Once the most famous married couple in the world, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball are having another moment. Two films about them—the engaging feature Being the Ricardos, starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem; and Lucy and Desi, an appreciative documentary directed by Amy Poehler—are circulating and streaming. Each explores the public and private lives of two of television’s most influential people. In addition to their classic hit I Love Lucy—190 half-hour episodes that aired from 1951-1957—their Desilu Productions either produced or oversaw a legion of seminal television shows including The Untouchables, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and Mission Impossible.
The couple founded Desilu in 1950 (and popularized the portmanteau-ing of power-couple names, i.e. Brangelina and Bennifer). Two years after their 1960 divorce, Ball bought out Arnaz and took over as captain of the popular-culture dreadnaught, from the bridge of which she continued to influence television’s development. In addition to the two films, also streaming is The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek, a 2021 History Channel series that in its first episode details Ball’s pivotal role in Desilu’s production of Star Trek—a show that would not have been made without her.
I Love Lucy has been lauded, deservedly, as among the funniest shows in the history of television. But it was more. Its humor was deliberately farcical, and all farce is a tarantella of light and dark, a pas-de-deux between the whimsical and the serious. It was a bridge between pre- and post-war America over which an army of Americans marched into a promised, brilliant future, a consumer nirvana led by a vanguard of women needing perms, a dyed redhead at their head.
Though Desilu’s incorporation came five years after the war’s official end—May 8, 1945 was off VJ (Victory in Japan) Day and September 2, 1945 was VE (Victory in Europe) Day—that five-year gap is deceptive; the war’s long shadow infused the studio, its formation, its operation, and its success. In turn, Desilu infused the zeitgeist of post-war America and, during the American Century that followed, the world. It is impossible to catalog all that would be missing from global popular culture—Spock is nearly as intriguing as Hamlet—without Desilu and its television shows, many of which, including I Love Lucy, are still in re-runs (a practice Desilu invented).
How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?
Pre-war, the United States’ standing army numbered around 180,000—smaller than Portugal’s. At war’s end, the US military comprised more than 12,000,000 troops, of which 7,600,000 were stationed abroad. Nearly all those troops wanted and expected to be heading home immediately, and the day after the war’s end would have been just fine, thank you. But of course that didn’t—realistically it couldn’t—happen immediately; it takes a minute to demobilize and transport 12,000,000 people. But when it didn’t happen immediately, there was dissension in the ranks. Certainly some soldiers were philosophical, attributing the delays to the bureaucratic oafishness they’d witnessed from the military for years (see Joseph Heller’s Catch-22); but many felt frustrated, betrayed, and angry. There were fierce protests and instances of outright mutiny. It took more than two years—until the end of June, 1947—to reduce the number of active-duty troops to 1,500,000.
Pre-war, the country had gradually been shifting from agrarian-pastoral to urban, but to supply the war machine, that transition had accelerated dramatically. During the war, millions of agricultural jobs had been replaced by millions of manufacturing jobs. But post-war, major problems loomed: one, those jobs had been organized around manufacturing no-longer-needed munitions; and two, those jobs were filled by 6,000,000 women who had answered their country’s call.
Slowly, 12,000,000 GIs were coming home. But to what? The country to which they were returning was radically different from the idyllic Promised Land they remembered. But even if the farms from which they’d gone to war still existed, many soldiers were not going back to them. Johnny was not marching home again to muck out stables. Johnny had seen Paree. (And Iwo Jima.) It was this unpromised land with its uncharted future on which Desi and Lucy built their production company.
It will surprise those who think of government as fundamentally dysfunctional and irrevocably incompetent that, after it had become clear the United States and its allies were going to win the war, high-level policy makers in Washington had begun to plan to win the peace. Not only had they initiated preparations for demobilizing and repatriating millions-upon-millions of soldiers, they had also, prompted by the American Legion’s lobbying, passed the landmark “Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944.” Since called the GI Bill, that program promised millions of returning veterans substantial support for education, job training, housing, and other benefits.
Loooceee, I’m Hooome!
Some 2,200,000 veterans went to college on the GI Bill, but that left many millions of returning soldiers unaccounted for, GIs who were, in effect, trained killers, some of whom had come home angry about demobilization delays and anxious about their futures. Many high-level policy makers were deeply concerned about a nightmare scenario: reports of Communist opportunists whispering in the ears of already-disgruntled, jobless, trained killers hanging around on street corners with nothing but time on their idle hands.
Yet it wasn’t only men who’d seen Paree. To allow men to go to combat, millions of civilian women, energized by patriotism and encouraged by a campaign famously symbolized and posterized by Rosie the Riveter, had been recruited to jobs in war-production factories and allied industries. Women were welding.
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Pre-war, with the battle for universal suffrage won, women as a bloc were relatively quiet politically. But the war led to an unintended consequence: With the creation of a culturally-acceptable mind-space for women welders, millions of Rosies soon realized that despite their indoctrination they could develop skills they’d been assured they couldn’t; could perform tasks long held to be the exclusive province of men; could earn their own money, make a living, survive on their own without husbands! Suddenly, being single was a viable alternative to being married. Seemingly out of nowhere had appeared an option to spending their lives bearing children, cleaning, cooking, being mistreated by, and having to obey men whom, once the semi-insanity of romantic love had abated, they might no longer like or even respect, much less love. Rosies didn’t have to want to be single to covet and be excited by this new option.
How you gonna get ‘em back in the kitchen after they’ve learned to weld?
In Communist nations, central planners would tell these women to give their jobs to men for the good of the state and would tell factories how many of which products to produce. But here we rely on persuasion, and failing that, propaganda and shameless manipulation.
The problem: 6,000,000 women with jobs, and all those millions of trained killers with no jobs. The ideal outcome? That the women would decide—on their own—that domestic bliss was preferable to working on an assembly line and then would voluntarily leave their jobs; returning soldiers would fill those jobs; the women and men would marry and set up housekeeping; soon would come babies; the happy couples, living the American Dream, would start buying goods—cars, furniture, diapers—that factories, having converted from war to civilian production, would be churning out by the boxcar. But because the United States lacked the option of decreeing all this, the question for policy makers was: How? How to get women, who’d glimpsed independence, to volunteer for, to willingly march back to what effectively was permanent KP (Kitchen Patrol) duty?
Could that possibly be made to look like fun?
Like most people, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo live in a plain-but-not-drab apartment—maybe one step nicer than Ralph and Alice Cramden’s The Honeymooners apartment—but it’s clean, and neat, and meticulously maintained by their landlord, Fred Mertz, who is also Ricky’s guy pal, and who is there practically every day fixing things. The Ricardo’s live in exactly the kind of apartment salaried, single gals could afford and could envision living in.
And, well, yes, they’d have to be married, but that might not be so bad if it were to a handsome, exotic, funny, Latin (so just a little bit volatile) band leader who was famous and worked in a nightclub and knew glamorous people and movie stars. Yes, there’d be some house-wifery to do, but that wouldn’t be so bad because there’d be an up-for-anything gal-pal, Ethel Mertz (who was also the landlady), who’d drop by every day to enable her best friend’s whacky schemes. And there’d be the chance to do television commercials and maybe get into show business. And a gal would meet movie stars: William Holden, John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Harpo Marx, Van Johnson, Bob Hope, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde, Charles Boyer, Gregory Peck.
C’mon, Rosie: Which is better? Working in a factory, or meeting Cary Grant?
The task: Prime the economic pumps to jump-start a consumer economy. The result: pumps gush money; money trickles down to workers who spend it on goods; money from goods trickles up to manufacturers, providing money for salaries for even more workers to buy even more goods.
Next: How to show people what’s available and make them aware they want it. Well, how about advertising these products on television? On I Love Lucy, a #1-rated show hosted by America’s most-loved couple. Let people know what they’re missing out on if they don’t buy products like Phillip Morris cigarettes (how cool is smoking?), Dash detergent, Cheer detergent, Joy (dishwashing) detergent, Prell shampoo, Crest toothpaste, Gleem toothpaste, Crisco shortening, Jergens lotion, Lilt home permanent, Sanka coffee, Ford automobiles, Westinghouse appliances, General Electric appliances, Royal Crown cola, Woodbury powder, Lucite paint, Auto-Lite batteries, Shinola shoe polish, Hoover vacuums, Max Factor cosmetics, Roma wine, Schaefer beer. Et al.
Americans had led the world to a resounding defeat of evil. In the process, we had created and now faced a post-war landscape bright with promise that took the form of a cornucopia of joy-producing, dopamine-jolting, narcotizing consumer goods. The United States was at the beginning of an indulgent, self-congratulatory, triumphalist, exceptionalist, seemingly-endless me-fest during which just-plain folks were about to reap the well-earned rewards of their virtue, the beginning of a new world in which hard work and sacrifice were no longer goals in themselves (or anyway not very fun goals), a place where red-blooded (not blue-blooded) guys ‘n gals would finally get their due simply for being the good guys.
I Love Lucy, was brilliant entertainment, a funny, gentle, farcical way to spend time. But it was also a self-congratulatory, pat-ourselves-on-our-backs paean to how wonderful, open, and tolerant a society we had created. And it provided a path from pre-war to post-war America.