Saturday, August 6, 2011

LUCILLE BALL AND THE ART OF BEING MINDFULLY BRILLIANT

I have always held the view that Lucille Ball (pictured left), who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, was the most talented and versatile actress (I refuse to say ‘actor’ in her case) – and certainly the greatest comedienne (ditto) – of all time.

Today, August 6, 2011, is the centenary of Miss Ball’s birth, and many activities will be taking place, mainly in the United States of America, to celebrate and commemorate, not just what would have been Lucy’s 100th birthday, but also the legacy the woman has left behind.

In Ball's home town of Jamestown, New York there will be a 'Lucille Ball Festival of Comedy.' America's Hallmark Channel is celebrating the centenary with a 48-hour marathon of I Love Lucy, focusing on the show's trips to Europe and Hollywood. TCM has decided to run a Ball marathon anchored by one of her 1930s films Stage Door. The Hollywood Museum has an extensive exhibit of 'Lucy-ana' that runs August 4-November 30, with Miss Ball's daughter Lucie Arnaz, I Love Lucy editor Dann Cahn and other notables on hand for the opening night. There's lots, lots more happening!

TV Guide said of Lucy in 1974, ‘Her face has been seen by more people, more times than the face of any other human being who ever lived.’ She has also been named by TV Guide as the 'Greatest TV Star of All Time.' I also recall Miss Ball’s first husband and I Love Lucy co-star and executive producer Desi Arnaz accepting a Photoplay ‘Gold Medal’ Award in 1977 for I love Lucy as the ‘Favourite All-time TV Series.’

There were many other awards, honours, accolades and citations ... including 'Queen of Comedy', 'Comedienne of the Century', 'First Lady of Comedy', and, of course, 'First Lady of Television.' Certainly no woman has ever been as successful in the entertainment world, and possibly the business world as well, as Lucille Ball.

I have, these past few days and weeks, read many online celebratory tributes to Miss Ball leading up to this day, the centenary of her birth. One of the 'best' I've read is this one from Marlo Thomas. She knew Miss Ball well, as did her parents and especially her father Danny Thomas, who delivered the eulogy at the Memorial Mass held for Desi Arnaz on December 4, 1986.

What 'made' Lucy so funny? That’s a silly question, because the moment you try to analyse comedy, it ‘dies’ on you. As another hero of mine, Groucho Marx, put it, ‘Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. You can do it, but no one much enjoys it and the frog tends to die in the process.’

I cannot say what made Lucy so funny, and what I am now going to describe is not the reason why she was funny, but it does seem to be tied up with her funniness ... and her brilliant creativity.

The late film historian and critic Paul D Zimmerman once wrote in Newsweek that Miss Ball’s comedic acting had a ‘cartoon clarity’ about it. I like that. A ‘cartoon clarity’. That says it all. With traditional animation you have lots of quickly changing frames. Each frame is frozen in time and space, so to speak, but when a whole sequence of different frames – hundreds of them – is presented at just the right speed ... you have animation! Life!

Watch any rerun of I Love Lucy or any of Miss Ball’s later shows and you will see how resourceful and self-aware she truly was. Every move she made, her every facial expression, was an object-lesson in mindfulness. Awareness, attention to detail (without losing sight of the ‘big picture’), and a childlike curiosity and inquisitiveness were her ever-present stock-in-trade. I am reminded of some words of Stanislavski in An Actor’s Handbook:

In watching the acting of great artists ... their creative inspiration is always bound up with their concentration of attention ... The actor who has the trained habit can limit [their] attention within a circle of attention, [they] can concentrate on whatever enters that circle, and with only half an ear can listen to what transpires outside of it. ...


When Miss Ball acted, she threw her entire self into every aspect of her performance, giving total attention to whatever shtick she was being called upon to perform. She became one with the character she portrayed.

Let’s look at a clip (courtesy CBS and, as presented here, TCM) from the I Love Lucy episode 'Lucy Does a TV Commercial', which first aired in the United States of America on CBS-TV on May 5, 1952. You must be familiar with that episode ... it's the one where Lucy is hired to act as the 'Vitameatavegamin girl' in a TV commercial. The product - 'Vitameatavegamin' - contains, among other things, pure alcohol ... all 23 per cent of it. You can guess what happens. Watch ...


video


In October 2005 US fans voted this particular episode as their favourite during an I Love Lucy anniversary television special. TV Guide and Nick at Nite ranked it the 2nd greatest TV episode of all time after the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode 'Chuckles Bites the Dust'.

Watch Lucy’s face ... indeed, her whole body ... and listen to that voice. Yes, notice how cleverly Miss Ball varies her vocal elements (especially pitch, volume and speed) throughout the skit. Notice her mode of delivery, her gesticulation, eye contact with the camera, and how skilfully she makes use of pauses. I could go on, but I am now analysing her comedic art. Stop! It’s enough to say that everything Miss Ball says and does as Lucy Ricardo is said and done ... mindfully!

Even reading some of her lines, reproduced below (but, forgive me, not exactly as presented on film), is a study in the practical application of mindfulness:


LUCY. Hello friends, I'm your Vitameatavegamin Girl. Are you tired, rundown, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? The answer to all your problems is in this little bottle ... Vitameatavegamin. Vitameatavegamin contains vitamins, meat, vegetables, and minerals. Yes, with Vitameatavegamin, you can spoon your way to health. All you do is take a tablespoon full after every meal ... [Lucy samples product.] It's so tasty too. Just like candy. ... So why don't you join the thousands of happy, peppy people and get a great big bottle of Vitameatavegamin tomorrow. That's Vita...Meata...Vegamin. ...

...   ...   ...

LUCY. [After a few samples of Vitameatavegmin.] Hello, friends, I'm your Vita-veeda-vigee-vat girl. Are you tired, rundown, listless? Well are you? Do you pop out at parties? Are you unpoopular? The answer to alllll your problems is in this li'l bottle: Vitameatavegamin. [Looks at bottle.] Vitameatavegamin contains vitamins, meat, megetables, and vinerals. Ah, with Vitameatavegamin you can spoon your way to health. All you have to do is take a big tablespoon full after every meal. [Lucy takes a swig from the bottle.] It’s so tasty too! Tastes just like candy! Honest!! Ha Ha Ha! So why don't you join the thousands of happy, peppy people and get a great big bottle of ... Vita-meedy-mega-mee-nee-minie-moe-a-min...


Miss Ball played her every role for real ... and more often than not with believability. Yes, in her later years there were a couple of flops, but for millions of people of my generation and many others – before and after mine – she will always be the irrepressible and ever-so-lovable Lucy.


Lucille Ball had flair and a superb sense of timing. She believed that life was worth living, and she overcame enormous obstacles to achieve both personal and professional success. She also gave of herself tirelessly to others. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like had I not become a Lucy addict. I know it would not have been as good ... or as happy. Yes, I love Lucy ... I love Lucy ... and millions do, too!

Happy Birthday, Miss Ball, wherever you are ... which is everywhere!


NOTE. For those who are interested, I have compiled a book entitled Who's Who in I Love Lucy. The book can be read online on SlideShare.


video

Google TV Homepage Lucille Ball 100th Birthday



Grateful Acknowledgments
Acknowledgments are made, and sincere gratitude is expressed, to the various rights
holders in respect of all copyright material and trademarks. All rights reserved.

I LOVE LUCY and related marks are trademarks of CBS Broadcasting Inc.
I Love Lucy is owned by CBS Paramount Television.
Video clips (courtesy CBS, TCM and Google) are for entertainment and nonprofit purposes only.

Images of Lucille Ball are licensed by Desilu, too, LLC. Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing.
“Lucy Does a TV Commercial” was written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr.




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