There’s a biopic out now about Lucille Ball called Being the Ricardos that has mixed reviews (something like a 6.6 on IMDb from users and a similar 68% on Rotten Tomatoes). But there are some things the movie gets right about Lucille – like her ties to the Communist Party and Lucy being targeted during the McCarthy Red Scare in 1952 when she testified for the first of two times in front of the FBI and their Un-American Activities Committee.
While Lucy was cleared by stating she registered as a Communist for her grandfather and never voted Communist and the committee believed her, there’s a lot from Lucy herself both in her show, I Love Lucy, and in things she later produced as an executive at Desilu Productions that really calls that testimony into question. Maybe Lucy wasn’t an active Communist, party-wise, but she embodied leftist ideals and challenged the status quo of the American housewife and even the idea of what an American marriage could be on television.
Why do I think leftists should love Lucy, despite her denouncement of Communism when under investigation and under threat of possible blacklisting in Hollywood? Because Lucy’s actions speak louder than her words, spoken under threat of loosing her platform and livelihood. Here’s a few things about Lucille Ball that shows even if she wasn’t a comrade, she was an ally:
- Lucy from I Love Lucy challenged the notion of the 1950s housewife. She wasn’t happy to cook and clean. She didn’t budget well. She was ambitious and wanted to be out of the house and in show business. She disobeyed her husband. While all of this was presented to American audiences under the guise of comedy, Lucy and her show quickly became a favorite among American audiences because of the freedom she embodied in a system that would otherwise have women restricted to the home, obedient, and complacent.
- Lucy and her costar/husband Desi (who played Ricky on the show) were the first interracial married couple to be featured on T.V. Lucy, in fact, had to fight to get her husband cast in the show as her fictional husband because studio executives didn’t see a “red blooded American girl” falling in love with a Cuban. The show had to constantly fight executives to break boundaries, but break boundaries they did. In addition to being the first interracial couple on T.V., the show was also the first to feature a pregnant woman (despite no one being able to say the word pregnant) and, towards the show’s end, the first show to have a married couple share the same bed. Lucy, as an executive at Desilu Productions, would continue this trend of breaking boundaries.
- Lucy saved Star Trek. Lucy and Desi divorced in 1960 and, in 1962, Lucy bought out his shares in their production company, Desilu Productions, making her head of the largest independent studio in Hollywood. In 1964, Roddenberry couldn’t find a home for his sci-fi show, which seemed alien to studios like CBS which rejected it. NBC took a shot an ordered a first episode for Desilu to produce but by then, executives other than Lucy at Desilu were balking at how expensive the first episode would be and wanted to pull back on producing the show. Lucy overrode them all and is credited for saving the show, and in 1965 the pilot was produced and two more episodes were ordered – which became the 1966 television pilot of Star Trek, also known as a show about international space communism where mankind grew out of the need for capitalism and instead embraced curiosity and their differences to explore the universe. Was the show a perfect lefty show? No and there’s some questionable colonial themes (amongst other issues), but did it introduce the idea of international unity, racial equality, mutual aid and support, a system without money, and, most importantly, tribbles to the American masses. And, in continuing with first for Lucy, Star Trek also featured the first interracial kiss between a Black actress and a white actor.
- I Love Lucy was critical of capitalism in many of their episodes where Lucy participated in the workforce and sided with the workers. As I write this, three popular episodes of the show come to mind: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” where she stomps grapes, “Lucy and the Chocolate Factory” episode here she and Ethel work on a chocolate assembly line, and the “Vitameatavegamin” episode or where Lucy gets drunk taking a vitamin for a commercial shoot. While portrayed as part of a movie shoot, Lucy illustrates the intense labor it took to stomp grapes into wine and, in her signature comedic fashion, shows how exhausting physical labor is in “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” As a child watching reruns of this episode, I got the humor of the situation, but I also appreciated the amount of work it took to produce a lot of the goods we take for granted since industrialization has automated many aspects of production. But Lucy also challenges this idea of industrialization in the “Lucy and the Chocolate Factory” episode where she and Ethel fail, miserably, to work on a chocolate factory line. This episode illustrates that automation doesn’t always make things easier for the worker and, despite the ability to produce more at faster rates, capitalists still try to push the human part of production past impossible limits and actively overwork their laborers. Lucy was able to pull off critiques like this because they were presented under the guise of humor.
In the “Vitameatavegamin” episode, Lucy gets progressively more and more drunk as she does take after take of a vitamin commercial. On the surface, this one seems like less of a critique of capitalism to me and more of a critique of how studios treated and drugged women at the time like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. I think we often see these two actresses as stand-alone in the way studios abused and drugged women for production purposes, but this was standard practice for many women in the industry at the hands of these large studios. With the original air date of 1952, the “Vitameatavegamin” episode fell a decade before Marilyn died from an overdose and a decade after Judy Garland starred in The Wizard of Oz and spoke about how she was drugged on the set to make her peppy for a take or to wind her down so she could get some rest. Lucy being drugged on set, in this case accidently, was poking fun and shedding light on a dark trend in Hollywood and how women were treated on sets. Lucy herself escaped this treatment thanks to being head of her own studio and working independently, but that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t privy to what other actresses had to endure to be part of the industry.