Though it was far from the first situation comedy, I Love Lucy has the reputation as the mother of all sitcoms, and for good reason. For starters, there's never been a comedian quite like Lucille Ball before or since: with beauty she was entirely willing to contort for laughs and phenomenal comic instincts (matched by an apparently untiring work ethic), the redheaded star was and remains impossible not to love. Supported by consistently snappy writing—from creators Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Pugh (Davis)—and a cast that comprised a tight comic foursome unchallenged until the decades-later Seinfeld, Lucy ruled the airwaves for six seasons amounting to 180 episodes.
The series began to take shape with a 1951 pilot never intended for air (and later broadcast as the centerpiece of the 1990 CBS special I Love Lucy: The Very First Show). That pilot established the married couple Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (Ball and real-life husband Desi Arnaz) and a format steeped in all manner of showbiz: vaudeville, the legitimate theater, TV variety (like Your Show of Shows), and movies. Arnaz, a Cuban-born American musician and bandleader, played a fictionalized version of himself, allowing the series to integrate, with relative ease, musical numbers set in nightclubs (despite Oscar Hammerstein's infamous advice "Keep the redhead but ditch the Cuban" and "Well, for God's sake, don't let him sing"). Though this original pilot did not include the Ricardos' neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance), they're in place by the first episode aired on CBS ("The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub"). They also appear in the sixth episode "The Audition," a slightly reworked version of the unaired pilot.
The pilot and nearly a dozen of the thirty-five Season One episodes to follow play out the motif of frustrated housewife Lucy Ricardo wanting to worm her way into showbiz, usually via Ricky's act and in spite of her typically off-key singing. Positioned as an underdog (if underhanded) striver, Lucy maintains audience sympathies with her dogged commitment to her dream, insistently suppressed by Desi. Though there's a discernable fifties-style sexism to Lucy constantly being put back in her place, there's just as evident a progressive feminist angle in Lucy's tireless pursuit of "having it all" and her giving-as-good-as-she-gets tussles in her marital battles of the sexes. Most episodes hinge on a conflict between Lucy and Desi, or one positioning Lucy and right-hand-gal Ethel against Desi and brother-in-arms Fred. Despite stories built on wacky schemes, crafty tricks, and farcical misunderstandings, all is forgotten and forgiven by each episode's end, as love conquers all.
Lucy proved equally adept—nay, brilliant—at physical comedy and dialogue. The former gets a fine showcase in "The Audition," mined (as was the pilot) from Lucy and Desi's vaudevillian roadshow just prior to the series: in the audition, Lucy literally gets to clown. That I Love Lucy was filmed essentially live-to-film (innovating a three-camera sitcom-filming technique) served Lucy especially well, feeding her spontaneous acting style. As for her dialogue chops, look no further than the Season One episode "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," considered by many the show's high watermark. Though the show's Act One is no great shakes, the rest is a comedy classic and a tour de force for Ball, as Lucy Ricardo weasels her way into hawking a tonic called Vitameatavegamin during Ricky's live-TV debut. Since Vitameatavegamin turns out to be 23% alcohol, Lucy quickly gets blitzed: tongue-tied and wobbly, she proceeds to mangle the live ad and encroach on one of Ricky's musical numbers. Lucy's downright amazing, but her lengthy monologue is also the product of outstanding writing by Carroll and Pugh (likely inspired by, but outpacing, an old Red Skelton routine).
Desi proved a surprisingly adept comic foil: an expert straight man and a presence certainly as uniquely novel in character as his spouse. Gamely allowing his naturally idiosyncratic Cuban dialect to be mocked, Desi showed fine comic timing in his own right, and his musical numbers add variety and figurative color to the black-and-white show. Vance was by all accounts a font of comic invention, her talent honed on the stage and proven in her range of dry to shocked reactions to each new fine mess Lucy gets (or gets Ethel) into; meanwhile, though undeniably hammy and advanced in years (with a discernable tremor in the hands), Frawley is a hoot whose energy level never flags and whose vaudeville roots (shared by his character) consistently come in handy for a laugh.
Season One guest stars include Edward Everett Horton and Lucy's co-stars from the radio show My Favorite Husband: Bea Benaderet and Gale Gordon (Gordon would go on to co-star with Ball on the TV sitcoms The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy and Life with Lucy). While "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" sets a high bar most of the season around it doesn't quite match, I Love Lucy's shakedown cruise season churns out consistently entertaining half hours, including "The Freezer" (building to a gag that became a sitcom staple of sorts), the self-explanatory "Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her," the before-its-time multple-personality plot "Lucy Fakes Illness," "The Ballet" (featuring the classic vaudeville routine "Slowly I Turned..."), and the delightfully absurd farce "Lucy Writes a Play." Few of the pivotal mix-ups are credible, but the cast and the expert season-long direction of Marc Daniels weave a comic spell such that audiences have never much cared. As such, I Love Lucy retains a timeless appeal that continues to win over new generations of fans.
CBS is not kidding around about this being the "Ultimate" home-video release of I Love Lucy. It's hard to imagine a more comprehensive release of the show than this one: I Love Lucy: Ultimate Season 1 on Blu-ray. The episodes we're used to seeing—the “heart on satin” versions that have kept the series going in syndication heaven—look sharper than ever. These masters were created from the 35mm source material and are complete in length with the exception of sponsor material. This release, however, also includes the full original broadcasts of each episode, complete with that sponsor material (the sponsor being cigarette-peddling Phillip Morris). These versions are sourced from the best available elements, those being 16mm.
The "heart on satin" versions have always looked quite good, except for rare shots that inject a few seconds of blurriness into an otherwise sharp image (these are endemic to the source material). And it goes without saying that high definition benefits these episodes, which have exquisite contrast, a filmic texture, and more detail than we've yet seen on home video. The full 16mm versions are entirely miraculous (check out the bonus feature "Before and After") in the level of sharpness and the chiaroscuro balance hi-def restoration experts have mined from the source—while they're not as good-looking as the 35mm versions, they're certainly more than merely watchable, which is good news for fans looking to transport themselves right back to the original 1951 airdates. Both types of transfers occasionally succumb to mild compression artifacts, like a bit of aliasing or moiré patterns in troublesome clothing, but there's no question that hi-def Blu-ray is the best way to watch I Love Lucy that there's ever been.
Audio comes in LPCM 2.0 mono tracks are certainly as good as they get for this material, which is pretty darn good: the only time you'll ever be conscious of any shortcomings in these nicely cleaned-up tracks is when you return to the main menu and hear a more dynamic-range rendition of the theme tune.
Bonus features are terrific, beginning with a fully loaded Disc One. I Love Lucy Costume & Makeup Tests are presented both as "Raw Footage" (11:03, HD) and in a "Special Presentation" (9:56, HD) hosted by TCM presenter Robert Osborne, who once worked for Desilu. This previously unseen footage from late August/early September 1951 of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is a nifty bonus for fanatics, as it captures the couple at a pivotal moment.
The 1990 CBS special I Love Lucy: The Very First Show (48:02, HD) appears here in an upscaled transfer. Most of the special is comprised of the original pilot—which is also viewable on its own as the first "episode" on the disc—but it also includes comments from host Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz in separate vintage interviews, and writers Bob Carroll and Madeleine Pugh Davis. In a very cool bonus, the raw Carroll & Davis interview footage appears here as "Outtakes" (16:39, SD) in which they're prodded by director David Steinberg.
There's also a cute "1951 Promo" (:21, SD) and a terrific "Audio Commentary" sourced from the 1991 Criterion Collection I Love Lucy LaserDisc, with comments by Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, writer-producer Jess Oppenheimer, writers Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis, director William Asher, actors Jerry Hausner, Doris Singleton and Mary Jane Croft, stage manager Herb Browar, and TV historian Bart Andrews. (There's also a text-based Bart Andrews Profile.)
"Before and After" (2:12, HD) is a dazzling comparison showcasing the restoration efforts applied to the 16mm sources for the original episode broadcasts.
"Flubs" (3:11, HD) points out some minor goofs that made it into the essentially live-to-film broadcasts: Disc One's flubs include "The Drum Has a Familiar Ring," "'They Want Us to Meet Us'?", "Not So Fast, Desi! – Part 1," "Not So Fast, Desi! – Part 2," "The Wrong Drink" and "Who’s 'Yorky'?"
Lucy on the Radio (Audio Only) presents My Favorite Husband episodes, starring Lucy, that inspired the TV episodes on the disc. Disc One's episodes are "The Wills" and "Iris and Liz’s Easter."
Behind the Scenes (Audio Book Featurette) presents excerpts from the book Laughs, Luck, and Lucy by Jess Oppenheimer, as read by Larry Dobkin: "Lucy Loosens Up," "Trying for Television," "Making the Deal," "The Premise," "Writing the Pilot," "Casting Jerry" and "The Perfect Title," with a text-based Larry Dobkin Profile.
Special Slide Shows (Audio & Photos) include "Slide Show 1: Rehearsing the Pilot" (1:47, HD) and "Slide Show 2: 'Lucy Thinks Ricky is Trying to Murder Her'" (HD).
In addition, this disc—like every disc in the set—includes text-based Guest Cast Profiles and bios of Sponsor Talent for the performers seen on that disc, as well as episode specific Production Notes, a Photo Gallery, and Take a Bow (disc credits), all in HD.
Disc Two kicks off with "On-Set Color Home Movies" (3:19, HD) filmed surreptitiously from the bleachers on October 12, 1951, during filming of “The Audition.”
The Sunday Lucy Show (4:21, SD) is a collection of new opening and closing materials prepared for this 1955 series constructed of Lucy repeats.
Disc Two includes the "Flubs" (:42, HD) "Audience Participation" and "A Lengthy Ladder," the text bio Meet Marc Daniels and, for Lucy on the Radio (Audio Only), the My Favorite Husband episodes "Anniversary Presents," "Numerology" and "George is Messy."
Disc Three collects the "Flubs" (:28, HD) "Desi Can’t Miss" and "Quiet on the Set" as well as, for Lucy on the Radio (Audio Only), the My Favorite Husband episodes "Valentine’s Day" and "Liz Has the Flimjabs."
Disc Four gathers the "Flubs" (:58, HD) "Fred’s Getaway," "Jumpin’ Jack Flash," "A Good Cover Story" and "Vanishing Cream" and, for Lucy on the Radio (Audio Only), the My Favorite Husband episode "Liz Teaches the Samba."
Disc Five includes the "Flubs" (1:36, HD) "We Got Married Where?", "It’s About Four Blocks" and "Desi Forgets His Spanish," as well as the on-set Clowning Around (HD) glimpse of writer-producer Jess Oppenheimer in a curly wig. This disc's Lucy on the Radio (Audio Only) episode of My Favorite Husband is "The Marriage License."
Lastly, Disc Six offers the "Flubs" (:45, HD) "Where’s Lucy" and "Call Me 'Maurice'" and a 1991 Criterion-produced Audio Commentary specific to “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” with writers Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis, stage manager Herb Browar, actors Jerry Hausner and Ross Elliot, and TV historian Bart Andrews.
Fancy Editing presents alternate versions of two scenes, necessitated by sponsor appearances during scenes: “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1:49, HD) and “Lucy Gets Ricky on the Radio” (1:07, HD).
This disc also includes Lucy on the Radio (Audio Only)—the My Favorite Husband episodes "Selling Dresses," "Quiz Show," "Time Budgeting" and "George Tries for a Raise," as well as Behind the Scenes (Audio Book Featurette) with more book excerpts from Laughs, Luck…and Lucy by Jess Oppenheimer, read by Larry Dobkin and featuring video clips from “The Freezer”: "Writing 'The Freezer' (Part 1),"
"Writing 'The Freezer' (Part 2)" and "Writing 'Lucy Does a TV Commercial.'"
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