Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are entertainment icons. Unfortunately, Judge Bill Gibron believes that their enduring legacy is hindered, not helped, by their big screen work, captured here in a less than impressive box set.
Our review of Best of Warner Brothers: 20-Film Comedy Collection, published July 14th, 2013, is also available.
They were, undoubtedly, the most popular couple in all of '50s television. Their seminal sitcom literally set the standard for all small-screen comedy to come and the birth of their fictional first child, that rascal Little Ricky, became the highest-rated single episode in the brief history of the medium. Yet, amazingly enough, Lucille Ball and real-life husband Desi Arnaz could not find similar success on the big screen. Ball had been trying for years, a contract player who never rose higher than a basic B-movie starlet. Arnaz really never had a chance, his thick Cuban accent being somewhat antithetical to Hollywood's idea of the likeable leading man type. Yet the blockbuster status of I Love Lucy mandated that the pair try for equal theatrical returns. Sadly, their only two films together—1954's The Long, Long Trailer and 1955's Forever, Darling—did very little to impress the Tinseltown types. They were quite popular, but failed to fulfill the critical expectations of a nation raised on Lucy's laugh factory. Now these two films have been paired up with the movie where the couple first met—1940's Too Many Girls—and are presented as part of The Lucy & Desi Collection. Together they paint a troubling picture. As small screen icons, Ball and Arnaz remain timeless. As part of the history of Hollywood, they remain little more than an advertising afterthought.
Facts of the Case
It's shocking to think that Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz only made three movies together, with one of them counting by only the slimmest of co-starring definitions. The problem appears to be twofold: (1) finding time in the couple's busy schedule to make a movie, and (2) finding the proper vehicle for the duo to star in. Arnaz and Ball were a peculiar pair, each one with talents that seemed at odds with the other. Lucy was at her best in broad, slapstick comedy. Arnaz excelled at being the suave lothario. Finding a way to match up those two ideals was at the heart of most of the cinematic squabbles. As a result, this is the entire legacy of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on film:
Too Many Girls (1940)
The Long, Long Trailer (1954)
Forever, Darling (1956)
Star vehicles are often hard to criticize, especially when looked at through that intriguing fame fader known as time. It is always important to remember that these "strike while the iron is demographically hot" movies (or TV shows or albums or…) play to an audience already interested in the featured talent. They are eager to see them expand their known repertoire, yet at the same time disquieted when they step too far beyond the recognizable boundaries that earned them celebrity in the first place. Sadly, all of this is lost on a future viewer. Shirley Temple was once the nation's number-one box-office attraction, but looking back at her oeuvre today is, on occasion, like paging through the KKK's family film catalog. Now we of the supposedly enlightened age are not immune to the charms of the familiar face fad. Imagine what audiences 50 years from now will think of the Adam Sandler canon—or all the Saturday Night Live films, for that matter. It's the rare entity that can transcend its era to make an impact decades later. Most specifically designed projects continue to bear the marks of their making, no matter how beloved the performers become.
Now no one can be more admired and worshipped than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Their I Love Lucy continuously ranks in the top five of all-time great sitcoms and many of the series' episodes rate as some of the best ever witnessed on the small screen. So logic would dictate that all of that esteem would wash the three films they made as a couple (or in one case, a quasi-pair) in a veneer of viability that would overcome their obvious flaws. Thanks to the newly-released Lucy & Desi Collection however, we see that this is clearly not the case. The three films presented here—a musical made a decade before the TV deal, as well as two starring vehicles helmed during the show's hiatus—somehow manage to deflect the love lavished on the one-time power couple, with only The Long, Long Trailer able to stand on its own. Looking at each film individually, one is instantly struck by a recurring theme. While Too Many Girls has an excuse—Lucy and Desi actually met on that film for the first time—the remaining movies do as much as they can to keep the duo apart. Indeed, they offer storylines and set-ups that argue for separation over domestic bliss—that is, until the finale. Let's start with:
Too Many Girls (1940)
Then there is Lucy's crazed Connie. Her hell-raising ways have to be inferred from hearsay (being banned from Switzerland) and vague innuendo (she has gone to PU to meet up with a rather fey author). Given a couple of songs to explain her emotional state, Lorenz Hart's horrid lyrics deliver nothing but confusion. Ball is more or less zombified here, delivering none of the fire or freshness we'd see a decade later when I Love Lucy hit the airwaves. An even bigger crime is the fact that her singing voice is dubbed by an obvious fake. The silky, sonorous tones of the stand-in just don't match Lucy's looks. Arnaz gets a single song (with the painful chorus of "spic and Span-ish"), but his vocalizing is weak, the tune's register far too high for his timber. About the only bright spots here are the toe work of Hal LeRoy and the comedic comebacks of Eddie Bracken. Without them and the antique footage of football played before the advent of real uniforms, helmets, or strategy, Too Many Girls would be a total bust. As it stands, it's an incredibly bad musical made even worse by the translation from stage to screen. Don't let the advertised appearance of a young Van Johnson crank up your curiosity. An original member of the Broadway show as well, he was more or less a member of the chorus, a cartwheel his only contribution to the numerous dance numbers.
The Long, Long Trailer
Quick, who's the first director you think of when it comes to anarchic physical comedy? Blake Edwards? Buster Keaton? Charlie Chaplin? Here's betting that Vincent Minnelli, maker of such Tinseltown treasures as Gigi, An American in Paris, and Meet Me in St Louis, is low on that list. So then, who better to helm the first film by the premier couple of physical comedy, right? Luckily, Minnelli's lack of subtlety when it comes to bump-and-bang humor doesn't hamper this quaint, quirky film. Though it was based on a novel by Clinton Twiss, Trailer was obviously tweaked to fit the personality of its players. In Nicky Collini you have the Italian version of Ricky Ricardo, henpecked and harried by the mobile mess his scatterbrained spouse has gotten him into. The scenes where the infamous "trailer brakes" haunt our new "home" owner are highly reminiscent of similar sequences in I Love Lucy. In addition, Lucy's preparation of dinner as her kitchen consistently sees and saws is like an outtake from the classic series. This is truly a showcase for the couple, an attempt to translate what made their number-one hit television show so special. Yet, even with all the attention to conceptual detail, Trailer never quite takes off. It's a wonderfully fun film, filled with endearing elements. Still overall, it doesn't make the leap into the pantheon of timeless comedy they way I Love Lucy does.
Perhaps part of the problem is the premise. Once we learn that life in a trailer is one slapstick trial after another, the humor starts to develop holes. And since this is mobile home ownership in the mid-'50s, there is none of the open road wanderlust we except from such a situation. Everything is clean and crisp, with only the occasional members of the trailer park community providing the kind of social idiosyncrasy we expect from those who opt for the highway, instead of the cul-de-sac, when it comes to living the life. Minnelli shows his glamour-puss tendencies often in the film, making Ms. Ball radiate like a red-haired gemstone every time she is on screen. We get so sick of the soft focus after a while that we wonder if something is wrong with our picture tube. Still, all minor quibbles aside, this is an incredibly engaging film, a light as a feather bit of fantasy fluff that provides a decent, if not decisive, showcase for our formidable sitcom stars. If they had only been known for this single foray into filmmaking, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz may have been fondly remembered for their silver screen status as well. Sadly, this perfectly pleasant movie has to be marred by the entities existing before and after it—especially after…
If ever a film suffered from multiple personality syndrome, Forever, Darling would be a clear clinical case. Made up of far too many competing ideas and delivering each one in a half-assed attempt at hilarity and heart, Darling makes both Arnaz and Ball seem completely lost. The narrative never decides whether he or she is right and waits until James Mason delivers his homily to paternalism before making up its male-dominated mind. This is a film that firmly believes that a woman's place is by her man's side, no matter her social status, the amount of money she has, or the circumstances of the companionship (in this case, a camping trip as practice field run). The first third of the film flops around like an overstylized fantasy, quick cuts and montage moments suggesting the fire has fizzled in the Vega home. Then Arnaz gets the single best scene in the movie when he tells off Susan's stuck-up relative, the horrid and miserable Millie. From there, Mason enters the fray and we suddenly have Topper Takes a Side Job. The whole ghost/guardian angel/movie star angle is just dumb. It delivers none of the wit or warmth we've come to expect from Mr. and Mrs. Ricardo, and a mid-point set piece with Lucy mugging aimlessly at the camera as she watches Mason onscreen (he appears both as the ethereal messenger and as himself as the big white bwana of the movie within the movie) is just not funny.
Once we arrive at the camping trip, however, the movie seems to find its laugh legs. Sure, this is nothing more than The Long, Long Trailer redux, Lucy haplessly falling over luggage and inflating rafts at the wrong time, but at least it has drive and spirit. Many of the gags are set up way in advance (Larry warns Susan about the boat's tripwire trigger before they even get in the car to start the trip) and some of the stunts are played out in painfully slow motion. Still, at least director Alexander Hall knew better than to keep the couple from doing what they do best. Sure, Minnelli had more mischief to work with (and a larger budget), but he tended to stage everything like it was a big flashy musical number. Here, Hall lets the little moments (Susan punctures the raft and the couple slowly sinks in a bog, an owl sneaks into the couple's tent) speak the loudest, giving Arnaz and Ball a chance to excel. It reminds us of why I Love Lucy was such a timeless smash. Amid all the hair-brained schemes, guileless guest stars, and broad comedy, there was a clear and considered connection between the characters. The series found its laughs in both the people and the pratfalls. In the last 10 minutes of the story, Forever, Darling finally figures this out. Unfortunately, it is far too little way too late.
Perhaps it's best if we just face up to the facts and say it straight—some celebrities are just not made for multimedia stardom. Lucy never made a go of her big-screen career, yet she was a sensation on radio and television. Even after she and Desi divorced, her attempted re-entry into the cinematic stables consisted of minor triumphs (The Facts of Life, Yours, Mine and Ours) and outright rejection (Critic's Choice, Mame). It is clear that she was meant for the small screen. I Love Lucy was followed by the equally successful The Lucy Show and the enduring Here's Lucy. Arnaz knew better. He didn't even try. He stayed behind the scenes as a creative force in the couple's production company, Desilu, and made the occasional cameo appearance on TV shows he handled (The Mothers-In-Law). His preferred arena was the stage and he used his experience as a bandleader to continue on with his showman career up until the time of his death. So it is unfair to fault the couple for being more miss than hit in their Hollywood oeuvre. They did create the best sitcom of all time. A couple of flop films (and one decidedly decent one) should not tarnish their regal reputation. Happily, they haven't. We still love Lucy and Desi, just not for the entertainment entities offered here.
As part of this DVD collection, Warner Brothers has done a damn good job of doctoring up these prints. All three films look fantastic. Too Many Girls is offered in a 1.33:1 monochrome transfer that really accentuates the blacks and the whites. The contrasts are crisp and the details dynamic. The Long, Long Trailer also comes in a 1.33:1 full-screen image, but this time we get a wild and vibrant color extravaganza. Director Vincent Minnelli really loved his Technicolor dreamscapes and Trailer is a true rainbow of radiant results. Only Forever, Darling delivers a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture. Again, the hues are amazing in their brightness. Once we reach the outdoors, Yosemite National Park looks just spectacular. On the sound side, we get nothing very special. In truth, there's not much that can be done with Dolby Digital Mono. The mixes are clean and the dialogue discernible and, frankly, that's all that matters.
On the downside from the technical specs, the added features here leave a lot to be desired. Each disc offers its own and it's a mixed bag all around. Too Many Girls gets the vintage musical short "Frances Carroll and the Coquetttes" (entertaining), the cartoon "Shop, Look and Listen" (decent), and the original theatrical trailer (always a hoot). Trailer delivers the best bonuses, giving us the great Droopy Dog short "Dixieland Droopy" (featuring Pee Wee Runt!), the Pete Smith feature "Ain't It Aggravatin' " (just average), and, again, the movie's original theatrical ad. Forever, Darling uses the old MGM Parade TV series to seek out a segment hosted by Lucy and Desi regarding the film. It's a true scripted curio. Along with yet another trailer, that's it. There's no attempt to contextualize the impact of I Love Lucy on the films and no desire to discuss how the films fared at the box office. Warner Bros. really missed an opportunity here. They could have helped bolster the importance of these projects in the Luci/Desi legacy. Instead, they go for a single step above a simple bare-bones packaging.
From a consumer standpoint, this box set makes very little sense. Darling is a dud and Girls is barely tolerable. Only The Long, Long Trailer deserves any true attention and yet there will be those who dismiss it as bad I Love Lucy tossed up onto the silver screen for the sake of a cinematic buck. Of course, they have a point. It is apparent with every frame of celluloid they created that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were not real film people. They were pretenders, placed in the show-business baler by the massive success of their far superior sitcom. Perhaps the pay was great. Maybe ego drove the decisions. It could be a combination of the two, with the added incentive of studios willing to take a chance and make a bundle off their TV career coatstrings. Whatever the reason, The Lucy & Desi Collection is more a novelty than a compendium of classics. Each film offers a clear curiosity factor, but only one lingers long after the inquisitiveness has been satisfied. Do yourself a favor and pick up the solo release of The Long, Long Trailer. It's the only member of this otherwise tainted trio that lives up to the reputation of this incredibly talented team. The rest is just fame fad fodder.
A split decision from the Court. The Long, Long Trailer is found not guilty and is free to go. Both Too Many Girls and Forever, Darling are painfully guilty and are sentenced to several centuries in cinematic purgatory. Warner Bros. is also liable for the less than fleshed out versions of these titles, and is required to serve several months in marketing community service to learn how to better cater to classic film fans.
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