New movies help us get to know old friends – and remember why we loved Lucy (and Desi) [Unscripted column] | Entertainment
Bandleader Ricky Ricardo paces the floor on the Tropicana Club stage, looking for the woman who wrote him a note saying she wants him to help her break the news to her husband of a “blessed event” pending.
As he notices his wife sitting at a table in front, Ricky’s mouth hangs wide open as he realizes that Lucy is the note’s writer and that he himself is the future father. He sings to her and the camera captures the tears welling up in Lucy’s eyes as the couple press their faces together.
The studio set and audience seem to melt, and for a brief moment Lucy and Ricky disappear and in their place are Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, two of America’s biggest stars, privately celebrating their second child in front of an audience. . of millions.
More than the chocolate factory, the grape crushing or the Vitameatavegamin commercial, the pregnancy announcement is my favorite moment among the 180 episodes of the sitcom “I Love Lucy”. It seems to reveal something so precious about its stars – how important having a family was to both of them.
It’s a moment that’s elucidated by two recently released films about Ball and Arnaz and the hugely popular and influential spectacle they built together – the Oscar-nominated feature “Being the Ricardos” and the Amy Poehler-directed documentary, Lucy and Desi.
“I Love Lucy” has been part of my cultural life for over six decades that I’ve been alive. I’ve watched it since the early ’60s reruns which aired so close to the production of the original ’50s episodes that they felt contemporary rather than TV Land vintage.
I’ve watched the show since I was too young to understand that the concept of having a Cuban man with a heavy accent married to a white woman in a 1950s sitcom was considered groundbreaking. It always felt natural to me, because beloved characters Lucy and Ricky had helped normalize such diversity for American audiences.
Ricky sometimes spoke Spanish when he was excited. My mother spoke Czech at home, while talking on the phone with her relatives. It apparently felt more natural to me than it did to TV executives at the time who were initially reluctant — as seen in these recent films — to cast Arnaz as Ball’s sitcom spouse.
Sometimes knowing too much about what happened behind the scenes of a TV show or movie you love can color your viewing experience. I can’t remember when I first realized that the wacky redhead and Cuban bandleader on my TV screen had started divorce proceedings in real life as soon as their sitcom ended. But I know it made me sad and made me look at the show differently for a while – maybe looking for clues as to where it all went wrong.
But, in this case, it was interesting to watch these recent movies, both available on Amazon Prime Video, to get some new insight into a showbiz story I thought I totally knew.
In “Being the Ricardos,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and a compelling cast that includes stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, tell the story of a memorable week during the second season of “I Love Lucy.” At that time, news broke in the gossip press that Lucy had signed a Communist Party registration form in the 1930s and that Arnaz may have been a womanizing husband. Meanwhile, the production team wonders how to handle Ball’s real-life pregnancy on the show – at a time when married couples on sitcoms slept in separate, socially-distanced twin beds and “pregnant” wasn’t a word to use on TV.
Although Sorkin used a bit of artistic license to navigate these dramatic events, the story he tells is illuminating. It’s amazing to realize that one of America’s most beloved and hilarious TV stars was threatened with an early and insidious form of cancel culture – a potential blacklist via the communist hunters of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
And it’s sad to wonder how things turned out, while watching flashbacks to the early years of the Ball-Arnaz marriage and seeing how desperately the stars struggled to build a stockadeed family life.
Their daughter Lucie Arnaz, the film’s executive producer, explains it succinctly: Ball and Arnaz created a pioneering television show and production company in order to work together and have a stable family life in California. But the personal flaws and pressures of creating an iconic and beloved show that was groundbreaking in its production innovations — as well as running their own production company, Desilu, which ultimately gave us the likes of ” Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” – granted them lasting fame but only fleeting personal happiness.
If anyone knows what it took for Ball to create some top-notch comedy moments on screen, to run a production company, and even to be in a showbiz marriage that ended in divorce and co-parenting of two children, it is the director of “Lucy and Desi” Poehler (formerly married to actor Will Arnett).
In the documentary, Poehler strikes a good balance between letting Ball and Arnaz tell their own story – through numerous audio recordings that Lucie Arnaz lent to the production – and inviting commentary on their comedic legacy from Carol Burnett and Bette. Midler.
My knowledge of Ball and Arnaz, their shows, their private life and their legacy deepened by watching the doc.
I knew Arnaz had come from Cuba, for example, but I never realized how violently his family had been stripped of homes, ranches, and an opulent lifestyle by the Cuban Revolution of 1933. Arnaz became a famous bandleader, sitcom star and studio executive after being a refugee who made a living by cleaning the cages of canaries.
Learning small personal details about the couple through the doc, including how they bonded on first dates talking about what it was like for each of them to take care of their mothers, made me gave a fuller picture of this already very public wedding that has apparently been on TV in the background my whole life.
And the feature film and the documentary helped me better understand the drive, the talent, the creativity, the hard work, the personal challenges and the sacrifices that came together to produce a sitcom – and the influential studio Desilu – that stands the test of time.
“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.