Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Remembering... Vivian Vance

While television audiences of the 1950s may have loved Lucy, they could also be said to have been inordinately fond of Ethel as well - at least as she was portrayed by Vivian Vance; yet, even as the viewing public embraced Ethel both instantly and enthusiastically, it would take a bit of convincing on the part of the woman who played Lucy...

PhotobucketIt seems that Lucille Ball originally wanted her friend Bea Benaderet for the part, only she was unable to accept it due to a scheduling conflict; a visit to the theatre with Desi Arnaz to see Vance in The Voice of the Turtle helped to change her mind. Still, while the backstage story of I Love Lucy is nearly as entertaining as the show itself it's also in direct contrast to the warm chemistry between its four leads as shown on camera.

First there was the issue of Vance's appearance; considerable trouble had been taken to present 40-year-old Ball in the most flattering light possible*, while 42-year-old Vance had a more natural loveliness, owing to her inherent vivacity, that even the crudeness of early television couldn't disguise. The fear was that the second banana (Vance) would outshine the star (Ball) - an unthinkable possibility. To this end, Vance was given wigs and dresses to wear which played up the character's frumpiness at the expense of the actress' beauty; rumours abound that she was even padded, while Lucy herself was being cinched into corsets.

Vance also had trouble with her co-star William Frawley, who was not only 22 years older than her but a cantankerous, bitter alcoholic besides; despite their terrific onscreen chemistry, when the cameras stopped rolling they hated each other. Clearly, this gave the Mertzes - who'd only just met in real life - the same energy in their onscreen relationship as an old married couple. Still, when I Love Lucy went off the air in 1957, Vance flatly refused to appear in a proposed spin-off featuring herself and Frawley in their iconic roles. For all her trouble, though, Vance became the first winner of the Best Supporting Actress Emmy in February 1954, and would be nominated three more times in all.

Vance later appeared with her (by now) good friend Lucy in The Lucy Show from 1962-1965, as well as being allowed to appear more glamourous and playing a character with the same first name - she'd grown weary of being called Ethel for years; while the new show didn't have nearly the zing of its predecessor, it was still a big hit. It even gave Vance the opportunity for a second first: she became the first to play a divorcee on American television.

Her last public exposure was in a well-liked series of TV commercials for Maxwell House coffee.

Vivian Vance died on this day 1979 following a battle with breast cancer and a stroke, which had left her partially paralyzed; seeing as she had no children, the Pop Culture Institute would like to adopt her (in keeping with our long-standing policy) and so help to fulfill the primary role of offspring - namely, that of keeping her memory alive.

*Not only was it the first sitcom shot on film rather than videotape, I Love Lucy was also lighted like a movie and photographed by Karl Freund, who'd made his career making actresses 'of a certain age' look like the ingenues they thought they still were.
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Y | O | Y said...

My bff and I call each other Lucy and Ethel. Interesting that she wasn't the first choice because Will Frawley wasn't either...Gayle Gordon was was supposed to be Fred and later was Mr. Mooney.

michael sean morris said...

And, of course, she got to work with Gale Gordon on "The Lucy Show" as well.

jenibean said...

I think Vivian's performance as Ethel was brilliant, and often looked liked she matched Lucille's comedy ability, if not exceeded it at times. I believe it was a purposeful thing that she was "held back" from outshining Lucy. Like a delicate recipe, the show would not have been the same without her.

michael sean morris said...

It just goes to show you what kind of magic you can achieve when you work with people you don't necessarily like as well.

I've never really seen more than a few episodes of 'The Lucy Show'; it would be interesting to see, I think.

jenibean said...

I think I've seen every episode of I Love Lucy at least twice. I adore the physical comedy, and also having a peek into how everyday life survived without the technology we are so dependant on today.

The work they put into the sets and the glamour of the 1950's Bandstand and dancing were superb.

I also think this was the first real instance of marrying into another culture on television. Perhaps it was the beginning of a new attitude that essentially all men are created equal. At the time, hispanics and blacks were virtually invisible on television.

tankmontreal said...

I never thought Vivian came even close to outshining Lucy.

But Bea Benaderet, now there was a funny lady - a great presence in all of her comedic roles. It would have been an entirely different show has she taken the Ethel role opposite Lucy. I doubt there'd have been room on the stage for the two of them.