The smiling, sometimes wacky, but always loveable Ricardos of the I Love Lucy Show were, and to some extent still are, such a staple of American television that it is almost a shock to find out in the documentary Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie that the real life Lucy and Desi were infinitely more complicated.
The stories of their marital woes, of Desi’s cheating and their divorce which coincided with the end of their television show are well documented but this documentary explores, as their daughter Lucie Arnaz (who also directed the piece) puts it, a love story between two “deeply insecure people”. Lucy and Desi digs deep into those insecurities and into the profound love and affection Lucy and Desi had for one another even after they were divorced.
The “home movie” of the documentary’s title comes from previously unseen home movies Luci Arnaz found after her mother’s death. The home movies were a revelation, and she felt compelled to share them and to show a wider audience her parents as they “really were”, flaws and all.
We see Lucy and Desi newly married, young and flush with love as they ride a two seat bicycle and clown around. We see them at their California home hosting lavish pool parties with conga lines and movie stars. We learn that in real life it was Desi who was the extrovert, loving the role of host and entertainer while Lucy was much more subdued.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we see how long it took to get the I Love Lucy Show on the air; how nervous studio executives balked at the idea of having Lucy pared with a Cuban husband; how the two of them were nearly 40 when the show went on the air, both on the brink of becoming has-beens.
We also learn many unflattering things about the real-life Ricardos. Lucy, for instance, was by all accounts controlling and a very hands-off mother. As a friend tells Lucie Arnaz in an interview “I never saw your mother play with you”, and as Lucie herself puts it, “When my mother came home she’d still be working…Hello, mom? You’ve been gone all day…it was really hard for her to be there.” Desi, though more outwardly affectionate to the children, had an increasingly uncontrollable drinking problem and a seemingly insatiable appetite for prostitutes.
The marital problems between Lucy and Desi stemmed mainly from Desi’s constant philandering, but also from their personal, very human failings. According to their daughter and friends, the two did not seem to know how to work on their marriage. The I Love Lucy Show was in essence born because of their desire to spend more time together and, as one friend puts it bluntly, a way of saving their fragile marriage. But though they loved the work and loved each other, they never achieved the kind of success off screen that they did onscreen.
Throughout the film, Lucie Arnaz and her brother Desi Jr. speak quite frankly about their parents’ inability to make their relationship work. As Lucie says, “They would have loved to have been the Ricardos but unfortunately the Ricardos had a way of kissing and making up. I think they both found it extraordinarily hard to say I’m sorry.”
Die-hard fans of the I Love Lucy Show will find little new information about the inner workings of the show here. The documentary does not dig very deep into the reasons the I Love Lucy Show was so successful. It mentions the show’s pioneering method of the three-camera studio audience sitcom (thought up by Desi) and its extraordinary, way beyond expectations success, but it doesn’t cover specific episodes or storylines.
Still, the love story of the real life Lucy and Desi is the main point of this documentary and their affection for each other is deeply felt. Desi is shown in interviews he gave in the ‘70s, attributing all the success of the I Love Lucy Show to “one person: Lucille Ball” and by the end of the documentary there is a real sense of what was lost when the two got divorced. A friend says, “I think Lucy and Desi were so intertwined in their professional lives and their private lives it was hard for either one of them to give up the other completely. And I doubt if they ever did.”
The documentary ends on a poignant note. We see footage of Lucy and Desi, already divorced for 20 years playing in a swimming pool with their first grandchild. His hair is white and balding; her skin is wrinkled even as she wears make-up and large sunglasses in the swimming pool.
In some sense they could be any grandparents playing in the pool with a baby. And yet, for a moment they do seem like the Ricardos. She playfully swats his hair, admonishing him for not “speaking Spanish” to the kids and he sings “Babalu” while drumming the water, and the baby giggles with delight.
Lucy and Desi’s tenderness for one another is palpable and for that moment at least, the magic we saw onscreen seems intertwined with the magic off screen.