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Friday, June 13th, 2014

A Look at 'I Love Lucy's Radio Roots

114 - favehusThe Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

I'm no expert on writing snappy headlines to get attention, but as far as book titles go, Mr. And Mrs. Cugat: The Record Of A Happy Marriage is a horrible name for a book. I don't know who Mr. and Mrs. Cugat are, so why would I want to read a book about them, particularly when it's clear from the subtitle that nothing interesting is going to happen to them. But in spite of that, the book became one of the best-selling novels of 1941, was adapted into a film with the (much better) name of Are Husbands Necessary?, starring Ray Milland and Betty Field, a radio show, and finally, a sitcom you may have heard of called I Love Lucy. This column has mostly neglected the radio format, but today we examine My Favorite Husband, the show that gave birth to one of the most important TV sitcoms of all time and introduced Lucille Ball into the nation's homes every week.

In the 1940s, Lucy had worked her way up from cigarette girl to Broadway showgirl to a contract to appear in pictures with MGM. However, after appearing in a number of flops that never really allowed her to truly break out (she became known in Hollywood as "Queen of the B's" after starring in so many B-movies), she decided to approach stardom from a different angle. Instead of making the American public come to her, she'd go to them via radio. On July 23, 1948, My Favorite Husband premiered on CBS radio. She starred as Liz Cugat, who would be renamed a few episodes later to the more accessible Liz Cooper. Her husband, George, was played by Richard Denning, who later in his career would become King of the B's, starring in such films as Creature from the Black Lagoon, Day the World Ended, and The Creature with the Atom Brain. Today we examine the earliest available episode of the show, entitled "The Portrait Painter," and we venture into another dimension's version of I Love Lucy. (Spoiler alert: The dimension I'm talking about is the dimension of sound.)

The fist thing that struck me about the first episode of My Favorite Husband, was that it starts as a very early mockumentary, long before that term had been coined. It begins with a narrator explaining to us that when the Cugats were married 10 years ago, it was hugely lavish and all over the press, quoting The New Yorker, the Hearst Papers, and Reader's Digest's coverage. We then hear quotes from both George and Liz Cugat, seemingly interviewed separately, about their first impressions of their partner. The whole thing feels a bit like the radio equivalent of Modern Family, some sixty years earlier. Like another future mockumentary, Arrested Development, before the plot even kicks in, the narrator of the show establishes himself as a character. He sets the stage, with George at the dining room table and Liz upstairs with the maid, putting on a formal evening gown. Second-guessing what he's just said, he tells the audience, "Let me check again, it's only five after nine. Well, surely there's a reason for wearing an evening gown at this early hour." Through Liz and her maid's conversation, we learn that she is going to have her portrait painted that afternoon and that the dress she's wearing is incredibly skimpy. Immediately we can see one of the lost benefits of radio versus television: if you're not actually seeing it, there aren't any censors to stop a character from walking around half nude in your sitcom.

Very early into the episode we are introduced to the witty banter that would one day establish the Ricardos as one of the great couples of TV history, with the same dynamic: the husband is put upon, constantly stressed out by his clever, sassy wife. When George is shocked to see his wife in her evening gown she says that he's seen her in it before and he responds, "I've seen you wear galoshes before too, but never at breakfast." Lucy then retorts, "Of course not. It never rains under the table." Later in the episode when the muscle-bound portrait painter that had been with his wife all afternoon intimidates George, he goes to old photos to show how muscular he was. "Back in the first grade I used to beat up all the kids," to which his loving wife retorts helpfully, "I bet you still could."

While I'm sure there are a few examples throughout the series that one could name, one difference that I noticed between My Favorite Husband and I Love Lucy were the constant pop-culture references in the former.  Lana Turner, Dinah Shore, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Guy Kibbee are just the tip of the iceberg of people and things from the forties that I didn't understand the reference to. If nothing else, this speaks to the timelessness of Lucy. That particular show was one of the few during its time to shoot on film, allowing for reruns of the show to be aired without any loss of quality, as opposed to the preservation of the other shows of that time (if there was an attempt made to preserve it), which was done through kinescopes, or to put it another way, aiming a camera at a monitor that was broadcasting the show and recording it. Perhaps another way that Lucy and Desi attempted to keep I Love Lucy running forever was to keep it timeless.

Speaking of outdated references, for the most part the plot follows the I Love Lucy model of treating both husband and wife as intellectual equals. This made an exchange between George, who is playing sick as an excuse to stay home and keep an eye on his wife who is home alone with the portrait painter, and his doctor, especially jarring. Describing his symptoms, George says, "Well, doctor… first it starts, then it stops, then it goes again, then it's backs up, then it twists completely around. What does it sound like to you?" The doctor assesses the situation saying, "A woman driver." Maybe Fred could make that joke, but Ricky couldn't get away with it.

My Favorite Husband ran for close to four full years, or 124 episodes and only ended so that the show could be adapted into a television sitcom. CBS initially wanted a very strict adaptation of the radio show, with Richard Denning staying on as Lucy's husband, but Lucy insisted on having her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, on the show. Eventually, as you know, she got her way, and television history was made. In 1953, CBS went ahead and turned My Favorite Husband into a TV show with two completely new actors and ran for two and a half seasons.

Lucky for you, this show, along with many other old-time radio shows are available over at the Internet Archive. Go ahead and check them out using this link, and be sure to support My Favorite Husband's sponsor, Jell-O, so they can have a really weird spike in sales based on advertising they did 66 years ago.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.

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