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Authors: Stefan Kanfer

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RKO publicists had no idea how to sell Lucille Ball. They could hardly merchandise her dalliance with Berman, nor could they make much of her casual evenings with Broderick Crawford, fresh from his role as Lennie in the Broadway play
Of Mice and Men;
with comedian Milton Berle; or with screenwriter Gene Markey, whose chief distinction was a brief marriage to Joan Bennett.

So they invented a new Lucille Ball for their own use. Just as later publicists concocted a Joan Crawford who adored staying home in the kitchen with her daughter, or a Rock Hudson who was an unrestrained ladies’ man, the studio put together a Lucille who was a woman of multiple talents, an admixture of Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Aphrodite. With a straight face RKO offered the official biography to newspapers throughout the country. Among other things, it claimed: “She once took an open-cockpit plane up in weather 20 degrees below freezing to effect the rescue of a schoolboy; she plays a fast game of polo, has a hobby of woodcarving, owns a profitable florist shop, and is one of Hollywood’s best-dressed actresses.”

Lucille did not know how to fly, was not a horsewoman, had no financial interest in any flower shop, and dressed well but not as well as a hundred more successful actresses with their own couturiers. Not that this mattered. What was important was to convince editors that her RKO films were worth coverage. Image was everything. Accuracy had nothing to do with it.

The cumulative assault had an effect not only on editors and writers, but on studio executives as well. “Eventually,” she claimed, “they started sending me scripts and asked me if I’d like to do this or that. It was a big thrill. One day I saw a casting sheet that said, ‘A Lucille Ball type.’ I went to the casting office and said I’d be available in a week.” She took a screen test, only to be turned down by the producer. He said she was wrong for the role.

CHAPTER
FOUR

“I’ll call you
Dizzy”

RUMMAGING THROUGH souvenirs of the late 1930s, Lucille reminisced to a friend, “I was very happy being Queen of the B’s.” Bestowed by derisive studio folk, the title was accepted with equanimity. “Actually, that’s one of my problems,” she admitted. “I’m very happy in my nice little ruts.”

This particular rut turned out to be long, profitable, and almost entirely devoid of glamour. For a time Lucille and Eve Arden competed for minor wisecracking roles: “One of us would be the lady executive and the other would be the ‘other woman.’ They were the same roles. We’d walk through a room, drop a smart remark, and exit. I called us the ‘drop-gag girls.’ ”

Next came screwball comedies like
The Next Time I Marry
and
Beauty for the Asking.
In the former Lucille plays a potential heiress. The good news is that she has fallen in love with a handsome foreigner. The bad news is that she can inherit $20 million only if she marries an American. To outwit the estate lawyers, Lucille marries the first eligible Yankee in sight, and the couple sets off for Reno and a quickie divorce, only to find through various calamities and arguments that they cannot live without each other. In the latter movie she plays a young woman thrown over by a young man in search of a dowry. Fueled by resentment, she invents a beauty cream that women find irresistible. The cosmetic becomes a national sensation, whereupon the fortune hunter finds that Lucille
is
rather fetching after all.

A glance at Lucille Ball’s films from this period shows a wide range of parts, almost all of them in bottom-of-the-bill movies. In the comedy
That’s Right, You’re Wrong
she is cast as a starlet helping bandleader Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge pass their screen test; in the flagwaver
The Marines Fly High
she portrays a cocoa-plantation owner kidnapped by bandits and rescued by daring pilots; in the melodramatic
Panama Lady
she plays a conniving cabaret dancer out to separate an alcoholic oilman from his money. Buried in that sump of cinematic clichés, she still managed to attract critical attention: The New York
Daily News
critic deemed
Panama Lady
“another minor triumph for Lucille Ball . . . It is high time RKO recognized her potential and put her in something more deserving of her ability than the last things she has appeared in. I don’t contend that she is a Duse, but she is one of the most up-and-coming players around.”

The comer did win a role in
Room Service,
playing an aspiring actress and straight woman to the Marx Brothers. In theory, the Marx Brothers feature should have been her breakthrough. Pandro Berman thought so highly of the Brothers he paid half a million dollars for the rights to film the stage hit. That money included the salaries of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, borrowed for this occasion from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Unfortunately, the producer failed to notice something vital: every one of the previous seven Marx Brothers movies had been built from the ground up, the scenario carefully shaped to their talents and idiosyncrasies.
Room Service
was a Broadway comedy hastily rejiggered to fit the trio. The plot concerns a theatrical con man who refuses to leave his hotel room until he can find a backer rich enough to pay his bills and underwrite a new play. Audiences and critics were more tolerant than Groucho. “It was the first time we tried doing a play we hadn’t created ourselves,” he complained later. “We can’t do that. We’ve got to originate the characters and situations ourselves. Then we can do them. Then they’re us. We can’t do gags or play characters that aren’t ours. We tried it and we’ll never do it again.”

Lucille learned only one skill from her Marx Brothers experience: how to eat an exotic vegetable. At a dinner at Sam Goldwyn’s palatial home she was seated next to Harpo. When an artichoke was placed before her, Lucille panicked. She had never encountered one before, and thought to go at it with knife and fork until Harpo quietly showed her how to peel the leaves one by one. Harpo’s kindness was not duplicated by his younger brother. Privately, Groucho appraised Lucille Ball as “an actress, not a comedienne. There’s a difference. I’ve never found her to be funny on her own. She’s always needed a script.”

Here the usually astute comedian was wrong. Granted, Lucille would never be as furiously amusing as the Brothers, who could turn any occasion into a comic sketch. They were already notorious for squatting nude and roasting potatoes in Irving Thalberg’s faux fireplace when the production chief was late for a meeting. During the filming of
Room Service
they picked up where they had left off at MGM. RKO had promised to close the set of the movie, then reneged. Angry that visitors were on the way, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo prepared themselves for a scene in which they were to run after Lucille. That they did—but they had removed every stitch of clothing. The astonished tour group, composed of priests and nuns, averted their eyes.

But if Lucille could not match the Brothers for bare lunacy, she was not above making some memorable mischief of her own. Frank Albertson, who had played the hapless playwright in
Room Service,
booked himself into a local hospital. There he underwent a long-delayed hemorrhoid operation. Painfully recuperating, Albertson looked up one afternoon to see a group of his fellow performers, led by Lucille. She had talked the head nurse into allowing a visit. They were on a lunch break, she lied, and had only an hour before shooting resumed. They would be the very essence of sympathy and dignity.

Frank “knew we were up to no good the minute he saw us,” Lucille said, “and he begged us to leave. Well, that’s all we needed.” At her instigation, the callers did everything they could to break him up. “He shut his eyes as tightly as he could, trying to pretend we weren’t there, but it didn’t work. He bit his lip so hard it turned purple. He finally gave in, alternating screams of laughter with screams of pain. The nurse came running in like a sketch nurse in a vaudeville scene, and threw us all out on the spot. As I was leaving, Frank looked at me with the purplest face I’ve ever seen and said, ‘I never knew my eyelids were connected to my asshole.’ ”

By mid-1939 Lucille was forced to acknowledge what everyone else already knew: Ginger Rogers had risen to become RKO’s A-picture star, and Lucille Ball had fallen into the category of B-picture comedienne, a rut from which there seemed no exit. Given these conditions, she considered other career opportunities. Nostalgic for the energy that came across the footlights from a live audience, Lucille thought about doing a legitimate play or working in the dying medium of vaudeville and the immensely vigorous one of radio. “In pictures,” she noted, “by the time they get around to the close-up, the comedy is gone.” She heard that the Jack Haley and Phil Baker radio programs, both top-rated shows, were looking for actresses, and she auditioned for and won both jobs. She made the most of them. After one successful show
Variety
commented: “[Lucille Ball’s] material was only so-so, but her timing and knock ’em dead emphasis on the tags italicized the humor. Her withering style of always belittlin’ was particularly well suited to go with Baker’s fooling.”

This emphasis on humor came to overshadow every assignment and audition, no matter how serious the intent. During the season she was establishing herself as a foil, Lucille (like almost every other Hollywood actress under thirty not actively employed in a brothel) was asked to test for David O. Selznik. The producer was on a widely publicized search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in his muchballyhooed production of
Gone With the Wind.
Lucille suspected that she was wrong for the role, but no performer ever refused a command from Mr. Selznick. And besides, stranger things had happened in Hollywood. Mindful that this could be a lifetime opportunity, Lucille bought a new outfit reminiscent of the Old South, complete with flower-printed wide skirt and matching broad-brimmed hat. Her plan was to approach the Selznik studio in a big convertible, passing through the gate like a superstar. En route an unpredicted downpour soaked Culver City. The convertible failed to convert, and by the time Lucille reached her destination she and the dress were waterlogged.

A sympathetic secretary told her that Selznik was running behind schedule. That gave the actress a chance to dry out in the boss’s office. “She took a decanter of brandy off his desk and offered me a glass,” Lucille remembered. “I was shaking so much and so chilled that I took it and downed it in one gulp. She offered me another, and I downed that, too. By the time Selznik came in, I was smashed.” He smiled reassurance and asked her to do the scene she had prepared. “I read Scarlett’s speech to Ashley, the one where they don’t see Rhett on the sofa, looking like I went over Niagara Falls in a barrel.” When she finished, the producer offered congratulations on her ingenuity; it was very daring to make such a choice. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. Selznik said, ‘To do the scene on your knees like that!’ I was kneeling the whole time, and never even knew it.”

While she strove for name recognition, Lucille kept earnest suitors at bay. As she saw it, her career progress had been slow enough without the encumbrance of marriage. When Alexander Hall came along, he provided an easy choice for a long-term, emotionally uninvolving liaison. Hall, a director best known for guiding Shirley Temple in
Little
Miss Marker,
had already been divorced twice and had no intention of marrying again. He was middle-aged, dour, and physically unattractive, but he had been a child star in vaudeville, had great stories about the old days, and knew almost every local and visiting comedian. Hall introduced Lucille to radio headliner Fred Allen and his wife, Portland Hoffa, and to George Burns and Gracie Allen. He also cleared up an old misunderstanding when he brought Lucille to meet Ed and Ebba Sedgwick. Several years before, Lucille had snubbed Edward Sedgwick, convinced that the Keystone Kops director was just another dirty old man. Now she realized that he was a true believer, an expert in knockabout farce who thought Lucille Ball could become as big a luminary in her day as Mabel Normand and Constance Talmadge were in theirs.

Like any other actress, Lucille doted on praise, but she knew better than to rely on the flattery of an emeritus director. Work was the important thing, whether it was in light comedy or in such melodramas as
Five Came Back.
Directed by John Farrow from a script by Nathanael West and Dalton Trumbo, this was a suspense film about a plane crash in the jungles of South America. Of a dozen passengers who survive, only five will avoid the tribe of headhunters who surround them. Lucille Ball, playing a world-weary trollop, is one of the five—a plum role in what seemed to be a cursed production. First, torrential rains delayed the shooting. Then one character actor, John Carradine, fell ill. Another, Chester Morris, confused his costar Lucille’s onscreen role with her private life and kept pawing her whenever she let down her guard. Farrow displayed his sadistic side, arguing with and humiliating whatever cast member got in his way on a given day. Lucille became his unwitting victim one afternoon when she leaned on some tropical vegetation brought to the set for verisimilitude. It housed two tarantulas, and both fell onto her hair. She had hysterics and had to be assisted to her dressing room, much to the derisive amusement of the director.

A few months later Lucille found it in her heart to forgive him. Farrow had bullied his cast into tense, convincing performances, and
Five
Came Back
turned into the sleeper of 1939. The
New York Times
called it “as exciting as a pinwheel” and singled out Lucille Ball for her “gripping realism.” The front office began to regard Lucille in a different way. Studio press agents came around, hinting that big things were in store—perhaps the A films she had been striving for. In December she was sent east to make a series of personal appearances in New York. While in the city, she was told, it would be a good idea to see the new Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical. RKO had just bought
Too
Many Girls,
and casting would begin just after New Year’s Day. Was this the studio’s way of telling her that Lucille Ball was at long last an A-picture talent?

Because of her own foolhardiness, two weeks went by before she got tickets to the show. Studio publicists had set up a shoot with Lucille skating at the rink in Rockefeller Center. They asked her to do a pratfall and she obliged them: anything for a laugh. “After so many years in California,” she reflected, “I guess I’d forgotten how hard ice can be. I landed with a slight crack on my sacroiliac.” She was carried off on a stretcher and spent the next ten days of her holiday in a hospital. Friends dropped in and told her about
Too Many Girls.
It was not much on plot, they said, but how could you beat songs like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “I Like to Recognize the Tune”? And the cast wasn’t half bad. There was an outstanding new comedian, Eddie Bracken; a promising blond chorus boy, Van Johnson; and a good-looking Cuban kid who stopped the show with a conga dance at the end of act 1. As soon as she could walk, the visitors urged, Lucille had to go down to the Imperial Theatre and catch Desi Arnaz in person.

BOOK: Ball of Fire
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