Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter. The Television Movie



Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz formed not only one of the great television duos but also a formidable television production company that brought us such programs as The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. As such, it seems almost a shame to reduce their complex relationship and partnership to a mix of "unhappy wife" and "philandering husband". Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter has one positive and one negative which keeps it from being either total excellence or total farce.

September 8, 1951. At the Desilu Studios, various cast and crew are preparing to film the premiere episode of the new television situation comedy, I Love Lucy. As the production gets closer and closer to start filming, its two stars have a series of flashbacks recalling their lives up to this point. Some flashbacks are from Lucille Ball (Frances Fisher), a former film star. Other flashbacks are from Desi Arnaz (Maurice Benard), a Cuban exile who has found fame, fortune and females in America.

Lucille, a hardscrabble actress who struggles to get her big breakout, is both attracted and slightly leery of Arnaz. Arnaz, for his part, sees Ball as something of a film jinx and at first does not want to work with her. It isn't until she becomes somewhat unobtainable that Arnaz's loins are piqued. 

The on-off relationship is causing them great joys but also great pains. There's great sex, though Lucille is not the exclusive recipient of such pleasures. Not even marriage can tame Desi's wandering member, though he does try not to stray. It is only when he gets dismissed as "Mr. Ball" that he crumbles. As they go through their marital merry-go-round, with threats of divorce and miscarriages, Lucille and Desi still love each other deeply, though not well. Ultimately, they hit on the idea for a television series that will bring them together. Now, at long last, they can be a team as I Love Lucy finally gets into production.  

Before the Laughter goes in a repetitive manner where something will trigger a flashback, some surprisingly long, then come back to present-day. Anything from a word to a song can send Arnaz and Ball's walk down memory lane. It can grow a bit tiresome, almost little bit of parody, to see exactly what or who will send Lucy or Desi taking a journey to the past. William Luce and Cynthia A. Cherbak's teleplay opts to keep this structure, more than likely to give equal time to Arnaz and Ball's side of things.

I do not know if it ultimately works. It is a positive that Before the Laughter opted to try and be balanced. However, memory is a curious thing. How one person remembers something may not be how the other person remembers. It may not even be what actually happened. What ends up happening is that Lucy and Desi end up a bit shortchanged. For something that is "their story", we end up getting pieces of two separate stories.

To be fair, there are good parts in the script. The recreation of both the Arnaz-Ball stage shows and rehearsals for the I Love Lucy pilot work well. There is a good montage of Ball's series of B-films via a series of publicity shots that also does well.

Mostly though, Before the Laughter is elevated and denigrated through our two leads. Frances Fisher does a fine job as Lucille Ball. She blends the zany persona with the authentic woman. Fisher's Ball can be flirtatious or furious, clueless and heartbroken. She handles the recreations of Lucy Ricardo quite well to where it is not mimicry. She also has strong dramatic moments. Late in the film, she gets notice that Desi's tour bus was in a major accident. Distraught and terrified, she makes a hurried trip to where he was touring. She unexpectedly runs into Desi, who is delighted and surprised to see her but unaware of the accident (he had either stayed behind or flown ahead). The terror and relief Fisher brought to the role is excellent.

And then there's Desi. 

Maurice Benard did not give a performance. I am not even sure that he gave a parody of Desi Arnaz. Instead, it was some oddball blend of desperate and unintentionally hilarious. Benard is comically bad as Desi Arnaz. There is simply so much wrong with Benard as Arnaz that it is an embarrassment of riches to find where to begin. 

Benard's voice was high and nasal, sounding more like a caricature than anything close to Arnaz's Cuban accent. Benard apparently thought that Arnaz did nothing but mug for a living, for there was a lot of big-eyed expressiveness in Benard's performance. He made Arnaz look like a perpetually horny but lost puppy. It was to where he came across as funny even when he tried to be serious. 

Early in their relationship, Arnaz recounts his flight from Cuba. Once the spoiled, wealthy son of a mayor, a revolution costs him and his parents everything. As he tells Ball what is meant as a sad story, Benard says it in a comical manner, as if he is almost kidding about seeing his home burned down and having to flee for his life. 

Throughout Before the Laughter, Benard's Arnaz is so silly as to not come across as human. The most unintentionally funny moment came after what I think was the Academy Awards presentation. Fisher as Ball remarks, "What a night for Crawford. Bette Davis must be spitting nails", so I figure this is 1946 when Crawford won Best Actress for Mildred Pierce. As the radio announcer presents the various celebrities leaving the event, he says, "Here's Lucille Ball's car!", which enrages Arnaz.

Seething with rage, Arnaz finally pulls over to insist he is not "Mr. Ball". Everything in his performance becomes laughable. If Maurice Benard widened his eyes more, they'd literally would have popped out of his head. His voice grew into almost a screech. His efforts to express anger expressed almost humor. The entire scene should be studied by acting students under a "Don't Let This Happen to You" section.

Some sections, to be fair, could not have been handled better. Stationed near Ball during World War II to entertain the troops, Desi once again gets dismissed as "Mr. Ball". It just happens to be their anniversary when Ball shows up unexpectedly with a cake. You already know what will happen, to where I said, "That anniversary cake ain't gonna make it". 

Somehow, Before the Laughter could not overcome some hurdles. Maurice Benard was the biggest one, his performance a disaster. It should be noted that the screenplay did not go into great depth about Arnaz or Ball: his business acumen and her steely determination to succeed. Frances Fisher brought a strong performance as Lucille Ball. She was the saving grace, but it is Lucy AND Desi. As such, it went only halfway.

Desi Arnaz: 1917-1986
Lucille Ball: 1911-1989


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