Review: ‘Lucy and Desi,’ starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

March 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in “Lucy and Desi” (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress/Amazon Content Services)

“Lucy and Desi”

Directed by Amy Poehler

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Lucy and Desi” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos), representing the middle-class and wealthy, discussing the lives and legacy of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the power couple who redefined television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Ball and Arnaz broke barriers for women and Latinos in charge of TV productions, while the couple struggled with several marital issues that resulted in their divorce. 

Culture Audience: Besides obviously appealing to fans of “I Love Lucy” (the TV comedy series that made Ball and Arnaz household names), “Lucy and Desi” will appeal primarily to people interested in stores about celebrity couples or chronicles of TV history from the 1950s and 1960s.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in “Lucy and Desi” (Photo courtesy of Bettmann/Amazon Content Services)

The documentary “Lucy and Desi” plays it safe in telling the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. However, the movie’s treasure trove of audio and video archives make it worth watching for anyone interested in TV history and this fascinating power couple. It’s perhaps fitting that “Lucy and Desi” was directed by Amy Poehler, a comedic actress whose life has some similarities to Ball’s, by becoming an executive producer in television and having a high-profile divorce from another comedic entertainer. “Lucy and Desi” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

One of the biggest challenges that documentarians have when doing biographies of famous people is getting exclusive access, whether it’s access to certain interviews, places or archives. There’s often a non-monetary price to be paid when given that access: In exchange for that access, there’s usually an explicit or non-explicit agreement that the documentarians won’t put any scandalous “dirt” on the celebrity in the documentary. It might compromise the integrity of the documentary, depending on how “whitewashed” the documentary becomes.

“Lucy and Desi” puts just enough information about Ball and Arnaz’s behind-the-scenes problems to not be a complete “whitewash,” but the information is not new or insightful. Instead, the movie gives a lot of the narrative over to the eldest child of Ball and Arnaz: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who gets the most screen time out of all the people interviewed for this documentary. Arnaz Luckinbill gives the impression that she never got over her parents’ divorce and that she wished that her parents had gotten back together.

Ball and Arnaz were married to each other from 1940 to 1960. Arnaz died in 1986, at the age of 69. Ball died in 1989, at the age of 77. At the time of their deaths, they were both married to their respective second spouses: Edith Hirsch (whom Arnaz married in 1963) and Gary Morton (whom Ball married in 1961). Even after their divorce, Ball and Arnaz continued to work together because they co-founded and shared Desilu Productions, which became one of the most powerful independent TV studios in Hollywood history.

In the beginning of the documentary, Arnaz Luckinbill comments on her family archives (audio, video and photos) that are featured in the documentary: “Underneath all of this painful stuff and disappointment, at the core it’s all about unconditional love. I find now that I’m much more forgiving when looking back on this. A lot of it is much clearer to me now.”

It’s worth noting that Arnaz Luckinbill opened up the family archives before when she produced the 1993 made-for-TV documentary “Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie,” which was televised in the U.S. on NBC. In that particular documentary, she and her brother Desi Arnaz Jr. reminisced about their parents while commenting on the footage shown in the film. At times, “Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie” resembles a family therapy session. Writer/director/former actor Laurence Luckinbill, who married Arnaz Luckinbill in 1980, was a writer of that documentary.

The Poehler-directed “Lucy and Desi” documentary opens up the film to commentaries from more people, but they do nothing but praise Ball and Arnaz. Carol Burnett says about Ball: “She was fearless in her comedy.” Bette Midler gushes about Ball: “You saw someone who was so beautiful, but she wasn’t afraid to look ugly, which we almost never saw women do.” Charo makes this statement about Arnaz: “He was the king of Latin music.”

Because Ball was the more famous person in this couple, her pre-fame personal story is told first. Die-hard fans will not learn anything new, but the documentary dutifully gives a summary of how Ball started her entertainment career in New York City, where she moved at the age of 14 to enroll in John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts and was expected to earn money for the family as a professional entertainer.

Born in Jamestown, New York, Ball came from a troubled family background. Her father Henry Durrell “Had” Ball died of typhoid fever when she was 3 years old. The family (including Lucille’s younger brother Fred Ball) moved around a lot in her childhood. By the time Lucille became a teenager, she had lived in New York state, New Jersey, Montana and Michigan.

Her mother Désirée Evelyn “DeDe” Ball married second husband Edward Peterson four years after the death of her first husband. When Lucille was a child, she and her brother sometimes lived with their mother’s parents and later Peterson’s parents. Not having a true sense of home security had profound effects on Lucille, but it also toughened her and prepared her for the harsh realities and erratic nature of showbiz.

Ball’s younger brother Fred says in an archival interview that his mother Dede was very “commanding and authoritative,” and that Lucille had those personality traits too. In 1927, when Lucille was 16, her maternal grandfather was sued when Fred’s girlfriend at the time accidentally shot and paralyzed a neighborhood boy. As the adult who was in charge of supervising Fred and his visiting girlfriend (who were both underage teenagers at the time), the grandfather was held liable for the shooting, and the family’s finances were destroyed.

Lucille’s relocation to New York City was partially motivated by her family expecting her showbiz earning to help the family financially. She became a showgirl (the documentary has an archival audio where she says she “was a dud” as a showgirl), then briefly a model (under the name Diane Belmont) and then a theater actress. She soon got an opportunity to be in movies and moved to Los Angeles. Lucille says in an archival interview: “I loved Hollywood. I had no thought of ever going back.”

But it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. For years, Lucille was stuck in bit parts or in forgettable supporting roles in mostly B-movies. Her first movie role was an uncredited part in 1933’s “Roman Scandals.” She studied acting under the tutelage of RKO Talent’s Lela Rogers, the influential manager/mother of actress/dancer Ginger Rogers. When the movie roles weren’t getting Lucille very far, she turned to doing radio serials. Her radio career set her on the path to the phenomenon of “I Love Lucy.”

Arnaz (who was born and raised in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba) came from a more privileged background than his future first wife. He was born into a multi-generational family of influential politicians and business executives, including having a maternal grandfather who was an executive at rum company Bacardi. But when the Cuban Revolution happened in 1933, when Arnaz was 14, his family lost their fortune.

He fled to Miami as a refugee and became a musician performing a mix of Latin music and big band music. He eventually led the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, which became a well-known music group in the United States. In 1939, Arnaz was cast as the star of the Broadway musical “Too Many Girls.” After “I Love Lucy” became a hit, Arnaz changed the name of his band to the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra, named after his Ricky Ricardo character on the show.

Arnaz and Lucille had something else in common besides their families losing their fortunes: They both had domineering mothers. Arnaz’s mother Dolores “Lolita” De Acha was as demanding of Lucille as she was of her son, according to a comment that Lucille makes in the documentary. After Arnaz and Lucille became rich and famous, they both took care of their respective mothers for the rest of their lives.

It’s already well-known that Lucille and Arnaz met on the set of the 1940 movie “Too Many Girls,” where Arnaz reprised his starring role from the Broadway show. The couple had a quickie courtship and eloped on November 30, 1940. Ten years later, Lucille was starring in and producing a comedy radio show called “My Favorite Husband,” which was loosely based on her marriage.

Television executives offered her a starring role in a TV series version of “My Favorite Husband,” and she accepted the offer on the condition that Arnaz play her husband on the show. It would be the first time that a Latino became a star in an American TV series. The show was called “I Love Lucy,” which had the couple portraying the characters of Lucy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo. In the United States, “I Love Lucy” premiered on CBS on October 15, 1951. And the rest is history. (The documentary includes some footage from an unaired pilot episode of “I Love Lucy.”)

Not only did the couple star in “I Love Lucy,” but they were also executive producers of the show, at a time when it was rare for women and people of color to be executive producers of TV shows. Arnaz and Lucille also broke barriers for women and people of color in television when they co-founded Desilu Productions in 1950. In addition to producing all TV series starring Lucille Ball from 1950 to 1967 (the year that Desilu shuttered), Desilu produced a long list of hit shows in the 1950s and 1960s, including “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Our Miss Brooks” and “The Ann Sothern Show.” “I Love Lucy” is credited with being the first TV series turn reruns/repeat episodes into a lucrative way to make money.

“I Love Lucy” famously became the first American scripted TV show to depict a woman’s pregnancy, at the insistence of the couple, because Lucille was pregnant in real life at the time with son Desi Arnaz Jr. Her childbirth was written into show, and the 1953 episode about the birth of Ricky Ricardo Jr., also known as Little Ricky, became a ratings bonanza. Arnaz Jr. played Little Ricky on “I Love Lucy,” until the show ended in 1957. Arnaz Jr. appears briefly in the “Lucy and Desi” documentary and makes this comment: “I was in the public eye before I could even communicate.”

Arnaz’s impact on Latino representation on American television cannot be underestimated. The documentary interviews Cuban playwright/professor Eduardo Machado, who remembers being a child in California’s San Fernando Valley and learning to speak English because he saw Arnaz on TV. Machado comments, “Desi brought sophistication where Latinos are hardly seen as sophisticated.” Spanish musician/band leader Xavier Cugat also comments on how influential Arnaz was in breaking barriers for Latinos in a white-dominated entertainment industry.

The role of women in positions of power on television also changed because of “I Love Lucy” and Desilu Productions. Emmy-winning TV showrunner/creator Norman Lear comments in the documentary: “‘I Love Lucy’ did a lot for helping Americans understand that just because a guy was male, that doesn’t mean he was the dominant character. Women could be the dominant character too.”

The documentary mentions Lucille’s reputation for being a tough taskmaster, but only puts a positive spin on it. National Comedy Center executive director Journey Gunderson comments, “There’s such a disparate focus on how hard-nosed she could be. But think about how many times she must’ve been ‘mansplained’ to on the set.”

National Comedy Center director of archives and research Lauren LaPlaca says about Lucille Ball’s legacy: “I don’t like when people call her work ‘effortless’ … She really built her success … It’s pretty clear that she had a scientific approach to what generates a laugh.”

The 2021 dramatic film “Being the Ricardos” (starring Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, in Oscar-nominated performances) focused on a week in the life of the couple while dealing with three main issues that were in real life spread out over a period of years. “Being the Ricardos” includes the controversy over Lucille being branded a Communist in the media because she once filled out a voter registration form and listed herself as a member of the Communist Party. This controversy came during the U.S. government’s Communist witch hunt known as the Red Scare, which ruined the lives and careers of many people who were labeled Communists. “Being the Ricardos” also depicted the battles that the couple had with executives at CBS’s then-parent company Westinghouse and “I Love Lucy” chief sponsoring company Philip Morris about the pregnancy storyline. And the couple fought with each other over ongoing media reports that Arnaz was an unfaithful husband.

Another issue brought up in “Being the Ricardos,” which is a subplot in the movie, is the nature of the relationships between Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their “I Love Lucy” co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played the Ricardos’ best friends/neighbors Ethel Mertz and Fred Mertz. The “Lucy and Desi” documentary doesn’t dwell too much on any behind-the-scenes drama between these four stars. Gregg Oppenheimer, son of “I Love Lucy” head writer Jess Oppenheimer, repeats a well-known story that Vance thought that Frawley was too old to portray her husband, and Frawley (who was 22 years older than Vance) was offended when he found out that Vance felt that way. (In “Being the Ricardos,” Vance is played by Nina Arianda, while Frawley is played by J.K. Simmons, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the movie.)

“Lucy and Desi” avoids detailing any infidelity that contributed to the demise of the Ball/Arnaz marriage. And the Communist issue is barely given a mention, with Arnaz Luckinbill only making this comment how her parents dealt with the Communist controversy: “She was scared. My father took charge.” (In real life, the FBI cleared Lucille of suspicion of being a Communist when it was determined that she was never an active member of the Communist Party.) As for the pregnancy storyline, everyone knows who won that battle and how everything turned out.

What the documentary does detail is how the pressures of showbiz led to the breakdown of the marriage. Several people in the documentary, including Arnaz Luckinbill, describe it this way: Lucille wasn’t as interested in the business side of Desilu as Arnaz was, and he eventually scaled back on being a musician/actor to focus on running Desilu. However, because Lucille was more famous than he was, many people perceived Lucille as being more powerful, which caused jealousy and resentment from Arnaz, who also became an alcoholic and began spending less time with his family at home.

This alcohol addiction took a toll until Arnaz couldn’t really function in his job, and Lucille had to take over his duties at Desilu, which she resented because she didn’t really like the “office executive” parts of the job. Even though Arnaz’s productivity declined in the final years of Desilu, he’s praised in the documentary for being an underrated TV visionary who was able to bring out the best in people. David Daniels, son of original “I Love Lucy” director Marc Daniels, comments: “Desi was a collaborator in the supreme sense of the word—and that’s where you get the best stuff.”

Arnaz Luckinbill says of her parents’ troubled marriage: “He hurt her by his actions. She hurt him by her words.” According to the documentary, Arnaz was the one who wanted to end the marriage, but Lucille was the one who filed for divorce first. Arnaz Luckinbill comments, “The hard edge softened the minute they got divorced, but they did love one another.” She also shares a touching story of what happened when her parents talked for the last time when Arnaz was on his deathbed: They both said, “I love you” several times to each other during this last goodbye.

“Lucy and Desi” is capably directed and edited in a traditional documentary style. There’s nothing really substandard about the documentary, but it gives the impression that a lot more could have been in the movie but was left out because it would be unflattering to the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz legacy. For die-hard fans, the “Lucy and Desi” documentary can be considered entertaining but a tad redundant, considering the plethora of biographies in many formats that have exhaustively covered this legacy. “Lucy and Desi” is ultimately a tribute-styled summary that will only be truly revelatory to people who know little to nothing about this legendary couple who changed television forever.

Prime Video premiered “Lucy and Desi” on March 4, 2022.

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