Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter (1991)

‘I Love Lucy’ was a landmark television program. Starring real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, it ran from 1951 to 1957 and continued for a further three years as ‘The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show’. This biopic starts with the production of the very first episode, then employs farcical means to segue back and forth to explore their relationship.

 

The first occurs with Lucy staring blankly into her dressing room mirror as Desi promises her there will be no more fights. Cut to a scene of Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara fighting in a scene from Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). After some time has passed, we return to Lucy’s dressing room to find her still staring at the mirror. This hackneyed approach, signalled by vacant looks and echoing voices, taints each flashback that follows.  

 

Which is a pity, for there is much to admire about this biopic. The production values are high and the acting is fine. Frances Fisher displays the requisite verve for the onscreen Lucy and, more importantly, creates a realistic portrait of the off-screen Lucy. Though Maurice Benard’s portrayal is more superficial, it is a charming performance. Yet neither can satisfactorily overcome the formulaic script. Add to this an intrusive soundtrack that features a variety of artists warbling standards of the era at decibel levels, and you are left with a film that promised much but delivered little.

 

Speaking of promises (awkward segue intended), Lucille Ball filed for divorce from Desi Arnaz the day after the last episode of ‘The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show’ was filmed.

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"This is not their lives. This is as much a cartoon of their lives as any unauthorized fiction... They were together 20 years, and they shared equal responsibility for the joy and the pain."

Lucie Arnaz

 

"It was not a very flattering picture of the two of them, and it was done by the network that they put on the map. It was very flat and tabloidesque. I had meetings with them before they made the movie. They sent me the script thinking I would help them. I said 'are you crazy, this is the worst piece of you-know-what, why are you doing this?' Their idea of an answer was 'you should have seen the last script'."

Lucie Arnaz


Partly as a rebuttal to this biopic's depiction of her parent’s relationship, Lucie Arnaz and her husband Laurence Luckinbill made the documentary “Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie (1993), which won that year’s Emmy for Outstanding Informational Special.

 

"There will always be TV movies, acted-out fiction versions. And what exists, other than my father's autobiography, that is factual and nonfiction? We thought it would be kind of fun to show people these home movies."

Lucie Arnaz

Biopic features scene recreations from the films Dance, Girl, Dance and Too Many Girls as well as scenes from ‘I Love Lucy’.

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