Two women in television history show us how far our culture has progressed in social justice and yet how far it has fallen from the noble tasks of the common good.
On television this past Christmas Eve, CBS ran as a Christmas special, a pair of “colorized” episodes of the 1950s TV sitcom, “I Love Lucy” starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The concept for the show was first pitched in 1950 as “a wacky wife making life difficult for her loving but perpetually irritated husband,’ a Cuban bandleader named Ricky Ricardo. Without a doubt, that description would today doom a TV show to universal ridicule.
It’s one of the lesser known quirks of television history that I Love Lucy was first proposed by Lucille Ball herself in 1950. Executives at CBS were enthusiastic about the concept but had major objections to casting Desi Arnaz as Lucy’s husband – despite the fact that they were married in real life. CBS producers said that mainstream America would not accept a redheaded, red-blooded American named Lucy married to a Cuban.
Was this racist? Would it be fair and just to conclude today that CBS exhibited racist attitudes? Or would it be accurate to conclude that CBS judged America to be racist when deciding which shows would be popular and which would bomb? I don’t think either of these conclusions would be fair and just.
What today would be at best called ethnic insensitivity was then called “marketing.” CBS wanted a show Americans would watch. So to counter the network’s doubters in the summer of 1950, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz went on tour across the country to prove that American audiences would accept “Ricky Ricardo.”
Then in 1951, Lucy and Desi put up $5,000 of their own money – a princely sum then – to produce a film pilot for I Love Lucy to convince CBS that this could work. Their pilot was an immediate smash hit, and it gave birth to DesiLu Productions, one of Hollywood’s longest lasting production houses.
During I Love Lucy’s six-year run of original episodes, it never ranked below third in popularity among all TV shows of the time. Including reruns, it went on to a 10-year prime-time run on CBS (1951-1961) that was unparalleled in television history. It was not Desi Arnaz that CBS measured wrongly, but rather America.
In the two-part episode chosen by CBS to highlight this past Christmas Eve, Lucy, Desi, and their friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance) were in Hollywood where bandleader Ricky had been recruited for a small movie role. In a scene in their hotel room, Lucy negotiated with Ricky for “permission” to buy a dress in a Hollywood high-end exclusive women’s clothing store. “I’ll buy the plainest cheapest dress they have,” she pleaded to her dubious husband.
Reluctantly, knowing that Lucy, as always, will end up with “some ‘splainin’ to do,” Ricky gave her the okay to purchase one dress, but one only. The next day, in a scene at the exclusive Hollywood boutique, Lucy and Ethel were shocked at the $500 price tag (the equivalent of $2,500 today) for “the plainest, cheapest dress” available. Lucy justified it saying that Ricky gave her permission to buy the cheapest one, and this is it.
Ethel retorted, “Go ahead and buy it! Ricky will give you a black eye to go with that black dress!” The women in the live studio audience erupted in laughter. Today, they would erupt in protest, and rightly so.
To make the matter worse, into the store came Hollywood actress, Sheila MacRae playing herself. She went on to become the oft-threatened and besieged stage wife of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners. In the 1950s she was best known only for being the wife of Gordon MacRae (ummm, the other Gordon MacRae – Remember Oklahoma? Carousel?)
Lucy and Ethel overheard Sheila MacRae discussing an upcoming charity fashion show starring the wives of the rich and famous of Hollywood and the fact that they have one unfilled opening. Lucy could not resist. She declared that her husband was in Hollywood for a major film role, and she volunteered herself for the empty celebrity appearance in the fashion show.
The impulsive move then required Lucy to purchase several dresses putting Ricky in debt for years to come. Ethel warned, “When you get home, you’ll have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.”’ In the 1950s, this was all perceived as very entertaining. Today much of it would be socially insulting on many levels.
THE MARCH OF FOLLY
One of my lesser-known posts for These Stone Walls was one I wrote in 2010 entitled, “Michelangelo and the Hand of God: Scandal at the Vatican.” It tells a little-known but factual story about an event in Rome in the early 16th Century involving Michelangelo and a discovery that would change the world of art history. It’s a good story, and I hope you will read it later if you haven’t already.
I bring it up because that post also mentions a favorite book of mine by the renowned historian, Barbara Tuchman entitled The March of Folly (Ballantine, 1984). It’s a fascinating account of several periods in history in which nations and institutions pursued policies even after they were demonstrated to be against their own self-interest. She called this “folly”:
“To qualify as folly, it must have been perceived as counterproductive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. ‘Nothing is more unfair,’ as an English historian has well said, ‘than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present.’” (Introduction, p. 5)
Using Barbara Tuchman’s wisdom – and it IS wisdom – I love Lucy and the producers at CBS must be seen in light of the social ideas and mores of 1950. Few people watched this episode on Christmas Eve and expressed outrage over its content. For the most part, we can make the leap between the ideas and ideals of then versus now.
What we have gained since then – and it is a welcome and necessary gain – is respect for the rights, and autonomy, and accomplishments of women. Our culture can never go back to what was, and it speaks well of us that we can laugh at it today.
TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO NETWORK HAS GONE BEFORE
But along with that trek, we lost something too – something that we could not afford to lose, but did. Some months ago, I wrote a post for These Stone Walls, entitled, “Star Trek and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” I can seldom say that I like my own posts when I finish with them, but I think I liked that one better than most readers did.
It may have been mistakenly dismissed as a post about Star Trek, but that is true only insofar as TV science fiction informs what we believe about real science, and especially what we think science believes about faith. If you skipped over it, consider this an invitation to at least find out why I liked that post.
Among other reasons, it profiles a remarkable woman of science who shatters all unfair stereotypes of the past. But there is another reason I liked it. While doing a little reading in preparation for writing it, I came across a landmark story about Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Uhura, the Communications Officer aboard the Star Ship Enterprise. As an African American and a woman in 1967 as Star Trek was ending its first season, Ms. Nichols became discouraged that Star Trek was “boldly going where no man had gone before” but her character was going nowhere.
Lt. Uhura was a highly visible character on the bridge of the Enterprise, but she seldom had more than a line or two, and they were often the same lines from week to week. She was never at, or even near, the center of a storyline. So she made a decision in 1967 not to renew her contract for a second season. Her decision was a protest about the affront to her dignity and the fact that the Star Trek writers were oblivious to it.
Before telling NBC of her decision, she was approached one day on the set and told that a fan wanted to meet her. She was hesitant, but was told this is a “really big fan.” Nichelle was led through a crowd to another table where the crowd parted, and there sitting before her was Dr. Martin Luther King.
He stood, and told her that he is a very BIG fan of Star Trek and of Lt. Uhura. So Nichelle told him of her decision to step away from the show and her reasons why – believing that he might be both sympathetic and impressed with her protest. Martin Luther King’s surprising response was documented in William Shatner’s book, Star Trek Memories (Harper Collins 1993).
“Don’t do this, Nichelle. You CAN’T do this. Don’t you know that the world, for the first time, is beginning to see us as equals? Your character has gone into space on a five year mission. She’s intelligent, strong, capable, and a wonderful role model, not just for black people but for all people. What you are doing is very, very important, and I would hate to see you walk away from such a noble task.” (Martin Luther King in Star Trek Memories, p.13)
Less than one year later, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His summons to Nichelle Nichols to live up to a “noble task” for a greater good was not forgotten. She stayed with Star Trek and Lieutenant Uhura remained on the bridge of the Enterprise with dignity and poise.
Against the backdrop of the very Civil Rights struggle that formed her protest, Nichelle Nichols went on to break new ground for African American actors with an ever-expanding role on Star Trek. This was followed by seven film adaptations spanning two decades. Nichelle’s character became an icon of television history – not for being black, but for being noble.
And that is what is now missing. The age of the individual and individual rights went far beyond the necessary corrections to our cultural flaws and took something essential with it – the setting aside of the needs of the one to perform noble tasks for the common good.
I could imagine Martin Luther King making that same plea today to multi-millionaire NFL players taking a knee in protest during our National Anthem. There is little on TV today that fifty years from now will be held up as noble.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: You may have noticed that the First Reading at Mass for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time last Sunday was Job’s lament against suffering. I have a first-hand account of how to turn it into a noble task. It’s the subject of our Ash Wednesday post. Between now and then, you are invited to read and share these other posts from These Stone Walls: