Authors: Stefan Kanfer
She understood the situation and applied herself to acting and cultural lessons. There was no point in playing office politics; studio executives seemed to come and go with the seasons. Drawing on past experience and present lessons, she was creditable as the second lead in another Lily Pons film,
That Girl from Paris,
and garnered her first rave review from a New York paper. The
accurately termed her a “capable actress” and mistakenly judged her “an agile dancer” before getting to her real strength: “Miss Ball plays it quite straight, intensifying the comedy of each disaster. She rates, thereby, more conspicuous roles and more intense promotion. She is a comedienne, which is always a ‘find.’ ” As a brunette gangster’s moll in
Tell the Wife,
she was funnier between takes than when the cameras rolled, but even as a practical joker she attracted an unusual amount of attention. In the middle of one ad-lib routine Lucille was approached by a heavy, hard-breathing old gentleman. He whispered, “Young lady, if you play your cards right, you can be one of the greatest comediennes in the business.” She responded with a wry look and stepped away. “I figured he was one of the guys who came around measuring the starlets for tights,” she later remarked. Too late, she learned that the speaker was not on the make and that he had meant what he said. He was Edward Sedgwick, the retired comedy director who had been responsible for many Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton movies.
Late in 1936 the studio acquired the rights to George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s
a Broadway hit about the rivalries and friendships of ingenues. Every actress under the age of thirty ached to be in the cast, and Lucille lobbied Berman for a part—any part. His endorsement was not enough. Leland Hayward, Kaufman’s agent, believed there were at least a dozen more adept performers at RKO and he vetoed her. Never mind, Berman consoled Lucille, there might be another way into the project. He knew of a straight play bound for Broadway. If she could win a role and appear on the Main Stem for a couple of months, she might yet persuade these provincial New Yorkers that Lucille Ball had the talent and experience for
The name of the play was
Hey Diddle Diddle.
Written by an unknown playwright, Bartlett Cormack, it would be directed and coproduced by Anne Nichols, author of
Abie’s Irish Rose.
That comedy of intermarriage opened to scathing reviews (the
ran a contest for the most amusing pan, won by Harpo Marx: “No worse than a bad cold”) and proceeded to run for a record-breaking 2,327 performances. Now wealthy and immune to criticism, Nichols was persuaded to hire Lucille. She would play one of a trio of roommates trying to make a career in show business.
An eager young actor, Keenan Wynn, son of the comedian Ed Wynn, was also in the cast. The lead was the silent-movie veteran Conway Tearle, whose last film had been
Romeo and Juliet,
with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer as the lovers. Rehearsals augured well and
Hey Diddle Diddle
opened to an enthusiastic crowd late in January 1937, at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. The
critic reported: “Miss Ball fattens a fat part and almost walks off with the play. She outlines a consistent character and continually gives it logical substance. Has a sense of timing and, with a few exceptions, keeps her comedy under control.” The notice was not a fluke. After a performance in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post reviewer expressed dissatisfaction with the play, but not with its comedienne: “If there is one young person who is going to add to her professional stature in
Hey Diddle Diddle
it is Lucille Ball, just about the slickest trick you ever saw in slacks.” Lucille read the notices and mused about the future. Let Hollywood treat her as a clownish newcomer; she would become a headliner in the place she belonged—the legitimate theater.
It was not to be. Conway Tearle, succumbing to the illness that would cause his death a few months later, was forced to leave the play. In less than a month
Hey Diddle Diddle
was due to open at the Vanderbilt Theatre on Broadway. There was barely enough time to find another suitable lead and make the extensive revisions that Nichols demanded. Both alternatives were within reach, until Cormack announced that his work needed no drastic rewrites; he thought the script required only a few minor brush strokes. The argument escalated from shouting match to power struggle. Nichols settled matters several days later by closing the production out of town.
Disappointed and at loose ends, Lucille returned to RKO hoping that someone important had seen her out-of-town reviews. Someone had. Armed with the reviews, Pandro Berman convinced the higher-ups that Lucille belonged in the cast of
The director, Gregory La Cava, gave way, and with that decision Lucille found herself in an A picture for the first time. She played Judy Canfield, one of a group of aspiring actresses hell-bent on stage careers. Compared with the others, Lucille’s part was not large. Katharine Hepburn won the central role of the haughty debutante Terry Randall. Ginger Rogers, who considered herself Hepburn’s number one rival in the rising-star category, was determined to outshine everyone as Jean Maitland, a sarcastic girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Other actresses regarded this film as their big break, including Eve Arden (as Eve), who specialized in the wry comeback, Andrea Leeds (as the doomed Kaye Hamilton), whom La Cava considered “the best natural actress” he had ever worked with, and Ann Miller (as Annie, a long-legged dancer), who looked several years older than her real age. Lucille had seen Miller on the stage in San Francisco; she knew that the girl was actually fourteen, but she assured RKO executives that Ann was eighteen and therefore outside the New Deal’s child labor laws.
Throughout the filming La Cava aimed for realism. He all but dismissed the wardrobe department; the women were to wear their own clothes instead of the usual studio ensembles. (Lucille complied, but audaciously sent her clothing bills to RKO. The studio refused to pick up the tab.) Despite the fact that
had thrived on Broadway, La Cava determined that the film adaptation would be an extempore affair. Actors would ad-lib their scenes around certain agreed-upon lines; scenarists would fill the gaps with smart gags and backchat. Making up dialogue was difficult enough for Lucille; working with Hepburn was excruciating. “She was s-o-o-o highbrow that I never really knew exactly what she was saying, but I’d nod my head and agree with her,” Lucille told a friend. “She’d never talk to anyone directly, she’d address you looking all around you but never at you. I was riveted to her when she was around. She wasn’t really standoffish. She ignored everyone equally.”
La Cava was not so easily intimidated. At opportune times he reminded Hepburn that RKO considered her “box office poison,” and made her recite an affected line she had been trying to forget. “The calla lillies are in bloom again” was from
a Broadway flop that had prompted Dorothy Parker to issue the widely quoted appraisal, “she [Hepburn] runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” At La Cava’s insistence Hepburn spoke those words again in
and thenceforward impersonators made sure she never forgot them.
The director was no more benign with others in the cast. Lucille felt that La Cava disliked her in particular. If that was the case, he did not allow his personal feelings to interfere with the filming. He and the scenarists saw to it that her character, Judy Canfield, remained the realist of the group, an appealing Seattlite who eventually chucks her stage career and heads west to marry a lumberjack. En route, Ball has several indelible encounters, including a defining one with Leeds and Arden:
I actually saw one manager. It wasn’t an interview. I just saw him as he rushed out of his office.
Well, at least you know there is such an animal. What did he look like?
Like any other animal. He had on pants, a tie and collar.
Did smoke come out of his nose?
Did he say “Man, man” when you squeezed him?
I didn’t get that close to him.
You didn’t see a manager, dearie. What you saw was a mirage.
Of all the films released in 1937,
received the best word-of-mouth and the most glowing reviews. It was honored with Academy Award nominations. Katharine Hepburn’s reputation was restored, and the New York film critics vindicated La Cava’s methods by naming him best director of the year.
On the strength of her new screen credit Lucille signed with Zeppo Marx, the Marx brother who had dropped out of the comedy act in 1933 to become an influential agent. He drove her salary up to $1,000 a week and negotiated for better billing in B movies like
with Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and
Affairs of Annabel,
a light satire of Hollywood in which Lucille headlined with Jack Oakie. The latter movie proved so popular that the studio offered a second
New York Times
preferred her to the film; Lucille Ball, said the reviewer, was “one of our brightest comediennes.”
With this rush of recognition she relaxed enough to enjoy her home, and to expand her social life. By now Cleo had joined the group at North Ogden Drive; it was as if Lucille had finally brought the entire emotional structure of Jamestown west, brick by brick. Everyone seemed happier now—save for Grandpa Fred Hunt. A recent stroke seemed to propel him backward in time. Although the country was in Recovery, he acted as if the Depression had just begun. To anyone who would listen, and to many who would not, he again boomed the virtues of socialism, Eugene V. Debs–style.
Flush with her grand new salary, Lucille hired a maid. Unlike most of her career moves, this one happened quite by accident. She was straightening the house and idly listening to a radio program presenting a series of job-seekers. Prospective employers were invited to call in. A young woman, Harriet McCain, spoke glowingly about her mother, who had been Jack Benny’s maid for fourteen happy years. Harriet had enjoyed a brief fling in show business; now she was ready to follow in Mama’s profession. On a whim Lucy called in, and the next day a plump, cheerful African American presented herself. “When I interviewed Harriet,” Lucille said, “I didn’t ask for any references, to her surprise. After about five minutes’ talk, I decided I liked her looks and manner and asked, ‘What size uniform do you wear?’ and that was that.”
It did not take long for Grandpa Fred to agitate the new worker with lines like “You’re being exploited by your employers!” These exhortations annoyed Lucille, but could hardly have been a surprise. Ever since his arrival in Los Angeles Fred Hunt had been espousing radical causes, lecturing on street corners, quoting his favorite periodical, the
and joining most of the left-wing organizations in town, frequently signing up other members of the family without their knowledge. His arguments against the Roosevelt administration’s defense of capitalism grew so fierce and choleric that Lucille feared for his health. It was to placate the old man that she, her brother, and her mother followed his lead and registered as Communists for one primary. “I remember feeling quite foxy [about that day],” Lucille said in later years. After all, what was the harm of signing up as an L.A. Bolshevik? “I always felt I would be all right if I didn’t vote it.”
Between assignments at the studio and domestic chores, she allowed herself a limited social life. The involvement with Berman waned when his wife gave birth and Lucille saw herself in the unaccustomed role of temptress. “I knew what it was like to lose a beloved father early in life,” she declared later. “No child was going to be put through that torture because of me.” She was not alone for long. Another exotic type came along: Cesar Romero, a well-established Latin star. Lucille thought him “the best dancer in the world.” She recalled: “One night we both went to Mocambo, and we both had too much to drink. I thought maybe he’d make a pass after all the times we went out, but he didn’t. As we danced, he started to cry. I asked him what was the matter, and he just said, ‘I’m strange.’ I told him that we were all a little strange, and then he really broke down.”
Stranger still was Oscar Levant, the deadpan pianist-composer-actor who made a career of his neuroticism. On a lark Lucille agreed to have dinner with him. He picked her up at the house, then drove to the top of Mulholland Drive. Lucille mused, “If that cop came back, at least I was with a man this time.” After an interminable silence, Levant extinguished his fourth cigarette. “Well, I guess you’re wondering why I haven’t made a pass at you.”
“I just looked at him,” Lucille went on. “I didn’t know what to say. If I said yes, I thought he’d kiss me and I’d scream, and if I said no he’d do it anyway and I’d scream. Then he said, ‘Well, don’t worry. I’m not going to make a pass at you. I have syphilis.’ I don’t know if he was kidding or not, but that was the end of it. He started the car and took me home without another word.”
She also dated Henry Fonda, who had appeared with her in
Their association was extremely short-lived. One evening Lucille and Ginger Rogers double-dated with Fonda and his room-mate, Jimmy Stewart. They danced at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub until about 5 a.m. before stopping off at Barney’s Beanery to sober up with coffee and a light breakfast. The quartet hit the street at sunrise. Both actresses had spent a long time choosing their ensembles and applying heavy makeup, false eyelashes, and dark mascara. As long as the lighting was dim, they were the epitome of glamour. In the harsh morning glare, they suddenly looked like dime store mannequins. Fonda did a double take as he examined his companion, uttered one syllable—“Yuck!”—and took her home. There were no further dates.