Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I Love Lucy : "Hollywood at Last"

Season 4, Episode 16
Original Airdate: February 7, 1955
Writer: Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Pugh, Jess Oppenheimer
Director: William Asher
Producer: Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Jess Oppenheimer
Cast: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley

It’s a general consensus that, among all the classic sitcoms ever produced, “I Love Lucy” is the greatest ever created (sorry, “Seinfeld”). And though there are other amazing episodes and set-pieces created throughout the show’s run, “Hollywood at Last” is (for my money) the funniest, most thoroughly enjoyable…dare I say best?…from beginning to end. So, by using that logic, does this mean that we are looking at the greatest, funniest half hour of television ever produced? Lucille Ball called this her favorite episode, and I’m not going to argue.

The credits barely fade before we get a huge title filling the screen that declares we have arrived at “Hollywood at Last!” Yes, with the exclamation point and everything. Apparently it wasn’t only the characters who were excited. The Hollywood episodes reenergized the series in every possible way, and for its remaining seasons (and its continuation show “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”) the Ricardos and the Mertzes always seemed to be going…somewhere. First Italy, then Florida, then the move to the country, then Havana (in a flashback episode, but still), then Vegas, then Sun Valley, then Mexico, then Alaska, then a cabin in the woods somewhere, then Japan. Phew. And why wouldn’t they? We’d come to consider the Ricardos and the Mertzes our own family, so we were living vicariously through them.

The episode opens with the Ricardos and Mertzes being shown the suite Ricky was given by the studio while he shoots “Don Juan.” Everyone exits stage except for Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ricky (Desi Arnaz), and the writers find time for a really brief, sweet scene before the chaos begins. Essentially, Lucy tells Ricky how proud she is of him and how much she believes in him. The moment can’t be more than thirty or forty seconds, and it’s sad to think that little beats like this have been lost in the hectic nature of the modern sitcom. Now every scene, every moment has to be set-up/punchline/set-up/punchline. How much character development gets lost in the incessant need for a joke? There are so many funny beats in this episode, but the characters are still allowed to be people. They can look out their hotel window and point out sights without having to turn the phrase into a pun. Giving the audience the room to breathe between gags allows us to really engage in the big moments instead of losing them in the mix, and I must admit I miss that when I turn on network or cable today.

Of course, Lucy is almost immediately on the hunt for movie stars, and though Eve Arden has a brief (brilliant) cameo, the main attraction in the episode is William Holden, and they couldn’t have chosen a better first celebrity. He’s a magnificent straight man for comedy, so much so that I wish he would have done more comedies during his career. His subtle smile is the perfect reaction to Lucy’s shenanigans, and he’s at the center of not one, but two fantastic set-pieces.

The first is in the Brown Derby (which I would be able to see from my apartment if it hadn’t been torn down). Lucy is on the hunt and reacts in about the way we expect she would react, but then Holden decides to turn the tables on her. There’s a perfect comedy moment where Lucy turns to oogle Holden when Holden is already oogling her, and their noses barely touch in a near-collision. How many times did they practice that, and what happened if Lucy went an inch too far!? Holden turning the tables is a wonderful twist on our expectations for the scene, and any sequence showing Ball’s trademark eyes going wide in horror is worth a watch. The interaction between the two becomes something of a dance, one that ends with Lucy tripping a waiter and nailing Holden with an entire tray of pies. Hollywood at last, indeed.

There’s a nice scene between the madness that has passed and what is still to come where Ricky gets stuck in a very unbecoming suit or armor and seems very grateful to be able to clown around for once instead of just staring at Lucy in horror and/or telling her she can’t be in the show.

Ricky brings Holden home and Lucy does everything to stay away from him except barricade herself in the bedroom (“I’m fickle!” she exclaims while hiding herself in a corner), and finally decides her only way to get through the meeting is to use putty to elongate her nose, wear librarian glasses and put her hair up. Since this is her first day in Los Angeles, one has to wonder where she got the glasses and putty, but never mind.

Usually when a comedian has to make a quick change for a laugh he/she rushes offstage for thirty seconds then comes back on in drag/bad makeup/etc. Almost all sitcoms incorporate this, including “I Love Lucy.” “Hollywood at Last” does something very ballsy by having Ball actually adjusting her make-up during the filming, in front of the audience. After accidentally nudging her nose this way and that, she attempts to “fix” it on the couch next to Ricky and Holden. Holden is doing some product placement for “The Country Girl,” but all eyes are on Ball as she playfully tries to hide what she is doing right there on camera, which makes the payoff of her turning around with a nose that is at least six inches long all the funnier. You always get a bigger kick out of seeing magicians performing the trick in plain sight.

The first few episodes of “I Love Lucy’s” fourth season weren’t the best, but the moment Ricky heard the results of his screen test (episode 9), the show began firing on all cylinders. It actually turned the preparation for leaving into a beautiful four-episode arc with many memorable moments, especially one where Lucy monologues about a car accident. And then we get another three excellent episodes of them traveling across country (one of which, “First Stop,” will soon be appearing in this blog). After the comedic heights of “Hollywood at Last,” one had to wonder how the show could follow it up. But the next string of 18 episodes (which bled into season five) represented some of the best in the series’ storied run, with only one stinker (“Bullfight Dance”) in the bunch. Lucy had yet to steal John Wayne’s footprints, or hang off Cornel Wilde’s balcony, or get that infamous tan. I chose “Hollywood at Last” as an individual great episode, but you’ll find it impossible to watch just one.

“Hollywood at Last” is available on the fourth season DVD of “I Love Lucy” and on iTunes.

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