Shedding light on ‘I Love Lucy’

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Before the action must come the lights and the camera.
That is a truism to which both Count Dracula and the first queen of TV comedy would have subscribed wholeheartedly. After all, they shared an aversion to bad lighting and a love of Karl Freund.
To students of film, Karl Freund, the cameraman who shot both “Dracula” and “I Love Lucy,” was the Austro-Hungarian who was a central creative sensibility behind German Expressionism, that moody, sometimes hallucinatory swirl of light and shadow that characterized many of the greatest achievements of cinema’s silent era and so influenced American film noir.
And that’s just one of Mr. Freund’s claims to a place in the movie pantheon.
Among the dozens of silent-era films that he shot in Europe are such acknowledged masterpieces as “Metropolis,” Fritz Lang’s science-fiction vision of an industrial dystopia, and F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” arguably the “purest” silent feature ever made, because it told its entire story without title cards (only a single newspaper headline at the end conveys the final O’Henry-like plot twist that gives the poignant story of a downtrodden Berlin hotel doorman its American title). For the 1924 “Laugh,” Mr. Freund freed the camera from its stationary post, where it had been limited to swiveling atop a tripod, and innovated complex camera maneuvers that had never before been seen on screen.
He mounted his bulky cameras on anything that moved-a bicycle, a fire-engine ladder, overhead wires, a dolly-even strapping a camera to his own chest-to convey a subjective, character’s point of view.
Mr. Freund also directed a handful of movies, including the original 1932 “The Mummy” and “Mad Love” in 1935-both horror genre pictures made more distinguished and more eerie by Mr. Freund’s Expressionist mastery of lighting and the subjective camera.
Some of the films in Mr. Freund’s cinematographic canon include “Camille” (1937), “The Good Earth” (1937), for which he won an Academy Award, “Pride and Prejudice” (1940), “Tortilla Flats” (1942), “A Guy Named Joe” (1943) and “Key Largo” (1948). The man who had been so central to the German studio system in the golden age of silents became an integral part of the studio system in the golden age of Hollywood, employed at MGM when it specialized in elaborate musicals and boasted that it had “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven.”
And so it was that he found himself the cinematographer on a 1943 MGM Technicolor period-costume musical romp called “Du Barry Was a Lady,” where his careful lighting and photography impressed the leading lady, Lucille Ball.
By the time Ms. Ball, who had just made a sitcom deal with CBS, told the network to find the cinematographer who had shot her to such advantage at MGM, Mr. Freund’s place in the history of the cinema was secure.
But this was TV, a new medium with new challenges, not the least of which was how to light a sitcom set and use the new technique of using three cameras to film the action simultaneously from different angles.
Much of black-and-white TV shot in a studio before “Lucy” had an extreme and primitive visual look-the brights were too bright, the darks too dark. Lights glared, foreheads gleamed and bald domes blazed with reflected light. Actors declaimed in spot-lit sun-bright pools, then took a step into shadow and nearly disappeared from view.
For “I Love Lucy,” Mr. Freund, meticulous as always, changed all that by designing an overhead lighting system that cast a flat, even illumination over an entire set. He then enhanced the warm effect of the lights by having stagehands paint the walls in various shades of gray and having the costumers dress the actors in gray tones, too.
And Mr. Freund was as much of a perfectionist on the hurly-burly set of the sitcom as he had been in the cavernous ateliers of early European cinema. He planned each shot, each movement; he rehearsed and rehearsed; he shot and reshot until he got the “Lucy” look just right.
That “I Love Lucy” has endured for 50 years speaks volumes about the quality of the writing, the talents of the supporting cast and, of course, the comedic abilities of Lucille Ball herself. But none of those elements would be quite as resonant today if it weren’t for the high-quality picture the series still delivers. And for that we have Karl Freund-the urbane director of photography for “I Love Lucy” in its first four years and a proven master of the visual medium long before he ever set foot on a sitcom soundstage-to thank.