This Month

Star of the Month: Lucille Ball

Star of the Month: Lucille Ball

Thursdays in October / 43 Movies

One of the world’s best-loved comedy performers, the beautiful and often hilarious Lucille Ball, is TCM’s Star of the Month for October. Ball was previously honored with the title in 1998 and 2006.

A striking redhead with blue eyes and creamy skin, Ball had such vivid looks that she was once dubbed the movies’ “Technicolor Tessie.” In addition to being a beauty, she became a uniquely accomplished comic actress – a tireless perfectionist who rehearsed endlessly to achieve her trademark zaniness.

Ball always insisted that she was a “learned talent” who had little natural ability when she entered films: “I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t sing…I could hardly walk. I had no flair.” So she set to work to develop the skill and style she felt she needed.

Her efforts paid off brilliantly, first in the movies and then even more impressively on television. She honed her image and became an expert in slapstick and pantomime, leading one critic to write that she “belongs to a rare aristocracy: the glamorous clown.”

With husband Desi Arnaz, Ball created the definitive TV sitcom I Love Lucy and several spin-offs while also serving as producer of the shows. She became the first female owner of a major Hollywood studio, Desilu Productions.

 “She was one of a kind,” says Carrie Cooke Ketterman, a singer/entertainer/author who lives in Corydon, Ind., and is a great fan of both Ball and TCM. She once appeared on our channel to introduce the 1954 Ball/Arnaz movie The Long, Long Trailer.

With husband Jeff, Carrie maintains a travel blog, “Our Technicolor Life,” in which the couple assumes the identities of a modern-day Lucy and Desi.

“Ball had the glamour and style that would rival any on the silver screen,” Carrie says. “But she was so much more. She had the bravery to act a fool and be a clown when most actresses wouldn’t dare.

“She was also one of the savviest businesswomen at a time when studios were primarily a male-dominated industry. More than a pretty face who could make us laugh, she paved the way for women to be brave, both onscreen and behind the scenes.”

In addition to being perhaps the No. 1 female icon from the world of television, Ball appeared in more than 80 feature films. Beginning in movies as an uncredited extra, she progressed to supporting roles and finally stardom – first at Columbia and RKO, then MGM and other studios.

During her extraordinary reign as queen of television comedy, she resumed her film career with new prominence in The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and subsequent movies.

Lucille Désirée Ball was born on August 6, 1911, in Jamestown, NY, the older of two children of Henry Durrell Ball and wife Désirée (“DeDe”). A brother, Fred, was born four years later.

Lucille’s father was a telephone lineman, and shortly after her birth his work caused the family to relocate to Montana, then New Jersey and Michigan. He died of typhoid fever when Lucille was three years old.

Désirée Ball, pregnant with Fred, returned to Jamestown and eventually was remarried to a man named Ed Peterson. When he insisted that the couple move to Detroit without the children, Fred went to live with Désirée’s parents and Lucille moved in with Peterson’s family.

Times were tough in her new situation, and Lucille Ball would later recall that there was no money for such “luxuries” as school supplies. When she was 11, Lucille and her brother were reunited with their mother.

At age 15 she persuaded her mother to allow her to leave high school and enroll in the John Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City. Ball would later recall being intimidated by the school’s star pupil, the young Bette Davis.

Despite a lack of encouragement from her teachers, Ball was determined to break into show business. By 1928, under the name Diane Belmont, she had found work as a model for Hattie Carnegie. She also performed as a chorus girl on Broadway.

Ball arrived in Hollywood to train as a “Goldwyn Girl” for producer Samuel Goldwyn’s movie Roman Scandals (1933), but her first film appearance to hit the screen was an unbilled bit in Twentieth Century’s The Bowery (1933), with Wallace Beery.

Ball signed a contract with Columbia Pictures for $75 a week, but it was short-lived. However, she continued working and racked up some two dozen uncredited movie bits.

One of these was as a fashion model in RKO’s Roberta (1935), starring Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire and Ball’s distant cousin Ginger Rogers. That film led to another contract for Ball, this one at RKO.

She at last began receiving billing in RKO movies including two more with Astaire and Rogers, Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). She joined Rogers and Katharine Hepburn as one of the aspiring actresses in Stage Door (1937), and again supported Rogers in Having Wonderful Time (1938).

Ball’s other supporting roles at RKO included those in I Dream Too Much (1935), Chatterbox (1936), Bunker Bean (1936), Don’t Tell the Wife (1937) and Go Chase Yourself (1938).

Ball was featured with the Marx Bros. in Room Service (1938). She graduated to leads by playing a movie star in The Affairs of Annabel (1938) and its sequel Annabel Takes a Tour (1938).

Ball acquired the nickname “Queen of the B’s” through her leading roles in minor RKO films through the 1930s and into the ‘40s. Among others showing on TCM are Next Time I Marry (1938), Beauty for the Asking (1939), Twelve Crowded Hours (1939), Panama Lady (1939) and Five Came Back (1939).

Also: That’s Right – You’re Wrong (1939), The Marines Fly High (1940), You Can’t Fool Your Wife (1940), A Girl, a Guy and a Gob (1941) and Look Who’s Laughing (1941).  

Ball also did some stage work and auditioned (unsuccessfully, of course) to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). Among her more notable roles of the era at RKO was that of a burlesque queen in Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), with Maureen O’Hara as another dancer.

Ball’s casting in the leading role of Too Many Girls (1940) was fateful, since this RKO musical also starred Desi Arnaz, then the leader, drummer and vocalist of a rumba band. After meeting during filming, the couple eloped on November 30, 1940.

Among her other RKO starring vehicles are Valley of the Sun (1942), a comic Western from RKO with James Craig; and Seven Days’ Leave (1942), a musical comedy costarring Victor Mature.

Ball’s personal favorite among all her film roles was RKO’s The Big Street (1942), a touching drama costarring Henry Fonda. This performance brought Ball to the attention of MGM, and she signed with that studio on her birthday in 1942.

Her first MGM assignment was replacing Ann Sothern after she withdrew from Du Barry Was a Lady (1943). Along with Red Skelton and Gene Kelly, Ball stars in this film version of the Broadway musical fantasy with a Cole Porter score.

MGM had promised to build Ball into a major player, although at first they tended to treat her like a guest star. She plays herself in two musicals, Best Foot Forward and Thousands Cheer (both 1943); and in Meet the People (1944) she is a visiting theater luminary who helps shipyard worker Dick Powell put on a show.

For her decorative bit in Vincente Minnelli’s all-star Ziegfeld Follies (1945) her character was again identified simply as “Lucille Ball.” She played a small role in the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn vehicle Without Love (1945) and was top-billed in Two Smart People (1946), a minor romantic drama with John Hodiak.

Easy to Wed (1946), MGM’s remake of 1936’s Libeled Lady with Ball in the Jean Harlow role, finally gave her an attention-getting comedy showcase in a role that in some ways foreshadowed her I Love Lucy character. Costarring are Van Johnson, Esther Williams and Keenan Wynn.

 Despite this success, Ball and MGM parted ways and she began free-lancing – notably at Paramount for two films in which she was happily paired with Bob Hope, Sorrowful Jones (1949) and Fancy Pants (1950).

Her Husband’s Affairs (1947), a romantic comedy with Franchot Tone, was released through Columbia. Ball returned to RKO for Easy Living (1949), a football drama costarring Victor Mature and directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Ball returned to Columbia for two well-received comedies directed by Lloyd Bacon: Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949) with William Holden; and The Fuller Brush Girl (1950) with Eddie Albert. The latter film gave her an opportunity to display her knack for physical comedy.

A low point was Columbia’s cheaply made adventure The Magic Carpet (1951). It is generally believed that Ball made this film only to fulfill an obligation to Columbia and was now turning her full attention to television. 

CBS had launched My Favorite Husband, a popular radio show starring Ball, in 1948. When she was asked to expand the idea for TV, Ball insisted upon including husband Desi and I Love Lucy was born.

The show, costarring Vivian Vance and William Frawley, began in 1951 and quickly became the hottest situation comedy on television. Ball and Arnaz perfected the three-camera technique that set the standard for other sitcoms and developed their own show-business empire.

In a delicious bit of irony, RKO – the studio that hadn’t fully understood how to cultivate Ball’s talents – would become Desilu Productions. In addition to I Love Lucy (1951-57), The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-60) and various other sitcoms and specials, the studio produced such popular series as The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible

With the overwhelming success on television, MGM now wanted Ball back, along with Arnaz. Their first film together for the studio, The Long, Long Trailer, is a funny, charming and profitable romp expertly directed by Vincente Minnelli.

The second, less successful Forever, Darling (1956), is a romantic comedy with James Mason as a guardian angel who helps Ball revitalize her marriage to Arnaz.

On a periodic basis, Ball continued to balance movies with her television work. She enjoyed reunions with Bob Hope in United Artists’ The Facts of Life (1960) and Warner Bros.’ Critic’s Choice (1963), an adaptation of Ira Levin’s Broadway comedy.

UA’s Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), a surprise hit, is a romantic comedy with Ball and Henry Fonda as a couple who marry and combine their families for a total of 18 children.

In the 1960s Ball also starred in a Broadway musical, Wildcat (1960) and appeared in several TV movies and series in addition to her own sitcoms, The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here’s Lucy (1968-74).

Ball’s final appearance in a theatrical film was in the title role of Warner Bros.’ screen version of the Jerry Herman stage musical Mame (1974). Although not a critical or commercial success at the time, the movie has maintained a loyal following through TV and video.

Ball continued to make television appearances including an unusual role for her, playing a homeless woman in the TV movie Stone Pillow (1985). The final variation on her tried-and-true sitcom formula was Life with Lucy (1986).

Ball and Arnaz, who were divorced in 1961, had two children, Lucie and Desi Jr. Both have had careers in entertainment and participated in their parents’ projects and heritage.

Ball wed Gary Morton in 1961 and remained married to him until her death from an aneurysm in 1989. Her ashes originally were interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles but later moved to a family plot in Jamestown, N.Y.   

Still adored by millions, Lucille Ball remains a topical subject in the entertainment world and will be played by Nicole Kidman in an upcoming biopic, Being the Ricardos.

Carrie Cooke Ketterman believes that Ball’s enduring appeal to her fans lies in “her dedication and work ethic. Her comedy comes off as effortless, but it is because of her hours of preparation that it is timeless and keeps us laughing 70 years later.

“Desi said it best: ‘I Love Lucy was never just a title.’ Lucille Ball was devoted to her fans and we in turn, many generations later, continue to love Lucy.”