The life of Lucille Ball (Rachel York) is told from her early years as a struggling wannabe actress in New York City, working as a model, becoming a contract player for RKO Films and crawling up to become a Queen of B Movies.
That’s not all though. Fate steps in when Ball meets Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz (Danny Pino). They have a world famous romance with highs and lows. They would have a twenty-year marriage that would bring two children and they would form one of the most powerful creative partnerships in Hollywood that would result in one of the most famous television shows in history.
With Aaron Sorkin’s Being The Ricardos with Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem starring as Lucy and Desi, some might have an interest in this 2003 CBS television film. There’s also a 1991 tv movie titled Lucy and Desi: Before The Laughter starring Frances Fisher and Maurice Benard as the famous couple. It seems every decade or so since Lucy’s death in 1989, there is some ‘Lucy-themed’ project about her life that comes out.
Clearly because of the attention of Being The Ricardos, Amazon is also featuring Lucy on their platform. I’m sure some will be curious to check it out and take a chance with it.
For some reason Amazon is showing an abridged version of Lucy. There are whole scenes cut out and is not the meatier full three-hour version that debuted on CBS. With commercials, its running time was about a full two-hours. Amazon is showing an hour and half version. It appeared some parts of Lucy’s early life was removed so it plays as a bit more jumpy than originally. I immediately noticed the removal of a short scene of young Lucy meeting another struggling young actress in New York, a snobby Bette Davis.
I’ve seen all three ‘Lucille Ball Bio Movies’ and I have to say Lucy I felt is the best one. Those who hit play on it might be surprised, it presents a compelling story and a clearer picture of who Ball and Arnaz and gives a better understanding of what made them such an indelible showbiz couple.
Lucy was a pretty big event when it premiered in 2003. It was billed as a ‘three-hour television event’ back when network television was still running movies of the week. It was quite expensive, long and was banking on big ratings for May sweeps.
While Lucy plays as a rather standard bio pic (it’s bookended by the final taping of I Love Lucy and the end of Lucy and Desi’s marraige), it manages to tell Lucy and Desi’s story in an engaging way. We see how her early family life molds her, understand the difficult climb she has to ‘break in’ to show business and how she begins to use her comedic talents to stand out from the rows of chorus girls she was standing amongst.
Lucy takes its time following her climb up the Hollywood ladder. We see all the major stepping stones that took place in Ball’s life that leads her to Hollywood and the interesting shadings about her struggles.
There’s one scene of a young Ball (played by Madeline Zima) in New York pretending she is a customer who has already paid helping herself to a second free doughnut while she scours the newspaper for a job. It’s a famous story that Ball had told many times through her life and its quite memorable to see the hardship she endured while trying to achieve her dream.
The early scenes have a sort of ‘highlight reel’ aura about them. Those who are unfamiliar with the history of Lucille Ball will certainly find the film enlightening. I imagine most casual viewers will have little knowledge of Ball’s earlier dramatic big-screen career. Long before she was promoting ‘Vitameatavegamin’ on television screens, Ball had been kicking around Hollywood for years and starred in countless B-movies in both musical and dramatic roles.
‘Lucy lore’ continues to pop up. Her standing out from the rows of chorus girls by being funny and willing to look silly, behavior her fellow actresses see as unbecoming and embarrassing. Impressing star Eddie Cantor with her sense of humor. Being taken under the wing of Buster Keaton and Red Skeleton. Getting some advice from Carole Lombard, “Honey, tits sag, but funny is forever.” And of course getting her hair dyed to her trademark red.
These scenes all successfully paint a picture of the young Lucy and how exactly she strategically stood out, impressed the right people and set her on career path in Hollywood. Which will lead her to meeting Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz at RKO Pictures.
Lucy and Desi’s relationship is the main focus of the second half of the film. Their marriage, their failed attempts at having a baby, their creative partnership, ‘I Love Lucy’ becoming a monumental hit, the birth of Little Ricky, Lucy accused of being a Communist.
There are some well done scenes where the actors do quite well and it tells the tale well. It’s all told rather straight forward and things aren’t explored very much, but the actors make it work for the most part. Then there’s a few scenes that come off hacky and awkward. It’s as if the film didn’t want to risk not including any and all information they had about Ball. There’s a subplot of Lucy hiring a maid who becomes something of a confidant, which I suspect is fictional and a story device. It seemed like a strange and pointless character to include in the film.
Maybe it’s best that Amazon is showing an abridged version of the film.
York does a good job of playing Ball. She doesn’t look very much like her, yet there are instances where she manages a good Lucy voice. She captures a strong-willed attitude that Ball surely had. The inevitable recreation of some of the famous Lucy comedy bits aren’t that mind-blowingly impressive, nor very funny. Let’s face it, viewers have seen the candy chocolate conveyor belt scene so much, it’s a tall order to recreate it.
Lucy is presented a bit too much of an angelic persona throughout, which starts to get rather dull after awhile. She’s as polite and caring to crew members as to her own family. It’s a pretty smoothed over portrayal and doesn’t have the savvy sharpness she would’ve needed to survive in Hollywood.
Pino also doesn’t much resemble the real Desi, but he’s handsome, can handle the singing and manages to step into the role good enough. Arnaz’s adultry becomes part of the tumultuous story (any movie about Desi and Lucy that aspect would be difficult not to include). Pino does a nice job showing how Arnez justified being with other woman because of his upbringing and background.
Desi’s keen business sense and how he managed to essentially invent sitcom television and oversee Desilu into one of the most powerful and profitable studios in Hollywood gets real short shrift. Sure, there are the story points of him taking charge of Desilu and wanting to buy RKO Studios, but that’s all there is. We never get to see a demonstration of his savvy business sense on display. The risks he took are shown, but they’re not really given the weight it truly had on business and broadcasting. As with a lot of the story, checkmarks are made, but they aren’t explored indepth.
York and Pino both do a nice job of capturing the passion between the two, something that would consistently bring them back together, even when Ball was ready to call it quits throughout their marriage. Of course the pair eventually do separate for good and seeing it does feel sad and an end of quite the special relationship.
While Lucy might not be a movie for the ages and there’s nothing particularly outstanding about it, it is entertaining and tells Lucy’s story in an all encompassing way. The actors do a successful job in their roles and it adequately captures the golden age of Hollywood and television.
There are points where it does play as stiff and ‘TV movie-ish’. Granted, that’s what it was. Fans might be hoping for a more polished telling of Lucy’s story. Despite some flaws, and trying to cram a whole lot and not giving the more compelling elements of her life the time they could have, Lucy fans should enjoy it, and for those who simply want to learn more about her and Arnaz, they should take away a few new things about them and leave feeling impressed by their relationship, partnership and what they managed to create.
I certainly like it more than Being The Ricardos.