- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

When Gene Kelly died, ABC's "World News Tonight" gave him the ultimate tribute. The segment about his death just played his title song and dance from "Singing in the Rain" — complete and with no voice-over.

ABC had found a neat way around the problem of paying tribute to a show-business legend in a way that was worthy of his genius. "Finding Lucy," a documentary about Lucille Ball for the PBS "American Masters" series, grapples with some of the same inherent problems.

"Finding Lucy" is the best possible "Finding Lucy." But if I were given the choice of watching this 90-minute documentary and spending the same amount of time watching three old episodes of "I Love Lucy," I would choose the latter. The most eloquent tribute to Lucy — the reruns — can be found every night on the Nick at Nite channel.

Despite such caviling, one must acknowledge that the filmmakers chose their materials well, came up with some fresh methods of presentation and even added some revelations.

We get the familiar bows to what made "I Love Lucy" such an influential show — the invention of the three-camera, shooting-on-film system for TV; the development of situation comedy out of sketch comedy; the first blockbuster TV series; the pregnancy and the highest-rated show ever at the time; and the show's fit with the 1950s ethos.

Let's face it, though — we all love Lucy, and we want to see those great sequences that haven't aged a bit even though "I Love Lucy" is set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of its 1951-57 TV run.

Here those moments just pour out. As I watched, some of them caused me to laugh out loud even though I had seen them multiple times: Bill Holden and the fake nose, the chocolate factory, the Vitameatavegamin girl, Harpo Marx at the mirror, Lucy massaging John Wayne, Lucy eating escargot and stomping on grapes.

Even when "Finding Lucy" is just being an "I Love Lucy" highlight reel, it does so in a well-chosen way, which the last two aforementioned sequences especially illustrate.

Miss Ball's greatest talent was as a physical comedian, and the voice-over repeats some boilerplate about how physical humor transcends language. But then comes a line about how aliens would understand "I Love Lucy" — while we're seeing a clip of the stunt in which Lucy and Ethel dress up as spacemen at the Empire State Building's observation tower. Their space-alien gibberish and the brilliant use of facial expressions and gestures make the point — but it's a lot more fun.

The grape sequence, on the other hand, is intercut with an interview with Miss Ball on the "Dick Cavett Show" in the 1970s in which she describes the difficulties she had shooting that scene. Hearing her tell how her opponent got a little too far into the premise made me laugh at the scene harder than ever.

The documentary gives the cursory nods to Miss Ball's pre-Lucy life and Hollywood career as queen of the B movies and her subsequent programs "The Lucy Show," "Here's Lucy" and "Life With Lucy." Those materials all get about as much time as they deserve, but one scene in particular stands out.

Before her breakthrough TV show, Miss Ball had been in movies for 15 years with various screen images — none of them very successful. "Finding Lucy," though, shows a telling clip from a 1949 film, "Miss Grant Takes Richmond." Miss Ball is in the typing pool and starts having problems with the ribbon, and suddenly it's Lucy Ricardo at the chocolate factory or in any of a dozen pickles, nonchalantly pretending that nothing's the matter and she'll fix it.

Conscious or not, that scene shows the talent that apparently always was there waiting to be tapped. I wanted more scenes from Miss Ball's movie career showing her doing broad physical comedy — just for the novelty, if nothing else.

"Finding Lucy" also gives judicious weight to the sorts of subject matter that "daring" and "tough" documentaries sometimes overplay. The fact that Vivian Vance and William Frawley got along in real life even worse than Fred and Ethel Mertz is mentioned, but only in passing. Desi Arnaz's womanizing and alcoholism are mentioned to the extent that they relate to the genesis and cancellation of "I Love Lucy," but not otherwise.

The brief fuss over Miss Ball's having listed "Communist" as her party affiliation on her voter registration gets a fittingly brief segment. The show mentions that she was able to deny disloyalty and successfully explain the listing, thus suggesting that McCarthyism was not exactly the American inquisition.

Miss Ball's genius as probably the century's greatest female comedian remains front and center. The program goes beyond mere tributes in showing her influence on subsequent female humorists. Carol Burnett provides some talking-head clips, but we also see a clip of a guest appearance by Miss Burnett on "The Lucy Show," and it dawns on us that she's the female comedian whose style comes closest to Miss Ball's. Miss Burnett tells a moving story about Miss Ball's death in 1989.

Some moments with Fran Drescher make the point that Miss Ball was more than a nutty clown. She became an inspiration by also being a glamorous star and the first woman to head a studio (Desilu). We hear Miss Drescher say this over a favorite scene of hers — a wonderful dance sequence between Miss Ball and Van Johnson. In that scene, all the jokes about what a bad performer Lucy Ricardo was just melt as she floats across the screen in all her stardom.

{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Finding Lucy"WHEN: WETA (Channel 26): 8 p.m. Monday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 11 p.m. Friday and 10 p.m. Dec. 25. WMPT (Channel 22): 8 p.m. Tuesday and 6 p.m. Dec. 9.

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