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"An American Love Story" and "The Lucy Book"

By Robert David Sullivan

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  In the first episode of the documentary series An American Love Story, Karen Wilson and Bill Sims reminisce about the awkward situations they've faced as an interracial couple. There was the time they visited one of their two daughters at Colgate University and decided to attend a party open to all the tuition-paying parents. "We took one look and walked right back out," Karen says. She could detect "stopped conversations," in the room, and that was a bad sign. Karen doesn't seem to find it ironic to use racism as a reason for making snap judgments about other people.

It's hard to believe that anyone fascinated by the idea of a 10-hour program about the challenges of an interracial marriage would show no reaction to an actual interracial couple who just walked into a crowded room. In fact, it's hard to believe that Karen Wilson and Bill Sims wouldn't stop dead in their tracks to nudge each other and say, "Look, there's another couple who have to deal with people pointing at them all the time." Karen (who's white) makes it clear why no one claims to be color-blind anymore: it's tough to pat yourself on the back for being enlightened about race when you have to pretend not to see people of color.

An American Love Story is a mixture of cinéma-vérité scenes and talking-head interviews pulled together by director Jennifer Fox (Beirut: The Last Home Movie). The first two episodes are mildly interesting, but we're asked to cut the principals a lot of slack when they talk about the effects of racism in their lives. Bill says that daughter Cicily "was an easy target [at Colgate] because she was different," but he doesn't tell us what, specifically, she was a target of. Cicily recalls that her mother once warned her, presumably talking about a presidential election, that "if someone came into power that was racist, then I would have to go with Dad." Statements like that make Karen appear absolutely paranoid. An American Love Story often seems to be making the point that interracial marriages are truly harmful to the children involved, since even the two obviously bright and capable young women in this film claim to suffer from the stigma.

By the end of the second episode, the family, who live in Queens, are coping with a possible hysterectomy for Karen and concern over Cicily's semester abroad in Nigeria. These dramatic developments help, but An American Love Story is still too respectful of its subjects to provide the voyeuristic thrills of The Real World or PBS's landmark 1970s series An American Family.

Anyone with the slightest interest in I Love Lucy, or the production techniques for sit-coms in general, should do any scheming necessary to get a copy of Geoffrey Mark Fidelman's The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television (Renaissance Books, 387 pages, $19.95 paperback), which came out earlier this summer.

Fidelman covers every one of Lucille Ball's appearances on TV, including guest shots on other people's shows and her disastrous 1986 series Life with Lucy. As a result, we get some new insight into why I Love Lucy worked so well but also why her follow-up series were so disappointing. (The aging process was only part of the problem; poor Gale Gordon, no substitute for Desi Arnaz as a co-star, gets dumped on a lot in this book.)

Fidelman includes interviews with dozens of actors and production staffers who worked with Ball, and his decision to give equal weight to her later career yields some great anecdotes for I Love Lucy fans. For example, it's common knowledge that William Frawley and Vivian Vance hated each other while they were playing Fred and Ethel Mertz. But former child actor Stanley Livingston reveals that the feud continued when Frawley was in My Three Sons and Vance was in a nearby studio doing The Lucy Show. ("The nicest thing I remember him calling her was a douche bag," says lovable "Chip Douglas.")

As for Lucy and Desi Arnaz, the interviewees in this book seem about evenly divided as to whether the couple were consummate professionals or egotistical control freaks. One consensus is that Ball never tolerated any horsing around on the set, and that she almost never improvised any of her physical gags. (I Love Lucy scripts were incredibly detailed, right down to Lucy Ricardo's hand gestures.) The contradictory accounts of Ball's off-camera behavior make The Lucy Book more believable than if it were a hagiography or a hatchet job. The strange love-hate relationship between Ball and Vance -- who was required to appear older and fatter than Lucy in all their scenes together -- is another puzzle that's explored here but never solved.

Among the I Love Lucy trivia: Desi wore elevator shoes and used a booster cushion in any scene where he and Lucy sat on a couch (to hide the fact that she was taller); the giant loaf that pins Lucy to the wall in "Pioneer Women" was real bread, and pieces were handed out to the studio audience after the taping; the studio audiences imposed their own rule on jokes about Desi's Cuban accent (writer Bob Carroll Jr. recalls, "They didn't laugh and seemed to resent it. We could only get away with it when Lucy did it."). For the record, Fidelman lists his favorite I Love Lucy episodes as "Job Switching" (the conveyer belt in the chocolate factory), "The Operetta" (Ethel sings "Lily of the Valley"), and "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" (for Vitameatavegamin, of course). His top Lucy Show is "Lucy and Viv Put in a Shower" -- not, presumably, because Ball claimed that she almost drowned making that episode.

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