Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Lucy and Desi Reach Their Cinematic Peak Driving The Long, Long Trailer


 For classic movie fans, major buzz surrounding the release of Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos may conjure up memories of the actual big-screen output of the film’s beloved power couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Although Lucy and Desi famously met and united via 1940’s easy-going musical Too Many Girls, the apex of their cinematic outings occurred a few years after I Love Lucy shot them into millions of American homes and into the entertainment stratosphere, via 1954’s consistently beguiling The Long, Long Trailer, which afforded them the deluxe MGM treatment, with no less than Vincente Minnelli assigned to direct the adept, amusing screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (based on the Clinton Twiss novel), with his typical class and attention-to-detail. In depicting the series of mis-adventures that befall young newlyweds Tacy and Nicky Collini after they purchase the “New Moon” title character and venture out and about America, Minnelli admirably maintains a keen balance between slapstick, more situation-driven comedy, and a blend of the two, such as Arnaz’s constant paranoia regarding maneuvering the mammoth mobile home from point-to-point, and the ensuing chaos which occurs when his worst fears often come to fruition.

Long Trailer wisely maintains the reliable formula of misunderstandings and frenetic comedy that made I Love Lucy such a success, while also giving Ball and Arnaz chances to modulate their performances enough to add a somewhat more mature element to their one-of-a-kind chemistry, lending a freshness that allows the film to differentiate itself from its small-screen Phenom counterpoint, while still showcasing the unique teamwork that made the Ricardos such an enduring couple. Therefore, along with shenanigans surrounding the transient home that would fit right in with the Ricardos’ lifestyle (Tacy’s haphazard devotion to rocks comes into play, for example), the film also pauses occasionally for a calmer, more romantic moment, such as the carefree manner in which the stars trill their way through “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze” while doing exactly that down a scenic roadway. The first-class production values typical of any MGM and/or Minnelli cinematic outing is another welcome component, with a perfectly-coiffured Ball looking as glamorous as in her previous studio output, and Minnelli’s gift with set design on sometimes-amusing display (for example, the pink décor highlighting the “Just Married” sign on the back of the trailer matches the hues found on the bridesmaids’ dresses in the same scene).

           Lucille Ball had made a solid name for herself in pictures during the fifteen years prior to I Love Lucy, including fine work in the 1937 classic Stage Door and The Big Street (which prompted a rave review from James Agee) as well as serving as an ideal foil for Bob Hope, and the ease in which she depicts Tacy’s every thought and action shows the sure touch of a veteran screen performer. Ball instinctively seems to understand the importance of avoiding making Tacy a near-replica of most her iconic role, while still displaying the fine sense of broad physical comedy inherent in many of I Love Lucy’s most memorable moments. Toning down the wackier aspects of her television persona for much of the film, Ball appealingly adopts a more subtle comic approach; for example, notice Ball’s funny but subdued version of Lucy Ricardo’s trademark bawling in her first scene, as a bemused Nicky laughs off Tacy’s desire for a mobile home. This more grounded-but-still-very-much “Lucy”-based characterization allows the audience to believe Tacy’s quest for an idealized home-on-wheels is a practical notion, as engineer husband Nicky (sound familiar?) travels around the country. However, MGM and director Minnelli must have fully grasped the need to feature Ball in her most popular comical element, resulting in possibly the movie’s most memorable showpiece, wherein Tacy attempts to prepare dinner in the moving, bouncing trailer, with a literal tossed green salad and much worse wreaking havoc in every way possible around and on Tacy, as Ball sells the chaotic milieu with her matchless zany aplomb. 

Desi Arnaz’s Nicky serves as a close cousin to a certain Ricky, and Arnaz again deftly utilizes his under-rated skill at delineating a funny straight man with great natural charm and a sweet innocence. Early on, he also does a beautiful “no look” pratfall in the New Moon that does Preston Sturges (and Minnelli) proud- watching the stunt over, it’s hard to determine how Arnaz pulled it off without breaking some important part of his anatomy. In addition, it’s wonderful how, along with a series of Tacy/Nicky conflicts granting Ball and Arnaz a chance to fully explore the comic factors of that solid-gold dynamic of their partnership (and yes, Desi does end up slipping into his native tongue as Nicky during at least one zenith of exasperation), the film’s allowance for serene moments gives Ball and Arnaz the opportunity to display their deep affection for each other, such as in the scene wherein Nicky dreamingly listens to Tacy recount the moment she fell in love with Nicky or when, in touching fashion, the couple all-too believably mention one is no good without the other.

            At a stop-off along the byways and highways, Marjorie Main barges in with her typical Ma Kettle gusto and, aided by that bullhorn voice and imposing frame, proceeds to take over a couple of lively scenes as a fellow “trailerite” intent on helping the Collinis settle in for a brief rest (or unrest, with Main dominating the compact trailer’s space) whether they like it or not. MGM contract player and former Ball colleague Keenan Wynn (who complimented each other in one of the best MGM outings for both of them, 1945’s Without Love) also shows up as a traffic cop who directs the couple through a problematic intersection; Wynn must set a record for a performer’s best billing with the shortest actual screen time, as for this amusing bit that covers about one minute, Wynn received fourth billing. Wynn’s high placement on the cast list indicates how much of the film (smartly) revolves around Ball and Arnaz, with virtually everyone else getting a brief look-in as Tacy and Nicky roam around the country in a highly-diverting manner.

                Moviegoers hungry for a look at the peerless Ball-Arnaz combo in color (Ansco Color that is, with prints by Technicolor) and larger-than-life on the Silver Screen clearly weren’t disappointed by the resulting cinematic offering, as Long Trailer became one of the year’s most profitable releases, with (according to Variety) an estimated $4,000,000 in film rentals during the engaging comedy’s initial run. The current DVD of the film offers a nice print ideal for a rainy (or otherwise) Sunday afternoon viewing, which is how one Lucy-Desi fan first discovered the substantial entertainment value a Long Trailer can offer. The A-1 efforts of cast and crew have allowed the film to hold up as well as the more-renown t.v. counterpart, with the movie going over like gangbusters at a pre-COVID packed L.A. screening, which for this viewer illustrated how potent, timeless and universal the Ball-Arnaz teaming remains for legions of devoted fans.


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