramp spies the flower girl at her corner as he’s driving the millionaire home. He gets some money from the Millionaire, takes the Millionaire’s car, and drives the girl home.

The blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) and the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin)

At this point, a running gag starts where the millionaire is the Tramp’s BFF when he’s drunk, but sober, he has no idea who the Tramp is and wants him out of his house ASAP.

The Tramp continues to visit with the blind girl. It is during one of these visits that he learns that she and her grandmother are one missed rent payment ($22… Oh to pay rent in the early 1930s) away from being homeless. At this point, nothing will stop the Tramp until he’s able to save the blind girl from losing her home.

One of the sweetest scenes ever in film!

This film is so freaking sweet and I don’t want to spoil it by describing the ending. It is perhaps one of the best endings ever in film and with so few words. The ending scene fully illustrates why Charlie Chaplin deserves every inch of recognition and acclaim that he ever received.

Finally, another of my favorite genres is film noir. Some film noir can be romantic in nature, like the Bogie/Bacall films and others can be super gritty (The Asphalt Jungle comes to mind). I love all of them. There’s something about the noir style, the narration, the way characters speak, everything.

5) One of my favorite noir, is probably one of the most famous film noir of all time: Double Indemnity (1944). Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a seemingly decent insurance salesman who makes his living selling all types of insurance. One day, he makes a house call to the Dietrichson household to remind Mr. Dietrichson to renew his automobile insurance. When Walter arrives, Mr. Dietrichson isn’t home, but his second wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) is. In one of the all time best character introduction scenes, Phyllis appears at the top of the stairway clad in a towel and her “honey of an anklet.” Walter is instantly smitten.

While flirting with one another, Phyllis asks Walter about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband, without her husband’s knowledge. Walter at first, wants no part of Phyllis’ obvious plan to murder her husband, but soon devises a scheme to write a policy that contains a “double indemnity” clause–which would double the payout, should the policy holder die in some type of accident.

Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is on the case!

At this point, I cannot decide if Walter is really that enthralled with Phyllis that he’s willing to commit capital murder, or whether he wants to try and put something over on his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Keyes is responsible for investigating claims on behalf of the firm, to reduce the amount of payments that need to be paid out. Keyes seems to believe that he knows anything and everything about probability of different causes of death and everything that would negate an insurance claim.

This scene cracks me up. These two are the most conspicuous, inconspicuous people.

Walter inevitably ends up helping Phyllis commit the murder. Throughout the rest of the film, Phyllis and Walter try to cover their tracks as Keyes gets closer and closer to the truth.

I love this film. I love the way that Walter speaks, I love Phyllis’ hilarious wig, and Edward G. Robinson is fantastic. In the scene where Walter murders Mr. Dietrichson in the car, Phyllis has one of the most evil facial expressions in cinema.

The Small Screen Blogathon–“I Love Lucy”

smallscreen

Picture it: Salem, Oregon, 1995.  A beautiful peasant girl turns on her parents’ 15″ black and white tube TV.  She comes across a show on something called Nick at Nite.  She is instantly transfixed by the action on the screen.  A redhead (we’ll have to take the characters’ word for it, it’s black and white after all), her Cuban bandleader husband, and their two friends were involved in some wacky scheme.  The next day, the girl tuned into Nick-at-Nite again and watched another episode of this hilarious show about a woman whose only dream in life, it seems, is to be in show business, much to her husband’s chagrin. The show was I Love Lucy, and the beautiful peasant girl, was me, minus the peasant part–just tapping into my inner Sophia Petrillo.

nickatnite

I Love Lucy is rightfully considered one of the best, if not the best (which “best” is obviously subjective) television show in history.  The show was groundbreaking, almost literally, and created the blueprint for all situational comedies to come.  Every show, from The Dick Van Dyke Show, to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to Cheers to Friends are indebted to I Love Lucy for inventing the situation comedy and engineering the way in which to perform in front of a live audience.

In 1950, CBS approached Lucille Ball with an offer to move her popular radio show, My Favorite Husband, to the new burgeoning medium of television.  CBS wanted Ball, her co-star Richard Denning and the other cast members to make the move with her.  However, Ball had other ideas.  At this time, Ball had been married to her husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz for ten years.  The couple’s marriage was faltering.  Much of the strain on their marriage was caused by their differing schedules.  Ball was in Hollywood filming her radio show and Arnaz was on the road, touring with his band.  Ball, seeing an opportunity to work with her husband and keep him home, told CBS that she was interested in the offer, but only if Arnaz could star as her husband.  CBS balked, thinking that the American public would not accept that their star, Lucille Ball, was married to a Cuban.  Of course, CBS was completely wrong, but to prove it, Ball and Arnaz concocted a vaudeville routine and took their act on the road.  People across the country loved them and soon CBS had to relent and give Ball and Arnaz the go-ahead.

In March of 1951, Ball and Arnaz filmed their pilot.  It was filmed in kineoscope.  Kineoscope was a method of filming a live performance.  A camera lens would be focused on a video screen, which would record the performance as it was being recorded.  This footage would later be re-broadcast to other markets.  Typically shows were filmed in New York, as this is where a majority of the population lived in the late 1940s-early 1950s.  If you have ever seen a YouTube video where someone has made a video of a movie, show, concert, etc. playing on their TV,  you know that the sound is muffled and tinny and the picture is blurry.  This is exactly what it was like to watch a kineoscope show if you didn’t live near New York.

To see a couple examples of Kineoscope, go to You Tube and search for: “I Love Lucy Pilot,” and “Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on The Ed Wynn Show.”

i love lucy
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on the “I Love Lucy” Pilot

Above is a screenshot from the I Love Lucy pilot episode.  Ball wears a housecoat and big baggy pants for much of the episode because she was pregnant with Lucie Arnaz.  The Ricardos live in a completely different apartment and the Mertzes haven’t been created yet.  I Love Lucy episode #6, “The Audition” is essentially a re-do of the pilot.  In the pilot episode, Ricky schemes with his agent, Jerry.  In the I Love Lucy episode, Jerry’s lines are given to Fred Mertz.  The pilot episode was a success and Ball and Arnaz were given the green light to start their series.

To produce their series, Ball and Arnaz formed Desilu Productions.  Arnaz was president and Ball was vice-president.  They hired the writers from Ball’s radio show, My Favorite Husband. Many of the crew members they hired were acquaintances from Ball’s radio program and from Ball and Arnaz’ movie and music careers, respectively.  For the Mertzes, they originally wanted Bea Benederet (Betty Rubble in The Flintstones and Kate Bradley in Petticoat Junction) and Gale Gordon (Mr. Mooney in The Lucy Show and Harry Carter in Here’s Lucy).  However, Benederet was under contract to The Burns and Allen Show and Gordon was on Our Miss Brooks.

mertz
William Frawley and Vivian Vance as Fred and Ethel Mertz

One day, William Frawley, an old acquaintance of Ball’s from her movie days, called Ball and asked if there was room for him on her show.  Leery of his reputation as a hard-drinker, Arnaz and Ball met with him and decided he was perfect.  Ball later said: “William Frawley was ‘Fred Mertz,’ period.” Frawley was cast on the condition that he always show up to work sober.  He would be fired on the spot if he ever showed up to work intoxicated.  During all six seasons of I Love Lucy and the three seasons of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Frawley kept his promise.

Casting Ethel Mertz turned out to be more of a chore.  Ball originally wanted to throw the job to her old friend, Barbara Pepper (Mrs. Ziffel on Green Acres), but CBS said no.  Much like Frawley, Pepper had a drinking problem too, but hers was much more severe.  Then I Love Lucy director Marc Daniels (who directed the first season) suggested an actress he worked with in New York, Vivian Vance.  Vance had a successful Broadway career and had spent twenty years on stage acting in various plays until re-locating to Hollywood in the late-1940s.  She appeared in a couple films, but by 1951, she was still relatively unknown outside of the Broadway circle.  She just happened to be appearing in a revival of Voice of a Turtle in La Jolla, California.  Arnaz and head writer, Jess Oppenheimer, drove down to see Vance and hired her on the spot. Vance was reluctant to give up her stage career for the unknown medium of television, but friend Daniels convinced her it’d be her big break–and it was.

With all the pieces put in place, it was time to start producing I Love Lucy.  Desilu purchased two soundstages and tore down the dividing wall to create one large room that could hold four separate stages.  The Ricardos’ living room was the larger, permanent stage.  The Ricardos’ bedroom was typically in the smaller stage to the left and the kitchen was the small stage to the right.  The other stage would often be the Tropicana.  The walls of the small stages had wheels that allowed them to move around.  Oftentimes, when a scene with a large amount of action was filmed, the walls of the set would be rolled in front of the Ricardos’ living room set.  Case in point, there is a blooper in the famous Vitameatavegamin episode (#30 “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”).  When Lucy comes staggering out of her dressing room (plastered on Vitameatavegamin, alcohol 23%) and the stage hands are searching for Ricky, you can see the Ricardos’ living room between the Vitameatavegamin set and Ricky’s set where he performs.

CBS wanted Arnaz and Ball to use the cheaper kineoscope and to film their show in New York.  Arnaz and Ball informed CBS that not only did they plan on remaining in Los Angeles, but they also wanted to film their program on 35mm film, the same film used by the motion picture studios.  They wanted the whole country to see their program clearly, not just the East Coast and they wanted to have copies of their program–figuring that if it bombed, at least they’d come away with some “home movies” for their children. CBS complained initially about the increased cost of the film, but Arnaz, the shrewd negotiator he was, offered to deduct $1000/week from his and Lucy’s salaries in exchange for the right to use film and the rights to their show. CBS, figuring that this whole thing will never work, agreed.

i love lucy set
The “I Love Lucy” set.  This is an early season 1-2 episode based on the floral love seat in the living room.

Arnaz knew that Ball performed best in front of a live audience.  To accommodate a live audience, Arnaz had to equip his soundstage with bleachers.  He was also required by the fire marshall to bring the building up to code by adding bathrooms and other modifications required of a facility that is going to hold large groups of people.  In order to ensure that the cameras didn’t block the audience’s view of the action, Arnaz, along with Academy Award winning cinematographer, Karl Freund, devised the three camera technique.  This camera, nicknamed “the three-headed monster,” would film the action from three angles.  Then after production, the editors would splice together the footage to create the final show. This technique is still in use today.

The very first episode of I Love Lucy, that aired, was actually the second episode filmed.  Episode #2, “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub” is the first of many “versus” episodes.  In this case, it’s the men versus the women.  Lucy and Ethel want to go to a nightclub for the Mertzes’ anniversary and Fred and Ricky want to go to the fights.  Lucy and Ethel declare that they will find their own dates who will take them to the club.  Ricky informs Lucy that he and Fred will do the same.  Enlisting the help of an old friend, Lucy gets herself and Ethel set up as Ricky and Fred’s blind dates.  Except, the girls aren’t just coming as themselves, they show up dressed as hillbillies.  This is the first of many episodes where Lucy tries to pull a fast one on Ricky.  Arnaz made it clear to the writers from day one that while Lucy can play tricks on Ricky, he didn’t want Ricky to look like an idiot.  Ricky either needed to be in on the joke from the beginning or figure it out before Lucy succeeded.  In the case of this episode, Lucy blows her cover by offering to go grab cigarettes for everyone, stating that she knew where they were.  Ricky tells Lucy he knows it’s her and Ethel, they make up and all is well–except that the men end up at the fights with the ladies dressed to the nines.  Let’s just hope that a compromise was reached and maybe they went to the fights and the nightclub that evening.

hospital
“Lucy Goes to the Hospital”

I Love Lucy was a success and was at the top of the ratings 4/6 years it was on television.  In 1953, Ball found out she was pregnant (with Desi Arnaz Jr.) and she, along with Arnaz, thought it was the end of the program.  However, it was decided that Lucy Ricardo would be pregnant too.  Desilu hired a priest, rabbi and minister to read the scripts and highlight any objectionable content.  All three religious leaders could not find any issues.  CBS allowed Ball and Arnaz to go ahead with their plan and Lucy Ricardo was set to have a baby.  The only stipulation being that the word “pregnant” could not be used on the show.  They had to opt for the funnier ‘spectin coming from Ricky.  Words and phrases like “infanticipating” and “having a baby” were used instead.  The episode where Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky was the highest rated episode of any television show (at that point) and even got a higher rating than Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration that took place the following day after Little Ricky was born. During this time, Arnaz invented the re-run by re-airing old episodes of I Love Lucy.  He wanted to give Lucy time to recover.  To make the episodes “fresh,” he and Frawley and Vance filmed new flashback scenes to introduce the episodes.  When these repeats garnered the same or higher ratings than the original airing, it was decided to forgo the new flashback footage and just re-air the episodes as-is.

I Love Lucy enjoyed huge success during its original six year run, winning multiple Emmy Awards and achieving high ratings.  It ended its run #1 in the ratings.  However, I Love Lucy has achieved even greater success in the decades since.  It is estimated that I Love Lucy has never been off the air since its debut in 1951.  Ball’s face is one of the most widely recognized faces in the world.  There are new generations of fans discovering I Love Lucy each and every day.  It is truly an indelible part of pop culture and television history.

ilovelucy

My Top 5 Favorite Episodes of I Love Lucy:

1) Episode #114, “L.A. at Last!”

The Ricardos and Mertzes finally make it to Hollywood.  After checking into their hotel at the Beverly Palms Hotel, Lucy and the Mertzes are on the prowl for movie stars.  They decide to go to “the watering hole,” aka The Brown Derby for lunch and celebrity spotting.  Ethel manages to embarrass herself in front of Eve Arden and Lucy ends up embarrassing herself in front of William Holden.  The true gem of this episode is later, when Ricky, newly employed at MGM, meets Holden.  Holden offers to give him a ride to his hotel.  Ricky, unknowing about what transpired at the Brown Derby earlier that day, asks Holden if he’d mind coming in to meet Lucy.  Lucy, understandably freaked out, but forced into meeting Holden, tries to disguise herself with a scarf, glasses and fake putty nose.  The funniest part of the entire episode is the look on William Holden and Desi Arnaz’ faces when Lucy turns around after having re-shaped her nose.

2) Episode #147, “Lucy Gets a Paris Gown”

In Paris, Lucy makes it known to Ricky that she wants a Jacques Marcell dress.  Ricky, not wanting to pay the huge price tag, says no.  Lucy, not willing to give up, stages a convincing hunger strike in protest of Ricky’s decision.  Ricky, feeling bad for Lucy, buys her the dress, but then discovers that Ethel has been sneaking food to her.  The dress is returned and Lucy is fuming. To appease Lucy and “cure” her of her desire for high-end French fashion (which Ricky and Fred think is ridiculous), they find some potato sacks, a horse’s feedbag and a champagne bucket and have two Parisian original gowns designed and created: one for Lucy and one for Ethel.  The funniest part of this episode is when Lucy and Ethel realize that they’ve been duped and attempt to hide under a tablecloth, that they apparently steal from the restaurant as they run away.

3) Episode #81, “The Charm School”

After an upsetting party where Lucy and Ethel feel ignored by their husbands, especially when the date of another guest attracts all their attention, Lucy and Ethel decide that their husbands are bored with them.  Lucy finds out that the woman who came to her party the night prior had just finished a course at “Phoebe Emerson’s Charm School.” Lucy and Ethel sign up and are put through a charm regiment that involves learning to walk, speak and dress like a charming lady.  The time comes for the big reveal and Ricky and Fred are speechless.  The funniest part of this episode is when Lucy opens the door to let glammed-up Ethel in.  As she opens the door, there’s Ethel leaning against the door frame, dressed in a one-strapped, skintight, leopard print dress with a cool snake-like thing around her arm.

4) Episode #23, “Fred and Ethel Fight”

The Mertzes are fighting (because Ethel said that Fred’s mother “looked like a weasel,” to which I say: “Fred’s mother is still alive?”) and Lucy decides to invite each one over for dinner without the other one knowing.  She lets Ricky in on the plan.  Ricky works with Lucy trying to get Fred and Ethel back together, but during course of conversation, he and Lucy end up getting in a fight.  Now it’s Ethel and Fred’s turn to try and get Ricky and Lucy back together! The climax of the episode is when Ricky stages a fake fire in the apartment, so that he can “save” Lucy and be a hero.  The funniest part of this episode is when Lucy wants to pretend like she was hit by a bus and has Ethel help her put on casts and a metal arm brace thing and then Ricky stages the fake fire which Lucy doesn’t know is fake.  Lucy freaks out trying to grab things, casually tossing them out her 4th story window.  She grabs some dresses and her huge jug of henna rinse. Then she makes a rope with a bedsheet and ties it around herself, but neglects to tie the other end to anything.

5) Episode #122 “The Star Upstairs”

Lucy discovers that she has met 99 movie stars and wants to meet one more so she can have an even hundred.  She reads a blind item in the paper that a big star is staying in the penthouse of a local hotel for some rest and relaxation.  Lucy instantly jumps to the conclusion that the star is in her hotel, and after pressing the bellboy for details, her assumption is confirmed–Cornel Wilde is staying in the penthouse right above the Ricardos’ hotel room! Lucy blackmails the bellboy into letting her borrow his outfit so she can deliver the paper.  That scheme fails wholeheartedly.  In the next attempt, Lucy hides under the bellboy’s cart.  Through the course of events, Wilde ends up thinking that Bobby is a really talented ventriloquist who can throw his voice across the room.  The scheme comes off well, but Lucy ends up being left behind in Wilde’s room.  Desperate to get out, she attempts to climb down the balcony using a makeshift rope that she crafts out of a beach towel.  The funniest part of the entire episode is Ethel trying to distract Ricky from seeing Lucy’s legs dangling from the balcony.

Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon!

I Love Lucy, Ep. 79 “The Million Dollar Idea” January 11, 1954

dickvandykeblogathon2017

This weekend, “A Shroud of Thoughts” is hosting a blogathon.  The theme is “Favorite TV Show Episode.”  I knew that I would have to write about an episode from my favorite television show of all time–“I Love Lucy.”  But which episode?! They’re all so great.  It was difficult to narrow it down.  I didn’t want to write about “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (aka “The Vitameatavegamin Episode”) or “Job Switching” (Lucy & Ethel work in the chocolate factory) or “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (Lucy stomps grapes) because I feel like those are the episodes that are always trotted out when someone discusses the best “I Love Lucy” episodes.  While I adore these episodes, there are many other great episodes that deserve recognition.  I settled on “The Million Dollar Idea.”  A hilarious episode that features one of my favorite quotes.  On paper, it’s not really that funny, but Lucy’s delivery of the line makes it.

“The Million Dollar Idea” opens with the Ricardos and Mertzes having dinner in the living room.

million1

Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred (William Frawley) rave about Lucy’s (Lucille Ball) homemade salad dressing.  Lucy admits that it is her Aunt Martha’s recipe.  Fred tells Lucy that she should consider bottling and selling it.  Ricky (Desi Arnaz) on the other hand, takes this opportunity to remind Lucy that her bank account is overdrawn…again.  They have an off-screen battle over the household accounts.

The next morning, Lucy decides that she’s going to take Fred’s idea and bottle and sell her Aunt Martha’s Salad Dressing.  She enlists Ethel’s help and the ladies are in business.  They come up with a product name: Aunt Martha’s Old Fashioned Salad Dressing.  To market their product, Lucy decides to take advantage of her friendship with “frenemy” Carolyn Appleby (not seen in the episode) since she remembered that Carolyn’s husband Charlie works at a television station.  “[We’ll] cut her in, to the tune of, say, three cents a bottle,” Lucy tells Ethel.  “Yeah. She likes that kind of music,” Ethel agrees.  They decide to go on The Dickie Davis Show.

million2

On the show, Ethel appears as “Mary Margaret McMertz,” a parody of popular radio show host Mary Margaret McBride who dispensed household advice to women for over 40 years. Ethel touts the salad dressing and asks an “average housewife, picked at random, from [the] audience” to come up on stage.  Of course, this wasn’t a random selection at all.  It is Lucy, disguised as average housewife Isabella Klump.  Ms. Klump raves about the salad dressing, to the point where she’s literally drinking it from the jar!  Ethel asks her viewers to write (623 E. 68th Street) or call (CIrcle 7-2099) to place their orders.  Of course, Ethel holds the cards backwards and then upside down, but that doesn’t hurt orders.  By the end of the show, Lucy and Ethel have 23 orders–at the bargain price of 40 cents a quart!

Back at home, Lucy and Ethel get to salad dressing production.  As far as I can tell, the ingredients in the salad dressing are: oil, salt and onions.  One has to assume there must be some vinegar in there? But the dressing isn’t a vinaigrette–it looks more like mayonnaise.  Perhaps the dressing has eggs in it and when emulsified, it becomes more of mayonnaise type dressing? Then there are the onions.  Big pieces of onion only cut into quarters.  Maybe it goes into the blender next? Not sure.  Regardless, Lucy and Ethel have horribly under-priced their  product.  Ricky, who obviously has more business acumen than Lucy (he does manage the Tropicana Club, after all), decides to calculate Lucy and Ethel’s profit.  After calculating the cost of the ingredients, the cost of the jars and the cost of the labels and dividing it by their 23 orders, Ricky determines that they’ll churn out a 3 cent per jar profit–the same profit that was promised to Carolyn Appleby.  He tells Lucy that that figure doesn’t even include shipping, mailing, insurance, taxes or overhead.  “Oh. Well. If you’re going to figure all that stuff,” Lucy tells him.  Ricky urges Lucy and Ethel to get out of the salad dressing business.  Fred then enters the kitchen carrying an enormous bag of mail, one of three bags that were delivered. “We must be terrific television salesmen!” Ethel declares.

million3

Dismayed at the thought of having to produce so many jars of non-profit salad dressing, Lucy and Ethel decide to return to The Dickie Davis Show.   They figure if they’re so good at selling the dressing, that they’ll be good at “un-selling it.” The next day, Mary Margaret McMertz is back.  She once again advertises Aunt Martha’s Old Fashioned Salad Dressing and invites “an average housewife, picked at random, from [the] audience.”  Of course, Lucy comes up on stage, this time as country bumpkin, “Lucille McGillicuddy.”  Mrs. McGillicuddy smells the dressing and is immediately disgusted.  “Smell it” she tells McMertz.  McMertz smells it and is taken with the same bad smell.  “How about that? Looks like Aunt Martha had too many old-fashioneds” Mrs. McGillicuddy says. McMertz asks Mrs. McGillicuddy to taste the dressing.  After getting over her initial repulsion and the promise of a new jar, Mrs. McGillicuddy takes a swig.  She’s overcome with disgust and looks for a place to spit it out.  “What’s Aunt Martha trying to do? Poison me?” she asks.

cancelcancel

Under great duress, Mary Margaret McMertz says, “Friends, I can no longer endorse this product.  If you have ordered it, send in your cancellations.”

Which brings me to my favorite part of the episode. Falling to the floor after drinking the vile salad dressing, Mrs. McGillicuddy pops up and says:

“CANCEL! CANCEL!”

McMertz once again shares the cancellation phone number and address.

Mrs. McGillicuddy reappears.  “AND DO IT NOW!” she pleads.

After the show, the girls are sure that they’ve succeeded in getting out of making all the salad dressing.  Fred brings in more sacks of mail.  Lucy and Ethel excitedly start reading the postcards.  “Cancellations!” they think.  Except they’re not.  They’re more orders! 1133 more orders to be exact.  Lucy and Ethel decide to purchase salad dressing from the store, remove the labels and attach their own labels.  It’s not entirely honest and costs 50 cents a quart (10 cents more than their product), but they can get their scheme over and done with in the shortest amount of time.  Lucy and Ethel, decked out in matching outfits, some sort of apron vest like thing (looks like something that a newspaper delivery boy would wear), roller skates and shopping carts (that they got from somewhere.  I doubt that people with minimal storage, like in an apartment, would have shopping carts lying around) get ready to deliver their wares.  “You take the east side, I’ll take the west side and I’ll be in Jersey a-fore ya!” Lucy tells Ethel.

lucyandethel