1986 was a generally horrendous year for Lucille Ball. Her hoped-for comeback series, Life with Lucy, bombed with critics and audiences. The series was an absolute fiasco, seriously damaging her reputation as the Queen of Comedy. The same year Life with Lucy was cancelled, her ex-husband Desi Arnaz died after battling lung cancer. To see the deaths of both her career and the great love of her life so close together were emotionally devastating for Ball. Only her Kennedy Center Honors that same year brought any sense of joy to the besieged comedienne. Mother of the Bride, the final Life with Lucy episode broadcast before its cancellation, was a glimpse into what the show could have been, for it is the best Life with Lucy episode.
Lucy Barker (Ball) is still slightly miffed that her daughter Margo (Ann Dusenberry) and her husband Ted (Larry Anderson) eloped. Lucy always wanted to give her daughter a big wedding even if Margo did not want one. Nevertheless, prodded by their children Becky (Jenny Lewis) and Kevin (Philip J. Amelio, II), they decide to take advantage of their tenth wedding anniversary to renew their vows and have the wedding Lucy always wanted.
Into this comes Audrey (special guest star Audrey Meadows), Lucy's sister. A successful cruise ship director, Audrey eagerly volunteers to help with the wedding plans. Her idea of "help", however, is to take over every aspect of the event, freezing out Lucy. Clearly upset, she shifts between fuming and crying, but has one card up her sleeve: her own wedding gown which Margo once loved and which Lucy will offer to her as a surprise. Unfortunately, Audrey already took Margo shopping for a wedding dress. Margo's father-in-law Curtis (Gale Gordon) tries to get Lucy to speak up, but she's too devastated.
Eventually, Lucy and Audrey have a quiet fight involving the wedding cake frosting and refuse to speak to each other. Their frosty relationship however, ends the day of the renewal. Realizing that each was jealous of the other but still loving her only sister, they reconcile, and through a little help from Curtis, Margo wears her mother's wedding gown.
Mother of the Bride is unique for a variety of reasons. This is the first episode where the guest star is billed in the opening scene, announcing "Special Guest Star Audrey Meadows". It is the first time that there was genuine conflict handled humorously. It is the first time that Life with Lucy showed a true heart, where one feels for Lucy versus being concerned for her physical safety.
It is technically not the first episode where Curtis is on Lucy's side (the preceding episode Lucy, Legal Beagle was), but here he was nowhere near as antagonistic as he had been before. In fact, he was quite sympathetic to her plight. As Lucy explodes over how Audrey has hijacked her moment, Curtis begins by noting Audrey's qualities to add that she is a big "buttinsky". This surprise Lucy, who sees that Curtis may dislike her but also dislikes people taking advantage of others. It reveals Curtis to be, granted, a cantankerous man, but also an upright one.
Having shared with Curtis her plan to present her wedding gown to Margo, we can see Lucy trying not to openly cry when Margo shows her mother the dress she and Audrey picked out. Curtis begins to softly say, "Lucille, Lucille" as a way to encourage her to speak up and speak out over Audrey's meddling. Lucy gets the hint but won't go along with it. Gordon here reveals Curtis' genuine sadness for his nemesis, fully aware of just how hurt and heartbroken she is.
I understand that Audrey Meadows was at the very least considered to join the Life with Lucy cast had the show been renewed. While ultimately turning down the offer, Meadows' character demonstrated that Lucy is best when working against a foil. Curtis, despite Gordon's talent, was a poor foil, for you know that it was more bluster than genuine dislike to hatred. Last episode's Hilda Loomis was a better antagonist, for she was not above going after the jugular. Meadows' Audrey was also not afraid to go toe to toe (or nose to nose) with Lucy. In both Lucy, Legal Beagle and Mother of the Bride, Lucy was the person you rooted for. Past Life with Lucy episodes really had little to no conflict. Worse, they made her look less endearingly daffy and more totally insane as well as a danger to herself and others.
Almost all the performances are top notch. Guest star Meadows was pitch perfect as Audrey. She made Audrey not someone who was deliberately cruel but at least initially trying to help. I do question how she could not, on some level, realize that she was pushing Lucy out of the way. However, Meadows never made her overtly mean. She and Ball worked quite well, particularly when they silently go at each other with the cakes. It was not as funny as I think the audience thought. It still was amusing.
Their final scene when they reconcile is simply beautiful, almost moving. One is touched to see the sisters come together. Lucy tells Audrey that she is thankful that she's her only sister, then adds out of Audrey's earshot, "Thank God". It is funny but also true.
Gordon here was both amusing and gentle as Curtis. The glance that he throws when Margo tells Lucy that Curtis had mentioned her old wedding dress is sweet. Ball gets nice quips about inviting Ronald and Nancy Reagan to the wedding. She doesn't do it expecting them to actually come, but in the hopes that they will send a nice gift. She also has an amusing moment with her Cousin Florence (Jacque Lynn Colton), a heavyset woman whom Lucy is obviously fond of.
Another unexpected positive to Mother of the Bride is how Leonard (Donovan Scott) does not appear until 19 minutes into the episode. Given that the episode runs about 22 minutes, that is another blessing.
Mother of the Bride was the last the public saw of Life with Lucy until the series was released on DVD. Sweet, moving and actually funny, one can see that with some retooling prior to the show's premiere, we could have had the show that everyone was aiming for. Whether it is a good or bad thing that Life with Lucy ended on probably its best episode I do not know. I am just glad that at least one episode of Life with Lucy did not embarrass Lucille Ball.
Next (Unaired) Episode: Lucy and the Guard Goose