Transcript

'Lucille Ball: Finding Lucy'

Gerard Jones and Pamela Mason Wagner
Author and Producer/Director
Thursday, September 22, 2005; 12:00 PM

Featuring the life and career of Lucille Ball, the American Masters documentary "Lucille Ball: Finding Lucy" aired on PBS on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

On October 15, 1951, a new situation comedy premiered on the CBS network. "I Love Lucy" turned its star, Lucille Ball, into a legend. From her origins in the feature film productions of the Hollywood studio machines to classic "Lucy moments" and lesser-known bits (including the pilot episode, previously broadcast only once), the American Masters film "Finding Lucy" is a portrait of a woman whose timeless comedy made millions of Americans laugh -- and continues to do so today.

Gerard Jones, author of "Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream," and Pamela Mason Wagner, producer/director of "Finding Lucy," were online Thursday, Sept. 22, at noon ET to discuss the life and career of Lucille Ball and the American Masters film.

Featuring exclusive interviews with Carol Burnett, Fran Drescher, Dick Martin, family members and friends, "Finding Lucy" also showcases the most extensive set of film and television clips from the comic icon's career by virtue of an unprecedented arrangement American Masters made with CBS and the estate of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Gerard Jones is the author of five books on mass media, childhood, and American culture. His most recent, "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Strip" (Basic Books 2004), will be published in paperback next month. He has also written numerous graphic novels and a nationally syndicated comic strip. His creations have been turned into an animated television series, a line of toys, and video games. Previous book include: Killing Monsters (Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence); Honey I'm Home (Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream); The Comic Book Heroes; and The Beaver Papers. Graphic novels include The Trouble with Girls; Pikachu Meets the Press; and Batman: Fortunate Son. He appeared in American Master's "Finding Lucy."

Pamela Mason Wagner is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker in New York City. In 1993, she and her husband, Thomas Wagner, founded the production company Turtle Rock Productions, Inc. Most recently, Wagner directed and produced three docudramas, which premiered on the Hallmark Channel. In 2001, she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series for the program she directed and produced for the American Masters series, entitled "Finding Lucy." Much of Wagner's work for PBS has been with journalist Bill Moyers. Those credits include: "Changing Lives," "Close To Home," "Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers" and "The Mythology of Star Wars with George Lucas and Bill Moyers."

The transcript follows.

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Southern Maryland: Hello, what a great show I watched last night. I Love Lucy! As do so many others. I watched every episode of the original series and as noted in your show, her follow-up shows just never compared to the original. I watched them but not with the excitement of the original. No matter, she was a class act. Her talent was ground-breaking at the time and she became a household name and to this day when reruns are on, I'll tune in. Thanks again for an excellent show.

Pamela Mason Wagner: Glad you liked the show. Coming from someone like yourself who has watched everything, that says a lot! I think generations to come will continue to take pleasure from Lucy.

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Dewy Rose, Ga.: Why did Desi and Luci Divorce?

Gerard Jones: Their biggest running conflict was his infidelity. He lived the life of a popular bandleader, which generally included girls in every city he toured. Part of the reason Lucy wanted him as her costar on the sitcom was to keep him home and behaving better. Unfortunately the pattern didn't stop, and she finally gave up.

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Detroit, Mich.: If the "I Love Lucy" show had not been taped and the principles not been able to own the rights for reruns, is it not possible that Lucy would not have been as well known as she became? I lived through that era, and though the show was popular, I always thought that there were better comedy selections on television.

Pamela Mason Wagner: While it's true that the fact the I Love Lucy episodes were shot on 35 mm film ensured their posterity, much of early TV was preserved on kinescope. I disagree that the popularity of ILL is due to the fact that the principals owned the rerun rights (by the way, that was a TV business first, and Desi's idea). I think it has more to do with the fact that kids today are as tickled as I was by the shows. The programs tapped into something universal that doesn't date at all. Of course you are entitled to your own favorite shows from that era!

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Alexandria, Va.: Pamela Mason Wagner,

I'm sorry that I was unable to view the documentary last night on PBS, but I know it's available on VHS and am looking forward to purchasing it.

Does the film delve into Lucy's early film career? Movies such as 'Ziegfeld Follies', 'Du Barry Was a Lady' (with beautiful Technicolor-enhanced red hair), 'Follow the Fleet', 'Top Hat', and 'Roberta'? And especially 'Stage Door', starring one of the great female ensemble casts of the era?

And did you know she appeared in a Three Stooges short called 'Three Little Pigskins'? She was once asked "What did you learn from starring with the Three Stooges?". Her reply: "How to duck."

Gerard Jones: She also served as a foil to the Marx Brothers in "Room Service." She was a promising comic actress whom some producers saw as a possible heiress to Carole Lombard after her death, but somehow she never quite clicked at the box office as a star.

Through radio she discovered the comedic value of her voice and the "scatterbrain" persona she perfected, which is what led to the TV show.

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Waterford, Mich.: Is "Lucy" honestly portrayed or in reality, behind the scenes, was she a very narcissistic, insecure and extremely jealous person?

Pamela Mason Wagner: I feel the film portrays her honestly. We touched on the fact that she changed over the years. Doris Singleton and Carol Burnett refer to the fact that once Desi was gone, Lucy had to worry about the business aspects of the show, not just the performance end. Dick Martin generously and affectionately calls her crusty. And what movie star isn't at least a little narcissistic?

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Gale Gordon seems to become a forgotten footnote to the life of Lucy. Not many realize he was on Lucy's radio show and Lucy wanted him on her first TV show. Would you please tell us more about the influences Gale Gordon had on Lucy's career.

Gerard Jones: They were apparently very good friends lifelong. She credited him a few times with teaching her about comic timing and voice inflection on radio--and "I Love Lucy" was based fairly closely on her radio show. It was largely that radio experience that enabled her to be so effective on early TV, when most movie stars weren't doing as well on the new medium. Off hand I don't know why Gordon wasn't hired for "I Love Lucy." Apparently Ball and William Frawley never did get along.

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Portsmouth, N.H.: I saw the show last night and was frankly disappointed that you didn't begin with Ms. Ball's career as a starlet with RKO, and then with stints at Twentieth and MGM. Ms. Ball was an excellent actress, and with help from Ginger Roger's mother, she got a look at RKO and in her own words "never said no" to any walk-on or small part to enhance her value to the studio. She did do a substantial number of good films, "Dark Corner" and "Best Foot Forward" come to mind, along with appearances with such up and comers as Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara. This period in her life further demonstrates her talent, persistence and versatility and should be included in any complete portrait of the woman. "Big Dave."

Pamela Mason Wagner: Perhaps you missed the first few minutes, as we certainly did cover her early movie career, albeit briefly, including clips of her with Maureen O'Hara and Henry Fonda. However, when an actress appears in some 70 movies, it is impossible in a 90 minute program to mention them all. I agree she was an excellent actress, and several commentators point that out during the documentary.

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Alabama: Posting early -- great film.

A question about her later career: While Ball was strongly identified with her Lucy character, I recall she got some good reviews for her work in a TV movie called "Stone Pillow," where she played a bag lady. And looking over her filmography after the program aired, it seemed she didn't really work all that much after Here's Lucy. So was it question of the public not accepting her as anything but Lucy (as the film states) or of Lucille Ball not wanting to ruin a successful formula?

Gerard Jones: She also played Mame in the big-screen version of that musical. I can't answer this one authoritatively, but my understanding is just that she was ready to stop working so hard after decades of constant work. Mame enabled her to star in an A-budget Hollywood musical and Stone Pillow enabled her to demonstrate her serious acting chops, but there wasn't much else she had to prove at that point.

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Washington, D.C.: Your show was great! And I know it is impossible to have everyone in the clips, but I was surprised not to see the famous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton clip with the ring, or Gale Gordon.

Pamela Mason Wagner: Good point, when there are hundreds of television episodes to clip from much will be left out. We were guided by the episodes that our interviewees wanted to talk about. It was our good fortune that Fran Drescher, Van Johnson and Carol Burnett all had lots to say about the Dancing Star episode co-starring Van Johnson. (Also one of my personal favorites.)

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Alexandria, Va.: Pamela Mason Wagner,

I'm sorry that I was unable to view the documentary last night on PBS, but I know it's available on VHS and am looking forward to purchasing it.

Does the film delve into Lucy's early film career? Movies such as 'Ziegfeld Follies', 'Du Barry Was a Lady' (with beautiful Technicolor-enhanced red hair), 'Follow the Fleet', 'Top Hat', and 'Roberta'? And especially 'Stage Door', starring one of the great female ensemble casts of the era?

And did you know she appeared in a Three Stooges short called 'Three Little Pigskins'? She was once asked "What did you learn from starring with the Three Stooges?". Her reply: "How to duck."

Gerard Jones: Forgive me if this gets answered twice, but my answer didn't appear previously. I just noted that she also served as a foil to the Marx Bros in "Room Service," and was seen by some producers as a potential successor to Carole Lombard after her death. That combination of glamour and wacky comedy was a rare one. But somehow she never clicked as a star at the box office. On radio she learned the comic power of her voice and developed her "scatterbrain" persona, which made her so effective on early TV.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I very much enjoyed the show last night on PBS, but frankly I am mystified why you interviewed Fran Drescher!!! I understood Carol Burnett -- I even understood Dick Martin. But Drescher???? Please explain.

Pamela Mason Wagner: We wanted to interview a contemporary comedienne, who was also a beautiful woman (like Lucy), and who had moved into executive producing and business roles on her own show. The Nanny was more current at the time the documentary was made (1999-2000), and Fran Drescher was on the record speaking about how much Lucille Ball influenced her.

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Herndon, Va.: Hi, Your show last night ended on a low note. The idea that it was tragic that her last show was cancelled after 8 episodes and that she was no longer successful. Did she really feel that way? She definitely did not retire like Johnny Carson. Do you think that people look at Bob Hope like Lucy? It was a shame they did not retire early?

Gerard Jones: I don't get the feeling she had much emotion invested in that final show. She'd already done Stone Pillow, I think. I think it's just that The Cosby Show had made it seem possible that an older comedian could resurrect his career and score a huge hit--there were a lot of quick sitcoms cranked out in its wake, and I imagine it was hard to resist taking a shot.

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Washington, D.C.: Why and when did you decide to make this film? What inspired you? Thank you!

Pamela Mason Wagner: This film came about in the late 90's after many discussions between American Masters and the Ball-Arnaz children. American Masters wanted to focus on a successful American comedienne who became an icon for her generation. A mutually beneficial business deal with CBS enabled us to clip widely from the I Love Lucy programs, allowing us to analyze and explore that show and its later incarnations in a way that had not been possible in other films about Lucille Ball. And of course, I've been a fan of Lucy all my life, and making the film presented an opportunity to indoctrinate my then 8 year old in the pleasures of I Love Lucy.

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Oxnard, Calif.: What ever happened to "Lucy In London" -- an hour CBS music Special that had Lucy Carmichael winning a trip to London with her quirky guide Anthony Newley and a great cast including the Dave Clark Five? I never see it mentioned in any books about her, and I thought it was one of her best shows and way ahead of it's time in regards to not following the Lucy 'formula.' Didn't the Elvis comeback Special have the same Producer/Director?

Gerard Jones: Yes, it was made by Steve Binder, who made his name with Hullabaloo and went on to do Elvis 1968 and a lot of other variety specials. I don't know why it's unavailable, especially since even Hullabaloo is on DVD. Legal issues, perhaps?

Pamela Mason Wagner: You could try checking with the Museum of TV and Radio in New York or Los Angeles.

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Arlington, Va.: My grandmother still compares everything she thinks is funny to a "Lucy" moment. Do you think she set the standard for comedy for her generation, or generally since she began her career? Why do you think she's just so funny? Thanks.

Gerard Jones: At the time she was really the only woman on TV who was so funny and also so comprehensible to the wives and mothers of America. Eve Arden on Our Miss Brooks was funny and popular, but she played a spinster. Most TV sitcom women were the less-funny foils to funnier husbands or children. Only Lucy made the life that so many tens of millions of women lived so vivid and silly, and only Lucy captured the tension between trying to be a good wife and also trying to satisfy her own wild dreams.

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Glover Park, Washington, D.C.: Gerard,

Looking past Lucy to today's sitcoms, do you think the dynamic has changed? I've seen some comments basically saying that since Sienfeld is gone, so too has the future of sitcoms.

Of course, I think people also have said that about Cheers, Friends, and now maybe Everybody Loves Raymond!

What do you think the future of sitcoms looks like?

Thanks!

Gerard Jones: People are always predicting the end of the sitcom. They were doing it in the late '60s, before All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore changed the form, again in the early '80s before Cosby and Cheers, and even a little bit in the early '90s before Seinfeld really took off. The structure will keep changing, but there's something so comforting about sitting down for a half hour with familiar, likeable, funny characters who can be counted on to do the same ridiculous things every week that I don't think the sitcom will disappear any time soon.

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Arlington, Va.: I've read conflicting reports about her relationship with Vivian Vance. In Vance's bio, she seems to feel very ambivalent toward Lucille--at times finding her overbearing and catty, but also feeling deep respect and friendship toward her. Yet in Lucy's bio, she says only flattering things about Vance. I have also read that they were close in their later years. Can you elaborate on their relationship?

Pamela Mason Wagner: Unfortunately Vivian Vance was not alive at the time we made the documentary and I'm not entirely comfortable speculating on their relationship. However, I suspect all the things you described were present in their relationship: ambivalence, respect, intimidation and closeness.

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Arlington, Va.: What are your favorite "I Love Lucy" episodes? Do you think that show defined a generation? If so, how?

Pamela Mason Wagner: I think most of the first season is just brilliant. As a filmmaker, I appreciate the quality of the cinematography which looks pristine more than fifty years after it was shot. It is interested to watch how they worked out the kinks that first season. I also enjoy the European shows. It was a risk to take the characters and the show out of its milieu, but they succeeded brilliantly. You really feel like you're in Paris when Ethel and Lucy saunter down the sidewalk in their "couture" outfits. I guess my overall favorite episode is "The Dancing Star" because it features all of Lucy's attributes in one episode: the schemer, queen of slapstick, the beauty queen, and the emotionally vulnerable character that tugged at everyone's heartstrings.

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Spokane, Wash.: Was the Ball-Arnaz estate happy with this film? What kind of feedback did you get from her children?

Pamela Mason Wagner: Yes, the children were pleased with the production. Their film about their parents focused entirely on their personal lives (I think there are only one or two stills from I Love Lucy in that film) so they were happy that we did something quite different.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Hi, all,

Interesting show! I am too young to have ever seen Lucy in her heyday, but it was neat to see what a big star she was.

Here's dumb question, based on the color photos on the chat page--was Lucy a real redhead? If so, wow!

Pamela Mason Wagner: Lucy was not a real red head. She once said she was keeping the economy of Egypt afloat with her annual orders of henna. It was the advent of technicolor that prompted the studios to try her as a red head. Guess it worked!

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Washington, D.C.: What is it about Desi and Lucy that just makes them such a memorable couple?

Pamela Mason Wagner: I guess any answer to that question would have to be subjective: for me, the fact that he's younger, she's older; he's Latin, she's "WASPY"; and they were both devastatingly glamorous. They were really one of a kind, and people like that always capture the popular imagination.

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Alexandria, Va.: Pamela Mason Wagner,

I'm sorry that I was unable to view the documentary last night on PBS, but I know it's available on VHS and am looking forward to purchasing it.

Does the film delve into Lucy's early film career? Movies such as 'Ziegfeld Follies', 'Du Barry Was a Lady' (with beautiful Technicolor-enhanced red hair), 'Follow the Fleet', 'Top Hat', and 'Roberta'? And especially 'Stage Door', starring one of the great female ensemble casts of the era?

And did you know she appeared in a Three Stooges short called 'Three Little Pigskins'? She was once asked "What did you learn from starring with the Three Stooges?". Her reply: "How to duck."

Pamela Mason Wagner: You can purchase the VHS on Amazon. But yes, the film does briefly go into her movie career, and there are clips from Roberta and Du Barry. It is primarily focusing on the trajectory that lead her to I Love Lucy, and the path she took after that show. Our premise was that Lucy Ricardo was the part Lucille Ball was born to play, so we view her movie career through the lens of how it did (or didn't) prepare her and lead up to that seminal role.

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Washington, D.C.: After Lucy and Desi divorced, did they remain on good terms? I once saw footage of Lucy with her second husband, Gary Morton, and the children on a gameshow. Did Desi remarry? How close were they in the decades following their divorce?

Pamela Mason Wagner: By all accounts they did remain connected in some profound way after their divorce. Desi remarried a woman called Edith Hirsh. Desi and Lucy always spoke on their anniversary even years after they were divorced. The film shows them swimming in a pool together with a grand child not long before Desi died.

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Pamela Mason Wagner: For the person who was looking for "Lucy in London" here are some more details that may help you track it down:

Airdate 10/24/66 CBS; 60 minutes; Executive Producer: Lucille Ball

Written by Pat McCormick, Ron Friedman; Co-Produced and Choreographed by: David Winters; Song "Lucy in London" by Phil Spector (!). Good luck!

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Bethesda, Md.: Gerry,

Just wanted you to know that at the Baltimore Comicon this weekend, Denny O'Neil was raving about Men of Tomorrow and everyone in the audience agreed. Just a great piece of work.

Pamela Mason Wagner: Unfortunately Gerard Jones has already logged off, but I will email your kind remarks to him!

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes today's discussion with Gerard Jones and Pamela Mason Wagner. Thank you for your questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Next week's American Masters film is the world broadcast premiere of "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," a film by Martin Scorsese. It airs on Monday, Sept. 26, and Tuesday, Sept. 27, on PBS (check local listings). A Live Online discussion with editor David Tedeschi and co-producers Susan Lacy and Nigel Sinclair will follow on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 1:30 p.m. ET.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company