LUCY & DESI COLLECTION: LONG, LONG TRAILER / FOREVER, DARLING / TOO MANY GIRLS – DVD review

“The Lucy & Desi Collection” comprises a trio of big-screen movies that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made as a team. Two of the films capitalize on the couple’s hit TV show, “I Love Lucy,” while the earliest film, “Too Many Girls,” shows us where the famous pair first met.

Like most kids growing up in the 1950s, I watched a number of the “I Love Lucy” shows, a series beginning in 1951 and running until 1957, at which point it ended and Lucy and Desi, America’s favorite married couple, later divorced. I confess, if my parents hadn’t watched the show, I probably wouldn’t have done so on my own. I was never overly fond of the scatterbrained Lucy Ricardo or her Copacabana-headliner husband, Ricky. I found Lucy annoying and the situations must too contrived for me, even as a youngster. I much preferred the variety shows by people like Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason, and, later, the Phil Silvers “Sgt. Bilko” show. But the rest of the world, and my parents, loved Lucy and Desi, their program helping to shape the way television sitcoms would look for the next fifty years. Anyway, here are the only major motion pictures the couple ever did together.

“Too Many Girls”:
About the best I can say about this 1940 musical is that it features a few decent songs by Rodgers and Hart, and of historical interest it was the film on which Lucy and Desi first met. They married shortly thereafter, although their marriage would always be rocky.

In between the songs, the movie’s story line is pretty feeble. It concerns a reckless young lady, Connie Casey (Ball), whose rich father (Harry Shannon) employs bodyguards to protect her. But none of the bodyguards can keep up with her. When she decides to go to school at little Pottawatomie College in Stopgap, New Mexico, her father hires four college students to be her secret bodyguards. The guys are Clint Kelly (Richard Carlson), Manuelito Lynch (Arnaz), JoJo Jordan (Eddie Bracken), and Al Terwilliger (Hal LeRoy), all of them former college football stars, who agree to do the job because the money is right and the girl is cute. However, the father insists on a clause in their contract forbidding any romantic involvement with his daughter. Sure.

Clint becomes the main romantic involvement, but he has to overcome the obstacle of a pesky playwright, Beverly Waverly (Douglas Walton), who also has eyes for Connie. Meanwhile, the four bodyguards join the little college’s football team and turn it into a national powerhouse. Sure.

The songs include “Heroes in the Fall,” “You’re Nearer,” “Pottawatomie,” “‘Cause We Got Cake,” “Spic and Spanish,” “Love Never Went to College,” “Look Out,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and reprises of “You’re Nearer” and “Spic and Spanish.”

Ms. Ball behaves considerably more maturely in these early pictures of hers than she would in her later transformation for TV, and she’s considerably less annoying for it. However, she hasn’t really much to do here except look attractive. Desi seems no different than ever; maybe a little less flustered and angry. Ann Miller is also in the cast as a college student, as is Frances Langford, but you’d hardly know it. Director George Abbott, better known for his writing, would do better directorial work years later with “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees.”

“Too Many Girls” is so slight, most folks will easily forget it two minutes after watching it. If they can get all the way through it. 4/10

“The Long, Long Trailer”:
From 1954, this one has the distinction of being headed up by the stylish director Vincente Minnelli (“Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Pirate,” “Father of the Bride,” “An American in Paris,” “The Band Wagon,” “Brigadoon,” “Gigi”) and equally distinguished producer Pandro S. Berman (“Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet,” “Swing Time,” “Stage Door,” “Honky Tonk,” “National Velvet,” “Ivanhoe,” “Tea and Sympathy”). Alas, not even Minnelli and Berman could do much with a predictably inane script. The screenwriters based the story on a novel by Clinton Twiss that must have sounded better in print.

The story follows the misadventures of a newly married couple, Tacy (Ball) and Nicky (Arnaz) Collini, as they take their honeymoon pulling a trailer the size of Delaware across half the country. Seems that Nicky’s work as an engineer requires that he travel a lot, and Tacy persuades him that instead of living out of hotel rooms, they should travel from job to job in their own home. The idea quickly becomes a nightmare, not only for the Collinis but for the audience. “I tell you,” says Nicky, “it’s a fine thing when you come home to your home, and your home is gone.” That’s right, the trailer almost ruins their marriage before it gets started.

Nicky narrates the story in flashback to a fellow who is thinking of buying a trailer, telling him about all the pitfalls he will encounter, most of the drawbacks in the form of trying to steer the danged thing properly, back it up, park it, etc. Marjorie Main, filmdom’s Ma Kettle, has a small part as a do-gooding fellow trailerite, and Keenan Wynn has a quick cameo as a policeman.

Typical of 1950s’ movies, the women in the picture all wear dresses and pearls for every occasion, including housework, and the men all wear suits and ties. The only time I remember my dad ever wearing a suit and tie in the 50s was when he had to go to a wedding or a funeral. My parents made me put on a tie for church on Sunday. The people on TV and in the movies back then were like aliens from another planet to me. Today, they still look like space aliens; they were certainly from another world. And typical of Lucy and Desi (by any other names), they were the same Ricardos we’d always known, she as frivolous as ever, and he as frustrated as ever by her talking him into things. The whole picture is extremely silly, and before too long it seems downright hectic and eventually frenetic. About the only saving grace is a brief interlude with the song “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze,” reminding us what Minnelli could really do. 5/10

“Forever Darling”:
Released in 1956, this film marked the last time Lucy and Desi would appear on the big screen together, the two getting a divorce a few years later. It is perhaps fitting that they should have gone out with a picture about a bickering married couple who eventually find true happiness by accepting each other’s faults. Would that real life were so easy.

The movie stars Lucy and Desi as the Vegas, Susan and Larry, whose marriage begins dissolving over their first five years of matrimony. He is a busy chemist, she is a busy socialite housewife, and they haven’t time for each other anymore. At which point enters Susan’s guardian angel (James Mason). Yes, an actual angel has been following her around since birth, and only now does the angel see the need to make himself known to her, when Susan’s marriage is in trouble.

The problem with this comedy is its distinct and utter lack of comedy. Lucy stays mostly restrained until the final sequence, a camping trip, during which she reverts to her old “I Love Lucy” tomfoolery, but it still isn’t very funny. Desi is more sympathetic than ever, and he also appears to have more screen time, perhaps as a result of his being the movie’s producer.

There’s an interesting irony about the casting: The director of the picture, Alexander Hall, in 1941 directed “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” about an angel, played by Claude Rains, who comes to Earth to help a dead man regain a body. In 1956, Hall directed this movie about an angel, played by James Mason, who comes to Earth to help a troubled marriage. Then in 1978 everything came full circle with the angel that Rains once played in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” now played by James Mason in the remake, “Heaven Can Wait.” Maybe life is predestined after all.

In “Forever Darling” we get a title song performed first by the Ames Brothers and later by Desi, both times in a drippy, sentimental manner. And, again, every woman in the show wears a gown and jewelry around the house in the middle of the day, and every man wears a proper suit or sport coat. Only in the movies, and only in the 50s. 5/10

Video:
The earliest movie, “Too Many Girls,” is a standard-screen black-and-white production, and it’s up to WB’s usual high transfer standards. The B&W contrasts are strong, the grain is minimal, and there are no signs of age, scratches, or flecks.

The picture quality on “The Long, Long Trailer” is quite good, too. The filmmakers shot the picture in a standard 1.37:1 screen size rather than taking advantage of the more-expensive widescreen that was introduced a year or so earlier, but the Technicolor print is pristine, and the hues show up brightly. Overall delineation is so-so, however, and the image is a tad soft around the edges.

The image quality for “Forever Darling” is the best of the three, being an excellent 1.78:1 Technicolor transfer. The picture is bright and clear, with often intense black levels setting off the other hues. There is sometimes a touch of fine grain, but it is nothing of significance.

Audio:
All three films feature monaural sound, processed in Dolby Digital 1.0. I doubt that these original audio tracks could have been better transferred to disc, but one has to understand that it is what it is. The sonics are smooth and quiet in each film, limited in frequency and dynamic range, of course, but natural in tonal balance. They work fine.

Extras:
“Too Many Girls” includes a vintage musical short, “Francis Carroll and the Coquettes,” nine minutes long, plus a classic Merrie Melodies cartoon, “Shop Look and Listen” that comes with a disclaimer warning about its racial content. “The Long, Long Trailer” includes a vintage Pete Smith comedy short: “Ain’t It Aggravatin’?,” an eight-minute collection of gags, none of which are especially funny; and a classic cartoon, “Dixieland Droopy,” featuring everybody’s favorite hangdog mutt. “Forever Darling” includes a five-minute, black-and-white excerpt from “The MGM Parade” TV series, in which the host interviews Lucy and Desi before the première of “Forever Darling.” It’s mostly a promo for the upcoming film.

English is the only language choice for “Too Many Girls” and “Forever, Darling,” but WB provide French as well for “The Long, Long Trailer.” All three films have English, French, and Spanish subtitles, and each film comes with its own theatrical trailer. Scene selections, between twenty-one and twenty-six for each film, are printed on the inside of the covers, which show through the translucent plastic of the ultrathin keep cases.

Parting Shots:
It’s hard for me to get too worked up one way or another about these Lucy-Desi collaborations. As I was never a big fan of the pair at the time they made the last two films, you can understand my not exactly jumping for joy about their release on DVD. Nevertheless, for devoted followers of the Arnaz couple, these films show up on disc in probably as good a shape as they have ever been in. I cannot grumble about the joy other viewers may receive from them.

“The Long, Long Trailer” and “Forever Darling” are available individually or in the “Lucy & Desi Collection” boxed set. “Too Many Girls” is exclusive to the boxed set.

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