What a gal!

 

In the weeks after September 11, 2001, television reruns of I Love Lucy earned amazingly high ratings.

American viewers, bewildered and frightened, sought balm for their terrible wound, and found distraction for a few moments in the company of a ditzy, rubber-faced redhead - herself dead a dozen years by then - who represented comforting old values: the zany, predicament-prone housewife who yearned to be part of her husband's exciting showbiz world but who knew, deep down, that her duty was to have a meal on the table every evening when she heard that familiar shout: "Honey, I'm home!".

Most of Lucille Ball's millions of fans also knew that the pop-eyed, scatterbrained comedian was the embodiment of steelier values. As president of Desilu, at one point the world's biggest television studio, she was the first woman with major economic clout in post-war Hollywood. Without Ball's talent for greenlighting a winning formula, there would probably have been no Mission Impossible, no Untouchables, no Star Trek. She arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s with nothing but looks, talent and ambition, and ended up the most powerful woman in American entertainment, helped along the road by two gifted men - her comic guru Buster Keaton (a washed-up recovering alcoholic when she first sought his advice) and her husband, Desi Arnaz, the Cuban bandleader and business genius.

If Stefan Kanfer's biography is a little fuzzy about the personality of the mature Lucille Ball, it presents a compelling and convincing portrait of the sparky teenager from a suburb of Jamestown, New York, satisfying a craving for excitement by becoming the local mobster's girlfriend at 14, then moving to the big city as a model. In Hollywood, she worked her way up from bit parts, usually playing wisecracking dames and impressing directors with her adeptness for physical knockabout. Realising that her future lay in comedy, she was privately coached by Keaton; the great clown remained a major influence and close friend until his death in 1966.

After dalliances with Hollywood studs such as Bob Hope and Milton Berle, in 1940 Ball again demonstrated her penchant for dangerous men by marrying Arnaz, a stunningly handsome womaniser who loved her deeply in his own macho fashion but was quite incapable of being faithful. He was extremely far-seeing and astute, however, and even though his wife had become a minor movie star by the late 1940s, he knew the future lay in television.

The basic format of I Love Lucy was first tried out on radio, without Arnaz, and moved to television in 1951, with Ball as the stage-struck housewife and Arnaz as a cleaned-up version of himself, a bandleader who wanted to leave showbiz behind when he got home. Wanting complete control, the couple founded Desilu, and revolutionised the way TV shows were made, using three running cameras for the first time and creating the pace with fast editing.

When I Love Lucy began their marriage was already in trouble. After they divorced Desi sold Lucy his share in Desilu, which by 1962 was the most successful television studio in the world, with 26 sound stages and 43 acres of backlot. Ball rose magnificently to the challenge of being sole boss; any deal-broker foolish enough to imagine that the real Lucy was anything like the TV persona would leave her office trembling, after an encounter with a shrewd and unbending businesswoman.

If the Lucy of these years is a little indistinct in Kanfer's book, it is perhaps because at the height of her success Lucille Ball sacrificed almost everything for her work. She got married again, to Gary Morton, an unsuccessful comedian, and I Love Lucy segued into The Lucy Show, in which she played essentially the same character, now named Lucy Carmichael.

She still sought Desi's advice on business deals and he seems, belatedly, to have realised that he had frittered away the devotion of a most remarkable person. His last letter to her, written a few hours before he died in 1986, ended: "PS: I Love Lucy was never just a title".

Kanfer's Lucy isn't exactly lovable, but it is impossible not to admire this indomitable woman's strength, resourcefulness and single-mindedness; she swam with the Hollywood sharks for 50 years and when she got bitten, she bit right back. In the parlance of her era: what a gal! She was tough on her co-workers, tough on her employees and tough on herself. Anyone reading this fascinating account of the early days of American television will agree with at least the last sentence of her clear-eyed self-assessment. "I am not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. The situations were funny. But I am not funny. I am not funny. What I am is brave."

  • Stephen Dixon is an artist and critic

Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball

By Stefan Kanfer

Faber and Faber, 361pp. £17.99