Appellate Judge Tom Becker once prank called a president; apparently, the Secretary of State does not have pigs' feet.
"We're practicing 'Hail to the Chief' so we can play it when President Carter gets here tomorrow. How does it sound?"
"Like you voted for Ford."
When sitting Presidents meet standing sitcom characters, the results are never easy.
On the short-lived Whoopi, a visit from President George W. Bush prompted Whoopi Goldberg's Mavis Rae character to plan to ambush the Commander in Chief with a series of pointed, hard-to-answer questions. This plot mirrored one used almost 20 years earlier on The Golden Girls, when Bea Arthur's Dorothy Zbornak prepared to vent on W's father when he dropped by their Miami home (a plot that, as it happened, mirrored Arthur's earlier sit-com, Maude, only with John Wayne as the target). When President Gerald Ford swung by their humble Wisconsin town, Eric Matthews of That '70s Show didn't bother thinking up political gambol. He greeted the Leader of the Free World by streaking.
In 1977, with America basking in the glow of its recent bicentennial and its newly elected leader, who might once and for all help fade the taint of Watergate, Lucy—here called "Whittaker," otherwise known as "Ricardo," "MacGillicuddy," "Carmichael," "Carter," but always "Ball"—calls President Jimmy Carter (he has "phone-in days") to complain that a proposed low-cost housing project is scheduled to be built at the site of the local camp for underprivileged children. Carter (who doesn't appear on the special), even then a fan of low-cost housing, is going to be in her neighborhood and offers to swing by and talk to her about the problem in person. Hilarity ensues as Lucy, her husband (Ed McMahon), her father-in-law (Gale Gordon), and the rest of the town prepare for this historic treat. Abetting the hilarity are long-time Ball sidekicks Mary Wickes, Mary Jane Croft, and the indispensable Vivian Vance.
This is an easy-going, family-friendly special that's not really all that special. Lucy cries, plays the saxophone, vamps with Vivian Vance and Mary Wickes—she pretty much runs through her whole beloved repertoire, save for a drunk scene. Vance leads the cast in a rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown," Wickes trades barbs with Gordon, McMahon plays straight man, and Steve Allen shows up as himself.
Strictly a nostalgia item, this was probably dated when it aired in 1977. There's nothing really new here, particularly the jokes. Ball's timing is still good, but it's nowhere near what it was even a few years prior, though her chemistry with her old friends is evident.
But I'm guessing that even in 1977, nostalgia drove this special. Lucy had been off series TV for three years, the longest she'd been away since starting I Love Lucy in 1951. She had done a few specials as her patented "Lucy" character and tried a couple of dramatic roles. Here, she was again working with writers Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis, and reuniting with Gordon, Vance, Wickes, and Croft. What no one could have known was that this was the last time Vance and Ball would appear together. Vance died of cancer less than two years after Lucy Calls the President aired. Ball, Gordon, Carroll, and Davis would work together again a few years later, in the ill-fated Life With Lucy in 1986.
The full-frame transfer for Lucy Calls the President looks pretty shoddy, faded, soft, and with a pinkish tint (unless that was just an over-use of pink lights to make our past-their-prime stars look closer to middle age than retirement age). The program was shot on video rather than film, and it just doesn't seem to have held up. The Dolby Mono track is fine, though, surprisingly clear and free of distortion.
Where MPI gets this right—really right—is with the supplemental material. Clearly, you're watching this because you Love Lucy, and the disc gives you plenty of Lucy to Love, with a solid slate of extra content, a welcome change from the bare bones discs usually afforded such releases. The program opens with an (optional) introduction from actor James Brodhead, who plays the mayor here and appeared in small roles on Here's Lucy and Mame.
We also get some nice featurettes. Brodhead offers some warm remembrances of "Working with Lucy" in a segment that includes clips from Here's Lucy (including an appearance from an unrecognizably young Joan Rivers). "From Rehearsal to Broadcast" gives us some recently unearthed dress rehearsal footage from Lucy Calls the President, which is a cool watch. "Let's Talk to Lucy" is a segment from a program Lucy hosted on CBS radio in the '60s. On this episode, from 1965, she interviews Steve Allen.
The best supplement, in my book, is an appearance by Lucy on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We're so used to seeing Lucy as Lucy that it's easy to forget the intelligent, witty woman behind the character. This is a really great segment that includes rehearsal footage from an appearance Carson and McMahon made on Here's Lucy, and it's fascinating to see Carson and Ball at work.
Lucy Calls the President might not be top-flight Lucy, but MPI gives us a terrific disc. The supplements more than make up for the less-than stellar image.
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