Cinema Desilu

Greatest Classic Legends Collection: Lucille BallIn 1954, at the height of I Love Lucy’s popularity on TV, stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz decided to take their act to the big screen.

The movie theater wasn’t new turf for the dynamic married duo. Lucy had broken into films after some time as a chorus girl on Broadway, and, after a series of bit part, was christened one of the Goldwyn Girls for 1933’s Roman Scandals with Eddie Cantor. More bit work followed, but high-profile roles eventually came her way via a contract with RKO Pictures, including parts in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (1936); alongside Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in 1937’s Stage Door; opposite The Marx Brothers in Room Service (1938); and as the star of 1939’s breezy Panama Lady. By the 1940s she found steady work in such MGM musicals as Du Barry Was a Lady (with Red Skelton) and Thousands Cheer in 1943 and Ziegfeld Follies in ’45, and even dabbled in suspense for Fox, in the 1946 film noir favorite The Dark Mirror

Meanwhile, Desi Arnaz also had film exposure, beginning with Too Many Girls, a 1940 RKO offering where he met his future wife. This bouncy version of a musical comedy with a score by written by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, and directed by George Abbott, offered Arnaz an attention-grabbing part on Broadway, and he was given the opportunity to repeat his role as a South American football star for the screen.

Arnaz’s spirited performance got the charismatic Cuban screen time in 1942’s WWII epic Bataan, and to essentially play himself in the title role of Cuban Pete, the 1946 film that inspired his Ricky character in the TV series.

When I Love Lucy was going full-steam, three years after its debut on CBS, MGM signed the couple to a movie deal. Hired to helm The Long, Long Trailer (1954), their first effort, was studio star Vincente Minnelli, the director of Meet Me in St. Louis, The Pirate, Father of the Bride, and An American in Paris.

The Long, Long Trailer proved a perfect project for the couple. Ball and Arnaz played newlyweds who decide to forgo plans of buying their dream house in order to explore the country by driving their car with a new recreational vehicle hitched to its back. During their journey, they encounter all sorts of comic predicaments–from winding mountain roads to wrong turns to the near-disastrous effects of Lucy’s heavy rock collection.

The ordeal nearly costs the screen couple their marriage, but, as expected, the feud eventually subsides and all turns out well, much like an extended episode of I Love Lucy. The public would accept no other way–nor would the TV show’s staff writers, who were hired, uncredited, to add material. Along with expert support from Marjorie Main and Keenan Wynn, the movie’s popular song “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze” helped make it a big hit.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz In Forever Darling (1956)For the second film in the MGM contract, the couple chose Forever Darling in 1956. This unusual mix of romantic comedy, slapstick farce, and fantasy stars Arnaz as a scientist who has little time for wife Ball and her snooty friends. With their marriage headed for the rocks, Lucy gets a visit from her guardian angel, who bears an uncanny resemblance to her favorite actor, James Mason (And why not? After all, he’s played by Mason). Lucy decides one way to save their union is to travel with her hubby on a trip where he’s testing insecticides. Of course, almost everything goes wrong, putting the marriage into even more peril.

Although Arnaz scored a hit song from the Forever Darling title track, the movie failed to click at the box office. Still, the movie has its charms, especially the familiar love-hate chemistry between the stars, a cool, self-effacing turn by Mason, and an interesting supporting cast that includes Louis Calhern, John Hoyt, and future TV sitcom stars Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island, as well as the real-life Mrs. Calhern) and Nancy Kulp (Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies).

The couple’s screen time together dissipated as I Love Lucy wound down on TV, eventually going off the air in 1957 after six smash seasons. That same year, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour took its place, with America’s favorite TV couple again partnered with William Frawley and Vivian Vance as their best friends, the Mertzes.

Post-I Love Lucy, Ball and Arnaz focused their energies mostly on television. However, Lucy did go on to star in other films, including alongside Bob Hope in The Facts of Life (1960) and Critic’s Choice (1963); Yours, Mine And Ours (1968), with Henry Fonda; and the 1974 big-screen version of Mame. But Desi made few screen appearances after Forever Darling, concentrating on TV and behind-the-scenes work, as well as establishing Desilu–his and Lucy’s company–as a production house that would make The Untouchables and a studio that would host Make Room for Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show and many other classics.

Fans looking for Lucy and Desi’s ’50s film efforts will find both The Long, Long Trailer and Forever Darling featured as part of the Greatest Classic Legends Collection: Lucille Ball two-disc set. Also included in the collection are a pair of Ball’s earlier films, Room Service and Du Barry Was a Lady, along with bonus shorts, cartoons, and more.

As Desi would say, finally he and Lucy are home.