Lucille Ball sold more televisions than anyone else in history. I Love Lucy was so popular in the 1950s, people went out and bought their first television sets in order to watch it. That’s a record that will almost certainly last forever. Or until Holo-screens start coming out.
Okay, so, getting it out of the way now, the premise of this episode hasn’t exactly aged well within society. It’s based on swapping gender roles, and nowadays those aren’t as strictly defined as they were in 1952. It also has some lines based on the idea that women can’t handle money, which… well, they didn’t age well. To its credit, this episode does depict a number of working women, from line workers to supervisors. It’s only Lucy and Ethel that are depicted as incapable of working a “normal job.” Similarly, there are lines about male cooks and housekeepers in the show, so it’s only Ricky and Fred that are somehow so incompetent at basic “home economics” skills that they manage to destroy much of the house. The depiction of other members of both genders being able to switch roles successfully is probably attributable to the fact that the episode was actually written by a male-female writing team (Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.). Still, it’s going to bug a modern audience a little bit. Let’s just go ahead and say that both stereotypes are played up just for laughs, recognize that this show made a woman the most famous comic in the US, and consider the implications no further.
The show had a pretty general premise. Lucille “Lucy” Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo and Enrique “Ricky” Alberto Fernando y de Acha Ricardo III (Ball and Arnaz) are married and they live in an apartment in New York, where they frequently interact with their friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). Ricky is a popular bandleader and singer at a club. Lucy is a housewife who dreams of stardom, despite her complete lack of talent, leading her to do things that usually are described with “Hi-jinks Ensue.” Also, credit to her, Lucille Ball’s greatest talent is her incredible ability to play someone without any talent.
While she and Ricky were portrayed as deeply in love, her antics still had a tendency to get on his nerves, usually denoted by him breaking out into rapid-fire Spanish. Lucy also frequently was irresponsible with money and time, something that usually caused friction between the two. Ricky, meanwhile, sometimes indulged in the nicer side of being a popular bandleader at a burgeoning nightclub, which made Lucy want celebrity all the more, which, in turn, led to more antics. This episode focuses mostly on their marriage.
When Ricky finds out that Lucy has bounced a check, he snaps at her for being irresponsible. Lucy and Ethel try to downplay the issue, but Ricky and Fred both respond by mocking their wives for sitting home all day while the men go to work. I assume this happens in the episode because the men already slept in separate beds from their wives, so they weren’t planning on ever getting laid again. Otherwise, mocking your wife is considered a bad idea. But, Lucy and Ethel respond with a challenge. The men and women will switch places for a week.
At first, Ricky tries to one-up Lucy with a fabulous breakfast in bed, only for Lucy to discover that he just bought it at the corner diner and carried it upstairs. Ricky and Fred don’t fare much better at any of the other things their wives usually do. They break dishes, ruin most of the clothes trying to do laundry, and manage to destroy the kitchen trying to make dinner. Ricky even falls over his own rice and injures himself… which wasn’t part of the script. Desi Arnaz actually fell on accident, and the audience loved it, so he did it again on purpose. He also apparently bruised himself badly doing it, but it’s funny nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Lucy and Ethel go to an employment agency, and, out of a long list of unattainable potential jobs, they blatantly lie to get jobs at a candy factory. Hopefully, after reading that sentence, every one of you now remembers this episode. If not, hopefully you have time to watch the video below. Lucy and Ethel each get assigned to various jobs around the factory, failing spectacularly at all of them, while being yelled at by the ultra-strict foreman. Finally, they’re put on the chocolate-wrapping assembly line, and the pair are told that, if even one piece of unwrapped candy makes it all the way down the line, they’ll be fired. At first, the chocolate coming down the conveyor belt is at a reasonable pace, and the two manage, but it quickly speeds up to the point that the pair are unable to wrap, and can only grab chocolates from the belt and hide them. Despite this, the foreman congratulates them on not letting any unwrapped chocolates get to the end… and tells them that now they’re going to have to do it at high-speed. As the chocolates come careening down the line, the two completely abandon any attempt at wrapping and instead just stuffing the chocolates in their clothing or eating them.
Arriving home later, the pair are sick from all the chocolate they ate. The ladies see a note telling them not to go into the kitchen, but Lucy’s curiosity overtakes her. She immediately starts screaming and comes out rambling about how there’s a mess all over the walls, the floor, even the ceiling. The men come home and ask to end the bet, conceding that they’ve lost, while the women confess they also didn’t fare well on the job market. The men apologize for thinking that running a house is easy, and offer the girls a gift… of 10 pounds of chocolate.
This episode is remembered for a few reasons. The first is that it contains some amazing physical comedy. Lucille Ball studied clowning for years before she got this show, and it paid off in spades. Her expressions during most of the scenes are so over-the-top that you can’t help but find them funny. While the conveyer belt scene is the best known, I honestly recommend that you watch the episode in its entirety, because the physical humor goes beyond just that one scene. I didn’t even remember the near-silent scene in which Lucy is pretending to copy a professional candy dipper with all the skills of a chimpanzee. She has such enthusiasm for it, however, until the fact that she’s screwing it up finally starts to hit her. Then, she swats a fly on a woman’s face, causing the woman to hit her back, covering Lucy in chocolate. Ball, afraid the other woman wouldn’t hit her hard enough to be funny, intentionally hit the other woman much harder than they had rehearsed, so that her reflexive response would daze Lucy. That’s how you suffer for your art. Vance, Arnaz, and Frawley are no slouches, either, each managing to hold their own against Ball in every scene they’re in.
The second reason is that the candy factory is basically the best representative of employment problems on film (aside from maybe Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”). When Lucy and Ethel go to the employment agency, they are qualified for literally no jobs, because all of them require some form of training or education. So, they lie in order to get a job. Then, when they show up at that job, they’re given no form of training, and immediately put into a wide variety of positions, with no introduction. Eventually, they end up on the conveyor belt, with everything coming at them too fast. They manage to cope with it well enough, which just leads to a massive increase in workload to the point that they can’t handle it, at which point they’re fired. Almost every step in the employment process is needlessly complicated and done wrong. At some point in your life, you’ve probably been on that conveyor belt being inundated by tasks at a pace that you can only barely handle, only to find out that, congratulations, because you handled it, you’re going to get more. And all to get slap-dash candy out to the consumer.
Either for the subtext or the slapstick, it’s always worth watching I Love Lucy.
Here’s the scene you’re all waiting for:
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