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May 31, 2024

Lucille Ball After Shooting the Famous Grape Stomping Scene in 1956’s “Lucy’s Italian Movie” Episode of I Love Lucy

Airing on the night of April 16, 1956, “Lucy’s Italian Movie” was part of a string of fifth-season episodes of I Love Lucy where the Ricardo’s and the Mertz’s trek across Europe from London to Paris to Monte Carlo. It was a formula that proved popular in the ratings with many middle-class viewers who were experiencing an unprecedented wave of post-war prosperity which allowed them to travel abroad for the first time in their lives.

Following their stay in Florence, the two couples head south to Rome where Lucy is discovered by an Italian movie producer who wants to cast her as an American tourist in his next motion picture titled Bitter Grapes. Mistakenly thinking her role is that of a grape stomper, she decides to learn the ropes by rolling up her pant legs at a vineyard in Turo. But while in the vat with another stomper, a back and forth brawl ensues causing the audience to laugh uncontrollably throughout the entire ordeal.

Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe that this riotous scene that has stayed in our collective memories for over six decades was never in the original script. According to writer and producer Jess Oppenheimer, “I can’t remember exactly when or how it was added. It might have been that they called us down to the set because they felt it needed more... or they might have just improvised on their own.”

In preparation for this ad hoc moment, real grapes were brought in from a local California vineyard.  Remembering what it was like to be in the vat for the first time filled with fruit, Ball described it as “stepping on eyeballs. We started stomping on the grapes, and I made a dance out of it, and then I slipped.”

And for the foil, Lucy’s husband/producer Desi Arnaz found an actual grape stomper when most wineries were mechanized. Teresa Tirelli had never acted before and spoke very little English, requiring a translator to be on set to help guide her through the scene. However, with much of the instructions being lost in translation, what transpired between the two women, unknown to viewers at the time was mostly a legitimate fight.

Ball had wanted the scene to look as real as possible—and that’s exactly what she got: “Since we hadn’t worked with the grapes in the vat during rehearsals, I had no idea what I was in store for. Once the fight started, the lady was bent on drowning me. At one point, she literally held my head under water, and I had to fight to get my breath back. A lot of that was edited out of the final print. Looking back, of course, I’m glad it happened that way because the scene was so good.”

The iconic grape-stomping scene goes down in history as one of Lucille Ball’s best physical comedy routines. But as it turns out, the iconic scene came at a price. Ball got into a real fight with one of the grape smashers that day on set. Here’s what happened.

When Ball appeared on The Dick Cavett Show back in 1974, she spoke about the dramatics behind one of her favorite episodes, “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” Apparently, production went way out of their way to cast “real, short, Italian ladies that spoke Italian” for the grape stompers.

“We really had to go way down in one of the grape vineyard areas to find anyone that was a real Italian. We came up with three that didn’t understand English. But they were perfect,” she said.

On set, an Italian speaker explained to the women what they were going to do.

“They understood. Now, from there on, they’re on their own. Our director didn’t speak Italian, I didn’t speak Italian. No one spoke Italian. But, anyway, they knew they had to go barefoot, pull their skirts up and they knew how to stomp grapes–they had done it,” explained Ball.

One of the grape stompers had been told that she was going to be in a “fight” with Ball. But when they started filming, Ball accidentally hit the woman as she was stomping around.

“And she took offense,” she said. “So she hauled off and let me have it. This was supposed to happen. That, she got right. But when she hit me, oh my God. She only came to about here [Lucille Ball gestured to her chest]. She hit me right [in the stomach] and took all the wind out of me.”

According to Ball, things took a turn for the ugly once she realized the hired grape stomper wasn’t going to ease up.

“She kept me down by the throat! And I had gapes up my nose, in my ears, and she was choking me,” she said. “And I’m really beating her to get her off. And they’re wondering what’s [going on] because we do all this in front of an audience. And she couldn’t remember or she didn’t understand that she had to let me up once in a while. I was drowning in these grapes!”

Finally, Ball was able to get the woman off of her. To her surprise (and horror) the director and the audience loved the take.

“I came up over the side of the vat and I yelled the director’s name, like, for help, and he thought that was great. The audience loved it.”

“To drown in a vat of grapes is not the way I had planned to go,” she added.




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