'Being the Ricardos' on Amazon Prime Video: Was Lucille Ball Really a Communist?
Being the Ricardos, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, depicts a nightmare week for beloved '50s sitcom star Lucille Ball (played by Nicole Kidman).
In the film, Confidential magazine runs a story that implies her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) was being unfaithful, Ball discovers she is pregnant, and radio star Walter Winchell reports that she had registered as a communist in the 1930s.
The movie, directed by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, shrugs off the claims that Ball was affiliated to the Communist Party, but Hollywood historians have offered differing accounts of exactly where her allegiances lay.
During Being the Ricardos, the reason Ball gives for registering as a Communist was to keep her socialist grandfather happy. But how true to the real life story is that?Was Lucille Ball Really a Member of the Communist Party?
In 1989, the Washington Post obtained what it called "the Federal Bureau of Investigation's secret file on Ball." This contained all the material the FBI had collected on the actor over the years. Here was all the evidence the WaPo could find in that file of Ball's ties to communism (or, at least, all the evidence that it reported):
- In 1937, an unnamed Hollywood writer claimed she went to a Communist Party membership meeting that was held at Ball's house, though the writer said Ball was not herself at the meeting.
- In 1946, Arnaz had starred in a show sponsored by the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions – a group the FBI believed was a communist front.
- In 1951, the newspaper The Daily Worker reported that Ball was one of the Hollywood stars who had initially criticised Joseph McCarthy, the senator whose House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was at the heart of the 1950s communist witch hunt. However, the paper then claimed she had stopped being vocal in her criticisms once HUAC began to pick up steam.
In her second HUAC testimony in September 1953, Ball admitted that she had been registered to vote as a Communist in 1936. In real life, just as in the film, she claimed that this was to make her socialist grandfather happy, and that she had never been an active member of the party.
This excuse was accepted by the committee, and unlike a number of her peers, Ball was not blacklisted. In common with a number of big stars at the time, like Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, she managed to avoid any real fallout during the McCarthy period despite having previous dalliances with communism.
In fact, some have speculated that then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover may have had an ulterior motive for keeping a file on Ball and Arnaz. Another WaPo piece reported that Edgar hated the TV show The Untouchables, an early crime procedural that Hoover despised because it made it look like numerous cases solved by the FBI in real life were solved by the Department of the Treasury. The show was produced by Desilu Productions, the company owned by Ball and Arnaz.No Evidence of Phone Call
Though the basics of the story are faithfully told in Being the Ricardos, the Amazon film does take some liberties with the truth. There is no evidence, for example, that J. Edgar Hoover really rang into the I Love Lucy studio to assure the audience that Ball had been cleared from the charge of being a communist.
Despite having a file open on her, there is evidence that Hoover was a fan of the actor in real life. In 1955, he wrote her a letter that said: "The humor in your program last Monday, I think, exceeded any of your previous programs and they have been really good in themselves." A year later, he said in an interview that Ball was one of his favorite stars.
In fact, some questioned his love of the star. The FBI file on Ball contains a letter written to Hoover that said: "I'm wondering if there is not a mistake or misquote of some kind since it lists Lucy and Desi among your favorite entertainers who you think set a good example for the youth of America."
Being the Ricardos is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.