Celebrate Lucy and Desi together on-screen: Beyond ‘I Love Lucy’

It’s been over 70 years since “I Love Lucy’ premiered on CBS. Sixty-two years since its stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced. And over 30 years since they died. But the decades haven’t diminished fans’ love affair with the remarkable couple who changed the face of sitcoms.  And two vastly differently projects currently streaming on Amazon further add fuel to the current Lucy and Desi-aissance.

Aaron Sorkin’s bio-drama “Being the Ricardos” looks at a pivotal week in the production of “I Love Lucy in 1953.  Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem have earned Oscar nominations for their turns as Lucy and Desi. And “Lucy and Desi,” funny lady Amy Poehler’s thoughtful valentine of a documentary recently began streaming on Amazon after a successful premiere at Sundance.

If you are a “I Love Lucy’ aficionado — and just who isn’t? —  you may want to check out these film and TV projects, they did between 1940 and 1960.

“Too Many Girls”
Desi was all of 22 when he made his one and only appearance on Broadway in 1939 in this Rodgers and Hart college musical that ran 249 performances and introduced the standard “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Desi, Eddie Bracken and Van Johnson were among the Broadway cast who came out to Hollywood for the 1940 film version. And it was there that Desi met, fell in love and married Lucy.  In the film directed by George Abbott, their characters meet cute: he passes out when he first sees Lucy. Trudy Erwin provided Lucy’s singing voice in the film, but Desi gets to sing and dance in a few numbers including the politically incorrect “Spic ‘n’ Spanish” with Ann Miller. The New York Times’ review doesn’t say anything about Lucy’s performance but was less than impressed with Desi’s film debut: “Mr. Arnaz is a noisy, black-haired Latin whose face, unfortunately, lacks expression and whose performance is devoid of grace.” Ouch!

“The Ed Wynn Show”
“I Love Lucy” wasn’t the first time Lucy and Desi appeared together on the small screen. Back in 1949, they made their TV debut as a couple on the live CBS comedy series. Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore and the Three Stooges also dipped their toes in the new medium on Wynn’s show. You can get watch the rather murky kinescope of the episode on YouTube. The audience was very enthusiastic with the couple as Desi clowns  around and sing and especially when Lucy plays a Mata Hari-type trying to seduce Wynn in order to get secrets from Wynn.

The “I Love Lucy” movie
“I Love Lucy”” was so popular on television, Paramount decided to bring the series to the big screen back in 1953. The “I Love Lucy” movie features three episodes — “The Benefit,” “Breaking the Lease” and “The Ballet” –with 12 minutes of new footage. The studio previewed the film in Bakersfield. Desi invited MGM executives to the screening because the couple had signed to star in the comedy “The Long, Long Trailer” for the studio. That film would be directed by none other than the legendary Vincente Minnelli (“An American in Paris,” “Gigi”) and was set for release in 1954. Though the audience loved the movie, MGM wasn’t thrilled.

The series’ editor Dann Cahn, who also cut the movie, told me in a 2010 L.A. Times interview that MGM got nervous and believed releasing the Paramount movie “was not smart exploitation.” So, the film was put into the vaults and was quickly forgotten. For years, though, Cahn searched for the film. “I looked at every vault in Hollywood” until he discovered it at a Paramount vault in the San Fernando Valley. Though it was pieces, Cahn was able to reassemble the film. Some of that new footage directed by veteran Edward Sedgwick appears in “Lucy and Desi” including Desi greeting the audience from the Paramount sound stage and introducing the cast. It was released as a single disc on DVD in 2010.

“The Long, Long Trailer”
The best of the Lucy-Desi features. This 1954 romantic comedy finds the couple traveling the country in a long, long trailer. Lucy and Desi are terrific together and really showcases their undeniable chemistry-comedic, emotional, and romantic. MGM was worried that audiences wouldn’t want to pay to see the couple on the screen since they were coming into their homes free every week. But MGM ended up with egg on their face because “Trailer” made the studio over a three million dollar profit.

“Forever Darling”
Lightning didn’t strike twice for the Lucy and Desi and MGM with this underwhelming 1956 romantic comedy that Radio City Music refused to premiere because the legendary theater found it substandard. Tired and wan, the comedy finds them playing-what else?-a married couple. He’s a research scientist working in pesticides-you’ll shudder a bit when they casually talk about DDT-who is so busy he forgets her. But her guardian angel, who happens to look like her favorite movie actor James Mason, hasn’t forgotten her and arrives one day to try to mend the marriage. Mason is the best thing about the movie. The film was not well received by critics or audiences. And Lucy and Desi and MGM mutually agreed to cancel their next pic with the studio.

“Sunday Showcase: The Lucy-Desi Milton Berle Special”
Lucy and Desi plays Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Uncle Miltie playing himself in this 1959 NBC comedy special set in Las Vegas. Berle is appearing at a club in Vegas; Ricky happens to be his band leader; and Lucy gets in slew of trouble with some mobsters. Berle told me in a 1990 interview with the L.A. Times that he found the show “very, very funny. If you notice, the writing is completely different than the writing is today for sitcom.  And she is the brilliant Lucy.” Berle also asked Desi to direct the show. “He was a wonderful comedy director,” noted the comic actor. “He did an excellent job.” He described Lucy as a tremendous perfectionist who had to do it right. “She would rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. When you see the show, you will notice the glibness and rapport between Lucy and myself.”

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