There are two notable anniversaries connected to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz this week: The couple was married on November 30, 1940 and Desi Arnaz died on December 2, 1986. To honor them Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting The Lucy & Desi Blogathon in which I am taking part with this entry.
There are approximately 180 episodes of I Love Lucy to choose from, plus three feature films, some books and many documentaries all spotlighting the lives and careers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. To say that deciding on what to focus on for this entry was no easy task is a huge understatement. In the end, however, I went with “Lucy Wins a Racehorse,” the fourth episode of season one of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which followed the couple’s success with I Love Lucy.
The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour had a couple of really long titles, which included the show’s sponsors, but it is most often referred to by Comedy Hour or as The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Show. The hour-long specials totaled thirteen and aired from 1957 to 1960 as part of the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse. The series had the same writers as I Love Lucy, but it never quite reached the level of quality of the previous show. We love these people though – Lucy, Ricky, Fred, Ethel and Little Ricky – and there are quite a few gems in the bunch of thirteen. Well, my chosen episode today, “Lucy Wins a Racehorse” is not one of those gems. Still, it holds a special place in my heart thanks to one of its guest stars.
“Lucy Wins a Racehorse” is one of ten episodes of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour directed by Jerry Thorpe. This episode was first broadcast on February 3, 1958 and it is the fourth of five episodes of the show’s first season. As you know, by this time the Ricardos and the Mertzes are living out in the country, which allows for fresh story lines outside of the confines of their cramped, New York City apartment building. As its predecessor, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour stars Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Richard Keith as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and their son, Little Ricky and William Frawley and Vivian Vance as Fred and Ethel Mertz. Our episode begins with Little Ricky asking his father for a racehorse, which his mother is determined to get for him. After all, what’s the point of living in the country if a boy can’t have a horse? Well, as expected Ricky says “absolutely not” to the horse idea. And also as expected Lucy ignores him. She pesters him about the animal, but also has a back-up plan in the works. It turns out there’s a contest to win a horse sponsored by a cereal company and Lucy joins it by sending in a box top. Or, actually, she sends in dozens of them, one for each of her family and friends. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s the Fred Mertz entry that wins the horse.
At first Fred is keen on selling the animal. You know what a stingy old man he is, but when Little Ricky tells him how excited he is Fred gives in and Ricky has his horse. The problem is that big Ricky has no idea that there is now a horse in his house.
Enter Betty Grable and Harry James who are in town to perform at Ricky’s nightclub. As in real life, the Jameses love horses and horse racing. By the way, someone in that world must know it because when I was looking for details I found that there is actually a Betty Grable Stakes. Anyway, Ricky is against getting a horse to begin with, but more so after he talks to blabbermouth Harry James who tells Ricky that the reason he and Betty are doing club dates is to pay for the upkeep of their horses. Imagine Ricky’s shock when he gets home and sees Lucy and Ethel trying to escort Whirling Jet (played by Tony the horse) upstairs to the Ricardo’s guest room.
Ricky puts his foot down and a brokenhearted Lucy is forced to say goodbye to Whirling Jet who’s completely in love with her. The horse follows her around and makes googly eyes whenever she’s near. What can she do? Ricky is adamant about not going to the poor house as the result of a horse. But then, Betty Grable comes up with the perfect scheme. As Lucy mentions in the show, Grable is an Ethel Mertz with money. Betty’s idea is to enter Whirling jet in a harness race and if he wins the purse money would be enough to pay for his upkeep for the rest of his life. The problem is that it costs about $300 to enter the race and for that Grable turns to Fred Mertz who, to everyone’s shock, agrees to put up the money. Fred is so completely taken with superstar Grable and her famous gams that he forgets he’s a cheap skate and eagerly signs over the money to Betty. It’s a funny scene as Lucy almost faints from the shock.
Fast forward to the day of the race. Ricky is still unaware that his wife is intent on keeping Whirling Jet. And he’s definitely out of the loop when it comes to race time when Lucy has to take over the reigns because Whirling Jet won’t run for anybody else. Not even his jockey, George (played by veteran actor Norman Leavitt who appears in three episodes of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour as well as every other classic program known to man). Anyway, familiar Lucy antics ensue with Ricky, Little Ricky, the Mertzes and the Jameses looking on. And she makes me laugh. I can’t help it. You’ll have to watch to see if the Ricardos get to keep Whirling Jet.
Most, if not all, episodes of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour feature famous guests as themselves. Harry James and Betty Grable were just the featured guests this week, and again, not in a stellar episode. But there are moments of greatness here like the recognizable comedic situations which end up with Lucy doing something crazy. In this case it’s racing a horse backwards and without wheels. Hey, that sort of sounds like what Ginger Rogers did, doesn’t it? Fred and Ethel play their roles in familiar fashion as does Desi Arnaz as the exasperated Ricky who yells and yells for naught. But as each week’s special guests bring something of themselves to the table, so do James and Grable who perform in a production number with Desi reminiscent of each of their movie careers. “The Bayamo,” written by Arthur Hamilton doesn’t have the pep of other familiar latin-tinged classics I love. In all fairness the routine is supposed to be a rehearsal that takes place in the Ricardo living room so I don’t judge too harshly. Seeing Grable doing an old song and dance routine as she did dozens of times in her movies is good enough for me. James ends the performance with a trumpet solo. Lucy doesn’t try to get in the show anymore as she did in I Love Lucy. Now she has more country-style habits, such as trying to earn upkeep for a horse.
The Arnazes were popular in the Hollywood community as a couple and had close friends throughout the industry. Most of the famous actors who appeared on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour were friends and Betty Grable was no exception. Betty’s connection to Lucy and Desi went back decades. She and Desi dated in New York when he was a popular nightclub performer and she an aspiring actor. Arnaz mentioned it in passing in his autobiography. And like Lucy and other future major stars, Betty was one of the 20 original The Goldwyn Girls. The two worked together for years and remained friends throughout their lives.
I don’t know much about Harry James other than his music, what I’ve seen of him in movies and what I know of his marriage to Betty Grable, which was troubled in a similar fashion as was the Arnaz marriage by the time The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour was on the air. Perhaps what makes these episodes lesser than those of I Love Lucy was the strain on the marriage. That and the fact that every conceivable harebrained situation that Lucy could get herself into had already been done and done to perfection. Still, it’s a terrific treat to revisit these episodes and the friends we grew up watching. The familiarity of the characters, the expected is as much fun as are the surprises and by this time they still had a few up their sleeves. Lesser offerings from Lucy and Desi are still heads above most other forms of entertainment.
I find Lucy and Desi together cause to smile, but also cause for a little sadness. They gave such joy and comfort that it feels as though they should have been together forever. And maybe they are.
Be sure to visit Love Letters to Old Hollywood and The Lucy & Desi Blogathon for more on the lives and careers of two outstanding entertainers.