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Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball Hardcover – August 19, 2003

3.2 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Those expecting a vicious Hollywood tell-all from Stefan Kanfer’s Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball will be disappointed. Kanfer, whose past work includes a biography of Groucho Marx and a history of the animation industry, comes to his famous red-headed subject with admiration, and readers will be drawn by his exuberance for early film and television history.

Kanfer opens with a brief recounting of Ball's tragic childhood (her father died of typhoid when she was 3 years old) and her early career as an unintentionally starving model in New York City. The significant portion of the book begins, however, when Ball gets her first offer for a stint of film work in California and finds herself launched on a moderately successful film career. Here Kanfer provides details of the inner workings of United Artists, Columbia, and RKO as Ball does battle with Ginger Rogers, Kathryn Hepburn, and a host of other young actresses struggling for screen time. But, as Kanfer notes, it was in television that Ball made her great mark, starring with her husband Desi Arnaz. I Love Lucy debuted in 1951, and readers will delight in Kanfer’s behind-the-scenes details of the show’s production. The first situation comedy to be filmed before a live audience, Lucy offered countless challenge--technical, professional, and personal—for the volatile couple.

Kanfer argues that Ball is one of the few truly enduring television personalities to emerge from the early years of television. His book, entertaining as it is educational, does much to secure her legacy. --Patrick O’Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

Early in the run of I Love Lucy, Ball gave co-star Vivian Vance a hard time. Vance decided, "If by any chance this thing actually becomes a hit and goes anywhere, I'm gonna learn to love that bitch." She did, and so did the rest of the world. But according to Kanfer's excellent, compulsively readable biography, Ball (1911-1989) was much easier to love from afar (as was Kanfer's previous subject, Groucho Marx). Despite all the laughter the gifted red-headed comedienne produced, her personal life was unhappy. To save their marriage, she and Desi Arnaz produced and starred in I Love Lucy. It revolutionized TV (it was shot on film with three cameras in front of a live audience), but the all-consuming pressure of the show (and other shows produced by their company, Desilu) pushed them apart and made them absentee parents. Although Ball reigned on four consecutive top-rated CBS comedies from 1951 to 1974, Kanfer sees a decline in the quality of her work beginning in the early '60s. Without Arnaz to dominate her and placate others after they divorced, Ball became all-controlling on her shows, and her temper and tactlessness began costing her professional and personal relationships. "She could be very cold," admits daughter Lucie Arnaz, "and although she told me she loved me all the time, I didn't feel loved." Kanfer's sad, well-written and -researched bio benefits from a wealth of previously published accounts (best are Kathleen Brady's Lucille and Geoffrey Mark Fidelman's The Lucy Book), but her story is still a compelling one. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (August 19, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375413154
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375413155
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,701,565 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Baxter on September 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Drawn entirely from secondary sources, there is nothing new to be found in this biography. I wouldn't even recommend it to someone who has read no other biography of Ball, as it is filled with the most elementary mistakes. The author doesn't even describe the "Lucy" episode with William Holden accurately. Just skip this one.
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Format: Hardcover
correctly, you have no business being a Ball biographer. (Lucy had an 'argument' with Holden at the Brown Derby? As Ricky would say "Whaaaa????")
A tepid rehashing of every Lucille Ball book ever written. We know every story by now, and his one original thesis )that she was more successful on television than in the movies) is never really argued or clarified.
Rent it at the library if you must but I would save my dough.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
So.... if I choose a subject matter, and then read several different books about that subject matter, and then summarize all the facts (while managing to get many of them wrong because I have no real understanding of what I'm writing about in the first place) into a new book... I can get published? Because that's exactly what this guy did. No new information of any consequence, and all he did was take information that he read from "Desilu", "Love, Lucy", "Lucille", "Lucy in the Afternoon", "I Loved Lucy", and a few others, and regurgitate it into one book. Yes, he sourced all of his information and gave credit appropriately, but still... isn't this what a book report is? Also, numerous errors throughout where he gets the different shows confused. I'm not suggesting he has to be one of those people who can answer trivia quizzes about every single episode of every show, but still -- there were only 3. It shouldn't be THAT hard to keep track of. He confuses the timelines several times, including having Robert Stack on the set of "I Love Lucy" (it was "The Lucy Show") and Joan Crawford on the set of "Here's Lucy" (it was "The Lucy Show.") The book is kind of like a "Greatest Hits" album -- except he didn't perform any of the songs himself.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Many Ball fans don't like this book. Most claim it's either unfair, inaccurate or just plain boring. In total, I don't understand the harshness of some towards the book. But, I can agree with the latter views. It can be inaccurate, and it can be boring.

Unfair means the author took unwarranted pot shots at the subject. Or maintained an overall POV that isn't supported by the facts, both those written into it or its narrative. 'Fire' does neither. It's a fairly routine rehashing of her life and career from start to finish. The author brings the standard fare recounting of Ball's life, I feel, with a real hard look at her. Overall I believe it to be fair.

Inaccurate, well, for people who maintain their own narrative on Ball and are keeper of data on her the author does miss a few, again fairly benign facts. One I noticed was his implication that the Santa Fe Super Chief train runs from both Washington, DC and New York City to Los Angeles. For the record, it ran from Chicago to LA. It's a safe bet she took something from DC to Chicago then got on the Chief, or the New York Central's luxury service from there to Chicago, then back to the Chief. There were others errors which so more a lack of editing than promoting any campaign of distortion to carry on an agenda. Ball's family doesn't like the book. Maybe, as the author noted, they wouldn't play ball with him and allow him to interview them. Personally, I don't think their own POV of the book is really central to it's theme. I read most books on Ball and I don't see where 'Fire' would lead to their rejection of it, with prejudice. Makes no sense.

Boring. If you've read other books on the subject this book can be a drag real fast.
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Format: Hardcover
Ball of Fire concentrates on the I Love Lucy show, how it came about (and almost didn't get off the ground), behind the scenes tidbits, its effect on America. Kanfer doesn't stint on the rest of Lucy's life, both before and after the Show, but I Love Lucy really is the star of this book.
Never having read a biography of Lucille Ball, this was all news to me, and I enjoyed discovering that Vivian Vance loathed William Frawley, and that Ball was such a stickler and control freak. Kanfer's style is easy and very readable, and there are plenty of photos to round things out, including an unexpected one of a young topless Lucille Ball.
If you are in the mood for an entertaining and, let's face it, unimportant, book, this one is worth the money.
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Format: Hardcover
By now, die-hard Lucy fans know about her early years as a model, her career in Hollywood as the queen of the B-pictures and her attempts to save her marriage by including her ever-wandering, hot-tempered husband, Desi, in the proposed TV show based on her successful radio show. We know that she was a complicated woman, driven to succeed, a person who would now be called a workaholic and that she credited Desi with being the brains of the operation. She could be arrogant and demanding and she could be loving. She was larger than life.
And, we know about her intricate, not always happy relationship with Vivian Vance, her perpetual second banana. That Ethel and Fred did not get along off camera is not new, nor is the birth of Little Ricky on stage and the conflict that caused for the real Desi, Jr. Lucy fans already have read, and probably have in their collections, the various biographies and histories of I Love Lucy - not to mention a few pieces of memorabilia.
So, what can Stefan Kanfer offer that we have not read before? Actually, not much. While "Ball of Fire" a readable and farily well organized, Kanfer covers much the same ground we have been over before, particularly in "Lucille" Kathleen Brady's authoritative study of this comic legend.
His individual twist, which, to be fair, he sticks to admirably, is why was the moderately successful B-movie queen such a run-away success on the small screen. Unfortunately, he could have stated the answer in one sentence -- actually, he does -- rather than attempt to base a whole biography on that one point.
Kanfer usually paints with broader strokes than does Brady, who is more attentive to detail.
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