Lucille Ball had one of the most remarkably full careers in American show business: starting out as a model, moving to Hollywood to become an in-demand character actress and an occasional B-movie ingenue, and then transitioning into radio and TV sitcoms, where she rocketed to stardom. Her husband Desi Arnaz had a run just as strong: first as a Cuban refugee who helped to popularize Latin music on the nightclub circuit, and then as a television star, co-creating and co-producing the game-changing 1950s smash I Love Lucy alongside his wife. Together, Ball and Arnaz founded the production company Desilu, which normalized the concept of shooting shows on film, and which also backed groundbreaking series like The Untouchables and Star Trek. They had a tumultuous 20-year marriage. But after divorcing in 1960, they said their relationship as parents and as business partners grew stronger.
The Ball and Arnaz story is fascinating, driven by their mutual passions, pains, and inspiration. It’s also one that has been told frequently, in books and docudramas and even in a recent Turner Classic Movies podcast. All of which means that Amy Poehler’s new documentary, Lucy And Desi, isn’t exactly necessary. But anyone looking for a clear, concise explanation of how these two unlikely impresarios dominated American pop culture in the mid-20th century will find it here, supported by copious archival material and heartfelt testimony from the couple’s family, friends, and fans.
The clips are what make Lucy And Desi work. When Ball and Arnaz were developing I Love Lucy, they chose to shoot on film for practical reasons, so they could produce the show in California at a time when nearly all primetime network television was being broadcast live out of studios in New York. That one business decision paid lasting dividends, allowing for lucrative syndication deals for the I Love Lucy episodes, which were preserved as clean-looking mini-movies, controlled by Ball and Arnaz and easy to duplicate and distribute widely. Because of this, Poehler and her team (including veteran documentary producer and writer Mark Monroe) had a lot of material to draw from: not just classic scenes from Ball and Arnaz’s TV shows, but also behind-the-scenes footage, old audio interviews, and home movies.
This combination of the couple’s polished, crowd-pleasing comedy and the images and sounds of their personal lives tells its own tale, about a pair of workaholics who loved their kids and loved making people laugh, but who were ground down by the demands of keeping one of the most successful television enterprises of all time going. Every minute they were stuck at the office or delayed on the set was a minute away from their family. And so both Ball and Arnaz developed a reputation for being crabby and demanding, with their employees and with each other. (It didn’t help either that Arnaz’s preferred depressurizing pastimes were boozing and womanizing.)
Poehler and company break up Lucy And Desi’s clips with a standard assortment of talking head interviews, the most insightful of which are with the couple’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz. She clearly sympathizes with the pressures her parents faced, while also noting they could be closed-off, wary of talking openly about their hard times and bitter feelings. Famous fans like Carol Burnett and Bette Midler—both of whom were mentored by Ball to a degree—weigh in as well, though their comments about her are more boilerplate.
In fact, if there’s one major drawback to Lucy And Desi, it’s that very little about it is surprising—either in its approach to the story or in the story itself. Poehler keeps herself out of the film entirely, which is a perfectly valid creative choice. But given that she’s a famous TV comedienne herself (who also divorced her famous entertainer husband), it might’ve been interesting to hear some personal back-and-forth between her and Lucie Arnaz, Burnett, and Midler, if only to put Ball’s experiences in perspective. Also, while it makes sense to focus the majority of the movie on the I Love Lucy era, the most revelatory parts of Lucy And Desi have to do with the couple’s childhoods, as Ball escaped a youth marred by tragedy and Arnaz was driven out of Cuba by revolution.
Still, it’d be a mistake to shrug off the best-known elements of the Lucy/Desi saga just because they’re so familiar. Here’s a pair who casually broke boundaries: by putting a multi-ethnic couple on TV every week, and by spinning comedy out of everyday martial situations like pregnancy, jealousy, restlessness, and frustration. As the documentary makes clear, every joke and pratfall on the Ball and Arnaz TV shows was planned and rehearsed, extensively, to the point of exhaustion. But the personalities and sentiment that informed that comedy? That all happened by circumstance and natural inclination. In other words: When people loved Lucy, they really loved Lucy.