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TV History: I Love Lucy

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Wearing the Pants

by Courtney Becker

This scene, from the I Love Lucy episode “Lucy and Harpo Marx” in 1955, features Lucille Ball’s character Lucy and Harpo Marx recreating a famous moment from one of the Marx brothers’ most well-known movies, Duck Soup. In the original routine, Groucho Marx’s character believes he sees his own reflection while actually looking at Harpo’s identically-dressed character, who recreates all of Groucho’s movements. Groucho’s character gets so caught up in the exchange that he doesn’t realize he is not looking into a mirror until Chico Marx’s character comes into frame while also dressed exactly as Groucho’s character, despite several incongruities toward the end of the routine. In this moment, Ball and Harpo perform their own take on this mirror routine, incorporating Ball’s unique style of comedy and modernism into the new version. Although the scene from “Lucy and Harpo Marx” is not an exact recreation of the iconic mirror scene, it serves as an effective homage to the Marx brothers’ comedy while simultaneously showcasing Lucille Ball’s comedic talent and subverting gender expectations of the 1950s.
The discrepancies between the original scene from the movie and Ball’s recreation of the scene with Harpo allow Lucy to personalize the moment to suit her own skills as a performer. Rather than assuming the Groucho Marx role and allowing Harpo to play his original role in the scene, Ball adopts the role of the reflection, surprising Harpo every time she perfectly recreates one of his irregular gaits or facial expressions throughout the scene. This role reversal plays to Ball’s strengths as a performer, showcasing her “physically mutinous” comedy and her tendency to “brilliantly [use her face] and [body] in slapstick enactments of the battle of the sexes” (Douglas 50). Neither Harpo nor the audience expects Ball to keep up with Harpo’s increasingly ludicrous facial expressions, and yet she consistently matches his every move, only dropping the reflection ruse when the hat she drops does not return to her hands as Harpo’s does. This ability to seamlessly step into an originally male role opposite another man for a comedy routine further validates Ball as a comedic genius who “refused to be contained in the home or limited by the prevailing orthodoxy about appropriate female comportment” (Douglas 50). By sacrificing vanity and any pretense of proper ladylike behavior in this scene, Ball not only takes on Harpo’s classic role — she manages to make it entirely her own.
The scene additionally opposes gender restrictions of the time by adjusting the costumes from the original nightgown and cap to Harpo’s signature trench coat, pants, top hat, and horn for the recreation, as it ensured that Ball’s character quite literally impersonated a man while wearing men’s clothing. While the nightgowns the Marx brothers wear in the original mirror routine could theoretically pass for women’s clothing, pants stood as a symbol of masculinity in America during the 1950s, and by wearing them Ball once again abandons vanity for the sake of defying expectations. I Love Lucy regularly, “Through one kind of slapstick or another, … gave expression to the deep anxieties over who would wear the pants in postwar America” (Douglas 51), but this scene expresses those fears in the most literal way possible by having Ball step into men’s clothing to play a man’s role. The costume change, while irrelevant to the integrity of the tribute to the original scene, speaks volumes about Ball’s role as a woman. The routine is just one of several instances of Ball “resisting and making fun of the credo that ‘real’ women found fulfillment in diaper pails and macaroni recipes” (Douglas 51), since it features both her and her character exploring unconventional methods of stepping outside the traditional role of perfect housewife.
This moment in I Love Lucy is emblematic of both Lucille Ball’s devotion to comedy and the feminist revolution that took place on 1950s television. In addition to elevating Ball as a comedic presence onscreen, the scene challenges gender roles in a manner that was less typical than the show’s usual battle between the characters of Lucy and Ricky as she fights to get out of the house. Instead, both Ball and her character embody a male persona and literally “wear the pants” in a tribute to a classic moment in comedy. By managing to seamlessly integrate Ball’s trademark slapstick and revolutionary attitude toward gender roles into the Marx brothers’ beloved mirror routine, I Love Lucy created an abiding comedy moment of its own.

Works Cited

Douglas, Susan J. “Mama Said.” Where the
Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass
Media. New York: Random House, 1995. 43-60. Print.

"Lucy and Harpo Marx," I Love Lucy

The is a clip of the "mirror routine" from the I Love Lucy episode entitled "Lucy and Harpo Marx," Episode 28 of Season 4, which first aired on May 9, 1955, on CBS.

from I Love Lucy (1955)
Creator: CBS; Director: William Asher, Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Davis, Bob Carroll Jr.
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Christine Becker