I wish I could present a photo of Carole Lombard with Lucille Ball, whose centenary is today, but as is the case regarding Lombard with Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck, none exists or at least has surfaced. But they were friends, especially after Carole signed with RKO (Ball's home studio) in 1939. (Both of the pictures above were taken by the studio's top photographer, Ernest A. Bachrach.)
For many years, Lucy said Carole regularly appeared to her in dreams. the most famous being in 1951, when Lombard encouraged her to "go for it" in the infant medium of television. We know the result -- "I Love Lucy," which set the template for the TV situation comedy, and a series that remains a favorite all over the world.
Did such a dream actually happen? Until there's a way we can enter the dreams of dead people (paging M. Night Shyamalan!), we can't verify it. But it is worth noting -- and something many forget -- that "I Love Lucy" premiered in October 1951, two months after Ball's 40th birthday. Lucy didn't know it at the time, but she had already passed the halfway point in her life (that occurred in late 1949).
Being 40 had to seem a threat to Lucy, at least where her movie career is concerned. She saw what was going on with some of her contemporaries who had hit the milestone. Claudette Colbert had turned 40 in 1941, but the switch to wartime films enabled her to retain her status for a while; once the war ended, she joined Myrna Loy (who'd turned 40 in 1945) and Irene Dunne (who'd turned 40 in 1938) as stars who had been relegated to character parts. All had been higher-tier stars than Ball, and while Lucy was hardly starving in the late 1940s, she knew the clock was working against her for films. That's why Ball had gone into radio, with a series called "My Favorite Husband." (That series was somewhat adapted into "I Love Lucy," with radio star Richard Denning's character replaced by Ball's real-life husband, bandleader-actor Desi Arnaz.)
It turned out to be a fortuitous time for the Arnazes to move into a new medium. The movie business had begun to decline in 1949, in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Paramount divestiture case the year before. The studios had cut ties with many talented, longtime employees, one of them a veteran cinematographer named Karl Freund, whose experience dated back to the German expressionist era. (He had been cinematographer on "Without Love," the 1945 film where Ball was in support of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.) Freund and Arnaz helped create the three-camera setup, which did two things: 1) It enabled Lucy and Desi to remain in Los Angeles, which they loved, rather than move to New York, and 2) The series could be preserved on film instead of kinescope, which was of lower quality and didn't last as long.
The decision was more expensive, but it more than paid off in the long run, as the Arnazes' company, Desilu, made millions and eventually purchased ailing RKO. The company developed other series as well, including "The Untouchables," "Star Trek" and Ball's later sitcoms, "The Lucy Show" and "Here's Lucy." In many ways, Ball had fulfilled a goal Lombard never got to achieve, becoming a power broker in Hollywood.
Carole was friends with both Lucy and Desi, and hosted a honeymoon party for the couple at Chasen's in 1940. One of Ball's signature film roles may have come about through Carole -- though if it was the case, Lombard didn't live to see it. We're referring to "The Big Street," an adaptation of a Damon Runyan story.
When RKO bought the property, he supposedly wanted Charles Laughton and Lombard to play the leads. Each declined. Runyon arranged for RKO to get Henry Fonda on loan from Twentieth Century-Fox, while Lombard successfully persuaded Runyon and a reluctant RKO to hire Ball. Lucy's determination to excel in the role intensified after Carole's death in January 1942, and while the film wasn't a big hit, she received glowing reviews. Wrote James Agee in Time, "Pretty Lucille Ball, who was born for the parts Ginger Rogers sweats over, tackles her 'emotional' role as if it were sirloin and she didn't care who was looking."
"The Big Street" will air at 9:45 p.m. (ET) tonight as part of 24 hours of Lucy on Turner Classic Movies' "Summer Under The Stars." (It follows "Stage Door" -- featuring Lucy, Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Ann Miller -- which runs at 8.) The Lucython ends with two of her "B" pictures from 1938 -- "The Affairs Of Annabel" at 3:15 a.m. and "Annabel Takes A Tour" at 4:30. The former, her first starring role, has an interesting sidelight for Lombard fans, as it features exteriors of the Encino home that would later be owned by Carole and Clark Gable. (At the time, it belonged to director Raoul Walsh.)
We'll close with a few portraits of the pre-TV Lucy, who was quite the beauty in her day -- something overlooked by people focusing on the TV Ball, who concentrated more on comedy than glamour.
This is part of the "Loving Lucy Blogathon," hosted and sponsored by the "True Classics" blog (http://trueclassics.wordpress.com/). More than 40 blogs have signed up for the fun, so check it out to learn more about our collective love for this TV legend and relatively unheralded film star.