A kinder, funnier look at TV’s first power couple

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, stars of the hit TV sitcom I Love Lucy, in a photo taken around 1953

By Richard Ades

Last year, Aaron Sorkin dramatized the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos. Now Amy Poehler is revisiting the television icons in the documentary Lucy and Desi.

The first thing you should know about the new flick is that it’s nothing like Being the Ricardos. While Sorkin’s tale is awash in interpersonal conflict, marital strife and political controversy, director Poehler takes a gentler approach that creates an affectionate yet clear-eyed portrait of the famous couple.

Being a comic herself, Poehler also recognizes something that apparently escaped Sorkin: If you’re doing a film about famously funny people, you really should include a few good laughs. In fact, Lucy and Desi has many laugh-out-loud moments, thanks largely to excerpts from Ball and Arnaz’s groundbreaking 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy.

The doc begins by looking back on the pair’s early lives with the help of archival footage and interviews with people who knew them, including their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill. We learn that both Ball and Arnaz faced financial struggles in their younger years.

Arnaz was born into wealth, but his Cuban family lost everything and was forced to flee following the island’s 1933 revolution. When he arrived in the U.S., the film points out, he was not an immigrant but a refugee.

Ball was raised by a loving grandfather who fell on hard times due to an unjust lawsuit. The family’s dire situation led her to leave home in her mid-teens and head for New York, where she struggled to break into show business until a lucky break sent her to Hollywood.

The doc covers some of the same territory as Sorkin’s drama, though it’s able to fill in more details because it doesn’t rely so much on breathless flashbacks.

This 1940 photo shows Desi Arnaz carrying his bride, Lucille Ball, over the threshold of his Roxy Theatre dressing room in New York. The couple had eloped and gotten married in Greenwich, Conn.

How did Ball and Arnaz meet? How did they become the first couple of television comedy? How did they branch out from TV stars into big-time producers? And, finally, what drove them apart at the height of their success? These questions and others are addressed, which should delight anyone who’s ever enjoyed I Love Lucy or any of the many other shows the pair helped to create.

In the process, the doc is decidedly more discreet and even-handed than Sorkin’s dramatized account, which spends much of its time trying to figure out whether Arnaz was faithful to his talented wife. Director Poehler, writer Mark Monroe and their interviewees are clearly less interested in casting blame than they are in understanding Ball and Arnaz and paying homage to the devotion they felt toward each other even after their divorce.

As Arnaz wrote in a tribute that was read when Ball was honored by the Kennedy Center only five days after his death, “I Love Lucy was never just the title.”

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Lucy and Desi (PG) is available beginning March 4 on Prime Video.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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