Last week Madelyn Pugh Davis died. She is best known for the 174 scripts she wrote for the I Love Lucy show. Her career as a screenwriter spanned decades, through the mid-1980’s.
Davis was born in 1921 in Indianapolis, where she edited her high school newspaper. She earned a journalism degree at Indiana University, and moved to Los Angeles in 1933. There she met her long-time writing partner Bob Carroll Jr., and together they wrote scripts for a radio series about a ditzy housewife, played by Lucille Ball.
Once they made their move to television, the writing team combined zany situations with visual and clownish antics. Davis was often the first to try out the physical comedy bits for a script early in the writing process, according to the New York Times, Dennis Hevesi article, Davis is reported as saying that Ball would do anything their script called for, and that the only time she hesitated was when they brought an elephant into the studio. Davis and the other writers had come up with a sight gag for her to talk into the elephant’s trunk to retrieve some money.
The following video (6 minutes, from a Criterion Collection 1991 laserdisc documentary) has commentary from both Davis and Ball, revealing the meticulous process they used to create slapstick comedy that looked spontaneous. Improvisation was not involved. Without Davis’s comic genius and her female perspective–Davis was also a mother and step mother–we may never have known one of the most famous clowns of the twentieth century. Thanks, Madelyn Davis. Thanks for all the hearty laughs.