There is more “tumultuous life” than “comic art” in Stefan Kanfer’s readable though uneven biography of the redheaded TV legend.
Kanfer, onetime film critic at Time and author of “Groucho,” dutifully covers familiar, hard-bitten ground: Ball’s difficult childhood in Jamestown, N.Y.; her eager attempts to break into Depression-era showbiz; her up-and-down film career; her passionate but troubled 20-year marriage to Desi Arnaz, during which she starred in and helped create “I Love Lucy”; her management of Desilu Studios, which produced some of her later, less brilliant sitcoms; her painful divorce from Arnaz; and her restless final years and second marriage to Gary Morton, which lasted until her death in 1989.
Given its subject, “Ball of Fire” should be consistently fascinating but Kanfer shows only intermittent enthusiasm. To wit, the chapters about the making of I Love Lucy come alive with a vibrancy that confers honor to the long-running show. Elsewhere, however, the author is dismissive of Ball’s movie work: some of her films are never mentioned, and even her better performances (e.g. in 1946’s Easy to Wed) receive minimal attention, let alone praise. Indeed, while the bibliography and index seem thorough, there is not even a filmography or a listing of her television work.
One wishes the author would spend more time on what made Lucille Ball’s comedy great, but he focuses instead on the behind-the-scenes drama. To his credit, Kanfer adequately re-visits the racial prejudice Ball and Arnaz faced during her marriage to the Cuban entertainer, and such incidents as the HUAC investigation of Ball’s alleged Communist past (which nearly toppled I Love Lucy).
Unfortunately, when Kanfer loses interest in other parts of Ball’s life — e.g., her childhood, the Hollywood years — a smoothly impersonal tone takes over and Ball of Fire becomes a sophisticated cut-and-paste job. As a resource, the book poses another problem: while Kanfer expertly incorporates quotes and information from other places, we often have no idea from where or to whom they are attributed (there are no endnotes).
Actually, the highlight of “Ball of Fire” has nothing to do with Ball’s life story. In the last chapter, Kanfer summarizes recent articles and academic studies about Ball’s enduring legacy. While he sidesteps the political double-meaning of his own chapter title, “The Marx Sister,” and whether Ball’s most famous creation, Lucy Ricardo, was a radically transgressive figure, Kanfer neatly ties together many disparate critical views, including those of Molly Haskell and Susan Sontag. He comes up with a worthy tribute to his subject’s fascinating “contradictions.” Finally, here, “Ball of Fire” really lights up.