Photo: Creative Commons
Although everyone can agree that “I Love Lucy” is the very definition of a TV “classic,” it’s not always held in the highest of esteem. It’s old-fashioned, critics say. It’s repetitive, it’s slapstick and, perhaps most damningly, it’s woefully sexist.
True enough. Ricky Ricardo’s treatment of his adoring wife is less than progressive. He wants her to stay home in their tiny apartment and cook and clean. He belittles what little talent she has. He thwarts her dreams. He controls the household finances and keeps her on an allowance. And in at least one memorable episode, he literally puts her over his knee and spanks her. That Cuban cad!
Despite all that, Lucy and Ricky are clearly hot for each other, and it’s easy to see how the tall and lovely redhead fell for the Latin lover, and vice versa. In that way, at least, “Lucy” is extremely progressive. Imagine what Lucy’s mother, Mrs. McGillicuddy, must have thought when Lucy first introduced her to Ricky. And yet they went right ahead and got married at Greenwich, Connecticut’s Byram River Beagle Club and began their life together.
And Ricky Ricardo ended up as quite the success. Like Desi Arnaz himself, he struggled and toured for years to gain control of his own nightclub act and convince New York high society that the Latin beat was where it was at. Once he achieved that goal, he was able to get a bigger apartment, to land a movie deal, to tour Europe and meet the Queen of England and finally to give Lucy her dream home in the very upscale town of Westport, Connecticut. (Westport is my hometown, and I can safely say it was brave of Ricky buy a home in 1956 in a place where he was surely the only Latino homeowner for miles around.)
Through this lens, “I Love Lucy” is an immigrant success story; perhaps the only one portrayed weekly on TV in the medium’s first 30 years. It also reflects the astonishing success story of Desi Arnaz himself, a 17-year-old refugee from political upheaval in Cuba whose first job in Miami was cleaning out birdcages. Arnaz was the brains behind “I Love Lucy.” To give Lucille Ball the environment she needed to perform well, he invented the multi-camera sitcom format, complete with a live audience, that continues to define much of TV comedy today. In less than 10 years, he built Desilu Studios into a Hollywood powerhouse. Although he ceded control to Ball after their divorce in 1960, one could argue that without Arnaz, many TV shows, including “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible,” would never have existed.
In 1954, Ball and Arnaz appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to accept an award, and through tears, Arnaz gave a short and powerful speech about his life. “We came to this country, and we didn’t have a cent in our pockets,” he said. “From cleaning canary cages to this night here in New York is a long way. And I don’t think there’s any other country in the world that could give you that opportunity. I want to say thank you, thank you America.”
Now seems like a particularly good time to remind ourselves of Ricky Ricardo’s success and of Desi Arnaz’s achievements. After all, without them, we wouldn’t have Lucy. Talk about an important contribution to America!