August 24, 2011

The Woman Behind Lucy’s Laughs

Had you met her casually with no clue as to her identity, you would never associate Madelyn Pugh Davis with the outlandish behavior and outrageous situations personified by Lucille Ball in her madcap heyday.

Yet the quietly elegant, soft-spoken Davis, who died in April at 90, was the sole female writer for “I Love Lucy.” And its star, whose 100th birthday is being observed this weekend, was that rare celebrity whose given name alone conjured instant recognition, long before Oprah or Madonna or even Cher. But unlike those women, who became famous for basically being themselves, Lucy’s enduring fame is embedded in a fictional character with whom she shared a first name, a husband, an artificial hair color and very little else.

The fact of the matter is that the legend of Lucy is a tale of two women.

Adjectives that have been applied to the character Lucy Ricardo include funny, crafty, vulnerable, hapless, loveable — none of them quite apt when it came to describing the serious, guarded, literal-minded perfectionist Lucille Ball. But because of the actress’s internalization of the role and the continual visibility of her performances in reruns, those qualities continue to be projected onto her by generations of viewers. Her talent was such that na├»ve 1950s TV audiences actually believed she was improvising as she went along.

It took the considerable efforts of Davis and her lifelong writing partner, Bob Carroll Jr., in concert with their mentor, the producer and head writer, Jess Oppenheimer (and in later seasons, the writing team of Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf), to create the scripts that enabled the all-business actress to transform into the woman-child that the world came to adore. And the process was not always harmonious; Ball’s husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz, gifted with people skills and an appreciation for talent, often stepped in to bridge the occasional gulf between dubious star and ambitious comedy writers. When one scene called for Lucy to milk a cow, upon seeing the mangy creature on the set for the first time the appalled Ball turned to Davis and said, “You wrote it, you milk it.”

The quick-witted Davis brought a sense of propriety and good taste to the table. Through extensive interviews I conducted with her over the years, it was clear she respected limits. She knew what a woman could and could not do and remain a “lady” (a desirable trait to many at the time) because she was the genuine article. While by most accounts Davis and Ball weren’t particularly simpatico — the former reliably light and amusing, tactful and considerate, the latter sometimes harsh and often humorless — they were for the purposes at hand the perfect complement to each other.

But the “girl writer,” as Davis was called back in the day because she was one of the very few women in radio and television, didn’t just ride herd on etiquette and outlandishness. Because of her sex and then-requisite secretarial training, the typing of the scripts fell to her too, and so did trying out the plots’ more demanding physical stunts — including dipping chocolates at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles and carrying three dozen eggs in her blouse — to determine if they would sit right with a woman or, worse, be too dangerous for the star.

Nowhere in the series is a feminine sensibility more apparent than in the friendship between the Lucy and Ethel characters, a relationship equally as important as — and in many ways more substantial than — the traditional marriage around which the series was centered. The camaraderie, the compassion, the conspiracies and the intimacy the two women shared — not to mention the jealousy, rivalry, squabbling and indignation — are all rendered on the page. The scripts are full of exchanges of knowing glances and the subtle sending of disapproving signals whenever the conversation takes an undesirable direction. There is an undercurrent of communication between the two whenever the men — or anyone else, for that matter — are in the room.

To her credit Ball had no illusions about the recipe for the success of her character or her role as conduit, however sterling. She consistently cited her writers at every opportunity, both in private and in public. Upon accepting the Emmy Award for best situation comedy in 1954 — a year before a category was established for comedy writing — the star asked, “It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here and give it to them, would it? But I wish we could.” (Despite two nominations in subsequent years, the writers never received an Emmy for their work on the show.)

Tellingly Ball referred to the highly detailed, all-capital-letters stage instructions in every script as “the black stuff,” and it was upon that she depended to map out such intricate and spontaneous-seeming routines as the “Vitameatavegamin” commercial, accidentally setting fire to her putty nose while in disguise and many other moments, right down to eye movements, facial expressions and body language.

While Desi Arnaz may have been the “I” of “I Love Lucy,” Madelyn Pugh Davis was its eye. She corrected, she judged, she leavened. By her very nature she helped refine its broad physical comedy with thoughtful details, imbuing it with an unlikely believability that transformed it into a perpetual showcase for the foibles of human nature.

Davis’s memoir of those years, “Laughing With Lucy,” a collaboration with Carroll, was published a few years ago. In it her unassuming attitude toward her singular career as a television pioneer, and a female one at that, is reflective of her essence; it just wasn’t right to brag. And, true to form, at the very beginning of her book, she said she thought that writing unsavory things about people after they died was “tacky.” Readers were thus not to expect an iota of dirt about the star for whom she wrote.

It was the ladylike thing to do.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 7, 2011, on page AR15 of the New York edition with the headline: The Woman Behind Lucy’s Laughs.

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