30. "Hollywood at Last" (aka "LA at Last"), I Love Lucy (1955)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
The A.V. Club recently asked its staff and readers, "What kind of things most get in the way of your enjoyment of a story, or are most likely to boot you out of one?" I can understand several of the responses, such as clumsy exposition ad overused sound effects and music cues. But my biggest peeve is a celebrity playing himself. Instead of adding realism to a story, I find that Nancy Grace on Raising Hope, for example, punctures a TV show's imagined universe. I can overlook a boom mike dropping into a shot, but when Chris Matthews or Lou Dobbs drops into The Good Wife, I feel cheated. I watch only scripted television precisely to avoid the likes of Chris Matthews and Lou Dobbs!
As with so many other things, I Love Lucy was a pioneer in the use of celebrity guests, and "Hollywood at Last" was the first of dozens of Lucille Ball sitcom episodes with film and TV stars appearing as themselves. (Journalists weren't such camera whores yet.) They make for a strange dynamic in that Ball, one of the most powerful women in Hollywood and a no-nonsense perfectionist on the set, almost invariably played her character as a starstruck "ordinary person" bowing and scraping before Charles Boyer, Orson Welles, John Wayne, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, etc. "You touched her!" Lucy exclaims in awe after Ethel taps the shoulder of Eve Arden, one of the many 1950s sitcom stars in Ball's shadow.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. It was surely impossible to rattle Harpo Marx, and William Holden is very funny in "Hollywood at Last." It helps that he's given a couple of perfect setpieces. In the first, which takes place at the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant, Holden "turns the tables" on his intrusive fan, creepily staring at Lucy as she tries to eat. She becomes a dog who's caught the car she was chasing and doesn't know what to do next.
The second famous moment is when Lucy, trying not to be recognized by Holden after their disastrous first meeting, wears a putty nose that turns out to be a little too flexible. Holden's discomfort — one of the few times in the Lucille Ball ouevre when she's almost upstaged by an "I'm dealing with a deranged woman" reaction — fits perfectly into the I Love Lucy universe. He does what few celebrity guest stars even attempt: taking his role as seriously as Ball does.
• Screen shots are from the Daveland website, which has also has photos of the Mattel doll inspired by this episode.
• The complete episode is on TV.com here.