For a show that’s been off the air for over 60 years, I Love Lucy is sure getting a lot of attention these days. First came Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, a film that nabbed both Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem Oscar nominations for their portrayals of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, respectively. And now comes the documentary Lucy and Desi, which dives deep into the working and personal relationship of the famous couple.
Directed by Amy Poehler, the film uses a variety of methods to illuminate their stories, including personal audio tapes and videos, classic footage and behind-the-scenes from I Love Lucy, interviews, and more. Among the bold-faced names who weigh in with their thoughts are fellow comedy legend Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, both of whom worked with Ball early in their careers and consider her a mentor.
Burnett, Midler, daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, and leaders of the National Comedy Center extol the virtues of Ball, calling her a genius who might actually be underrated. The risks that Ball took, like making herself ugly for the sake of a laugh, were things that women just didn’t do in her day and age.
Ball’s transition from a Hollywood glamour girl, which remains an underexposed part of her career, to a woman who took charge of her own destiny is one of the more fascinating parts of the film. And it’s all the more remarkable considering the ingrained sexism that she faced as a woman in a male-dominated world.
Arnaz faced his own set of challenges as a Cuban immigrant, but seemed to overcome them with a sheer force of will. Using his musical skills and exuberant personality, he made it from a 16-year-old refugee in Miami in 1934 to being a supporting player in the 1940 film Too Many Girls, starring none other than Ball. Less than six months after they met on set, they were married.
But, as the film demonstrates, theirs was marriage that was fraught from the start. Arnaz, perhaps daunted by Ball’s large celebrity, spent the bulk of their first nine years of marriage away from her, first in a stint in the Army and then traveling the country with his band. In fact, Luckinbill posits that the creation of I Love Lucy was more than just a chance for the couple to work together; it was an attempt to bring them closer as a family, one that ultimately failed despite the success of the show.
The documentary’s coverage of the I Love Lucy years will be familiar for anyone even half-versed in the show’s history, from Ball becoming the first woman to appear pregnant on television to the Communism “scandal” surrounding Ball that Sorkin made a big focus of his film. One interesting note is that Luckinbill corroborates a scene in Being the Ricardos that had FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally clearing Ball’s name, a scene that had been the subject of much derision.
The other legacy of Ball and Arnaz is Desilu Productions, which was founded in 1950 for their show but wound up becoming the biggest independent TV studio in the world at the time, helping bring such shows as Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show to the world. Ironically, though, the success of the studio made both of them unhappy, with Arnaz undone by his own ambitious drive.
Lucy and Desi attempts to play both sides of the fence, valorizing the skills and romance of Ball and Arnaz while also acknowledging the very complicated nature of their relationship. If nothing else, it’s a compelling look at the unique place the couple holds in the history of television in the 20th century.
Lucy and Desi premieres on Amazon Prime Video on March 4.