Still in Love with Lucy

by Thomas Watson

Monday, May 4, 2003

Dear Fellow Lucy Fans,

Hmmm... Now let's see... What could there possibly be to talk about???

Oh, yeah, CBS aired a TV movie last night concerning a certain television couple we all know and love...

How did you like it? Personally, I was disappointed. Here are a few random thoughts...

"Lucy": TV Fails Its Own

Show business biographies are notoriously hard to make, especially if the subject is a national icon. Casting, for one, is practically impossible. Comparisons with the original are almost mandatory, with fans inspecting every little nuance a performer brings to the part. (On the other hand, if one is doing a film about an historical figure -- i.e., a Martha Washington or a Mary Todd Lincoln -- only the pickiest of historians is going to object if the actress's voice is not quite right or her hair color not right-on-the-money.)

The storyline is also problematic: no matter what a script writer does, some fan is going to complain that this movie or that TV show was not mentioned in the new biography... or some incident did not happen exactly as it was presented.

Nevertheless, I have always been a big fan of show business bio-films, and have always thought a wonderful picture could be made about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Twelve years ago, CBS tried. They commissioned a TV biography entitled "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter." Frances Fisher and Maurice Benard did their best to recreate TV's favorite couple, but the film itself was lackluster, and after a few showings the film mercifully disappeared.

Last night CBS tried again with a brand new production entitled "Lucy." When the film was first announced last May, we held out a glimmer of hope that this new TV biography would be something special. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, we were told, would be helming the project as executive producers -- and their track record was impeccable. Thirty years ago, Zadan, then hardly out of his teens, made a name for himself by producing "Sondheim: A Musical Tribute," a star-studded Broadway salute to the composer that virtually reinvented the tribute genre. The past few years, he and partner Meron have breathed new life into producing musicals on television, presenting new versions of such classics as "Gypsy" and "South Pacific." Two years ago the team picked up both kudos and Emmy Awards for their production of "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," a two-part TV mini-series chronicling the life of the great entertainer... and this past winter they brought musicals back to motion pictures with a stellar production of "Chicago," which won an Oscar as Picture of the Year. Who better to handle a film biography of Lucy and Desi?

Alas, "Lucy" is no "Chicago." It played more like a warmed over version of "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter."

Perhaps if there is a villain in the piece, it is the TV movie genre itself. Unlike feature films that are written to suit the style and pace of the subject matter, TV movies are created to fit into a predetermined pattern of 12-13 minute "acts," separated by 3-4 minutes of commercials. Each "act" normally builds to some sort of dramatic crescendo, a mini-cliffhanger of sorts, designed to bring the viewer back after the required commercials. Such cookie-cutter designs work relatively well when one is doing a murder mystery or disease-of-the-week flick. They work hardly at all when one is exploring a person's life.

Last night, Lucy's life was cut up into such little 12-13 minute pieces... The script writers (Katie Ford and T.S. Cook), drawing on public knowledge and previously published material, presented one well-known incident after another, virtually "connecting the dots," but either because of the cookie cutter format -- or out of ineptitude -- offered little or no introspection as to why certain things happened or who this lady really was...

The three-hour production offered up both behind the scenes material and recreations of famous moments from Lucy's TV shows and a few movies. The recreation of a scene from "DuBarry Was a Lady," opposite an ersatz Red Skelton was almost flawless! Recreations of famous moments from I Love Lucy were less successful, but even they were a relief from the "manufactured" scenes of Lucy and Desi's private life. The dialogue in the latter was embarrassingly trite and heavy-handed, often designed to impart kernels of information to us viewers, rather than represent true-to-life conversations.

The historical mistakes are countless. I filled up 4 pages before I stopped listing them all. Mistakes in the private, behind-the-scenes moments are possibly forgiveable. Mistakes in the public lives of these very visible people are shameful. Entire library shelves are filled with books and magazines about Lucy and Desi... there is NO EXCUSE for historical inaccuracies of well-documented facts. My favorite "bad moment" in the film -- and there were many from which to choose -- was Lucy's triumphant return to RKO Studios in 1958, now the owner, greeting all of the technicians and "little people" who were there since her starlet days. When the Arnazes bought RKO, most of the original employees had long since been laid-off by former owner Howard Hughes. The studio was something of a ghost town, with only a few TV show tenants still on the lot.

I cringed when the film had Lucy's agent Don Sharpe announce that after a miscarriage Lucy was feeling "a little gloomy" but bouncing back. A little gloomy????

To hear this TV movie tell it, Lucy and Desi created their TV characters... Desi single handedly decided to film I Love Lucy before an audience using the 3-camera technique... Jess Oppenheimer arrived on the scene in 1951, not 1948... Desi's thinking about buying RKO started in 1953, during the Red Scare, not 1957 when the property was put on the market... Desi was already in production with "Too Many Girls," or at least dressed as a football player, when he first met Lucy. (The film and their working together in it was mysteriously avoided all together.)

Also, according to "Lucy," Miss Ball and Red Skelton first met in 1942 on "DuBarry," not 1938 when RKO made "Having Wonderful Time"... Desi went on a bond tour before Carole Lombard died. (Carole's death, which happened one month after Pearl Harbor, was well documented as Hollywood's first war casualty. The bond tours did not start until much later!)

The movie told us Lucy did not become friends with Ed Sedgewick and Buster Keaton at MGM, but a few years later at Columbia. Wonder who those two fellows were she was palling around with at Metro?

The film makes no mention of Lucy's life or career after her divorce from Desi.

My list goes on and on... starting and ending with the fact that "Lucy Meets the Mustache" (like a few of the hour long Lucy-Desi specials before it) was NOT filmed in front of an audience, making the picture's opening and closing scenes somewhat ludicrous...

But if "Lucy" commmitted a single sin it was that it made Lucy and Desi's lives seem boring... Half-way into the film, I was yawning -- and it was not because I am overly familiar with the story. The film had no life, no sparkle, no energy.

I started this letter by referring to film biographies in general, and four of the most successful (in my opinion) are "The Jolson Story," its sequel "Jolson Sings Again," "Funny Girl," and its sequel, "Funny Lady." All four are highly fictionalized retellings of the lives of celebrated entertainers -- the first two focusing on Al Jolson, the last two on Fanny Brice. In both instances, the actors playing the leading roles -- Larry Parks as Jolson and Barbra Steisand as Brice -- are so wonderful themselves that an audience willingly "suspends disbelief" and, if only for the duration of the pictures, allows itself to get caught up in these people's lives.

Last night, Rachel York was no Streisand; Daniel Pino, no Parks. York, a beautiful and celebrated actress in her own right, conveyed none of the charm, beauty or vulnerability of Lucille Ball. Pino, looking 16 years old throughout the film, seemed to be wearing his father's suits for a high school play. A scene in which he trashed the Arnazes' new Beverly Hills home was more embarrassing than tragic. When he and Ms. York recreate the magical moment of Lucy telling Ricky she is pregnant, he looked more like her son than her husband.

Lastly, "Lucy," the writers, Ms. York and Mr. Pino seemed to have totally missed the fact that these people were involved with a comedy. The three-hour program was uniquely devoid of humor. The one laugh I found came from a wise-cracking Bill Frawley when Jess Oppenheimer arrived on the set of Lucy and introduced a rabbi, minister and priest. Said Frawley, "I know a joke that starts like that..." The rest was tedious.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz not only pioneered television, they loved, respected, and defended the medium. Twice now, the medium -- and the network for which they most often worked -- have failed to capture even a wisp of the magic that captivated the world and continues to entertain today. Perhaps someday a TV biography will get it right. Until then, I prefer the originals in reruns...

Stuart Shostak Reviews "LUCY"



Have a great week!


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