I Love Lucy wasn't just a TV series, it was a cultural touchstone. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (as played by Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz) were, for the bulk of the 1950s, America's favorite couple; their hilarious adventures (with and without their neighbors and friends, the Mertzes) have lived on for decades hence. When Lucy and Desi divorced in 1960, the public could hardly believe it--and countless writers and filmmakers have attempted, over the years, to explain how the country's favorite married couple went wrong.
The 1993 TV documentary Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie was the pet project of their daughter, Lucie Arnaz; she directs, narrates, conducts the interviews, and is interviewed herself. She says, in the film's opening, that she made it in an attempt to respond to the frequent portraits (presumably including the 1991 TV movie Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter) of their marriage as loveless and unhappy. But Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie doesn't have much to add to the conversation; while it lovingly lingers on their salad days in their first shared home, the insight and involvement of Arnaz (and her brother, Desi Jr.) don't add up to a portrait much more penetrating than your average episode of Biography.
The project's primary asset, as hinted at in its title, is the inclusion of rare, previously unseen color home movies of Lucy and Desi at home, at work, and at play. The discovery of these films reportedly prompted the entire project, and you can see why; they're sweet, candid, often funny, and occasionally insightful (if you read between the lines right). Particularly interesting are the earlier films, showing the young couple frolicking at their ranch with various friends and fellow Hollywood up-and-comers.
Their story is told chronologically, as a fairly detailed dual biography. Extensive biographical information and background is provided by many relatives and friends, augmented by family pictures and a fine assortment of archival interviews with the couple. Collaborators like Ann Miller, Jackie Cooper, Bob Hope, and director George Abbott (who directed their first film together) throw in their two cents as well. Some fine insights are found in these interviews, though the presence of Lucie Arnaz as interviewer causes frequent and distracting uses of "your mother" and "your father" in their recollections.
From a historical point of view, the strongest section comes around the halfway mark, with the genesis of I Love Lucy--a show created, in many ways, to keep the marriage together. We also learn that I Love Lucy has survived so well due not only to the timelessness of the shows, but the then-quaint notion of shooting on film with three cameras (as opposed to the kinescopes that were common at the time). The show not only revolutionized how sitcoms were written and performed, but literally how they were made--ideas that came from Desi, a TV novice who quickly became a mogul.
The documentary then hits the notes we're familiar with--the strain that success put on their marriage, Desi's drinking and infidelities, the break-up of two people who seemed the model for the American couple. This is where director Arnaz seems to lose command of the material, perhaps due to her lack of objectivity; there's no real inside scoop as to why the marriage failed (it seems a foregone conclusion), but also little insight on how the break-up was seen outside of the home.
Their years apart are given a quick wrap-up, while the couple's deaths are covered in a manner simultaneously perfunctory and maudlin. However, it does have a great moment at the end: home movie footage, shot by Arnaz herself, of the now-aged couple playing in a swimming pool with their first grandchild. Their interaction is guarded but affectionate, and the addition of sound to picture (their own home movies are all silent, of course) adds an extra layer of voyeurism to the moment. Their good-natured ribbing has decades of history behind it; it's just plain fascinating to watch. In moments like that one, Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie is valuable and compelling; it's a shame there aren't more of them.
Shot for television in the early 1990s, Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie looks about as good as you'd expect. The analog video interviews make for a pretty noisy 4:3 image, with colors and skin tones a bit on the dull side. Surprisingly, the home movies themselves are remarkably well-preserved; there's the occasional dirt or scratch, but they generally look great. Other vintage clips vary wildly, depending on the source materials. Overall, a slightly less than average video presentation, though about what you'd expect considering the age of the program.
The same can be said for the 2.0 audio track, which doesn't offer much in the way of dynamic range. Overall audibility is fine, but it is a little muddy in spots, occasionally rendering interview audio a bit difficult to make out.
MPI's bonus features are something of a mixed bag; those directly related to the documentary are the very definition of disposable, but the vintage Lucy & Desi clips are must-see. "Lucy Arnaz & Desi Arnaz Jr. Interview" (31:08) begins promisingly, with more old home movies of the kids, but the bulk of this half-hour is merely the raw interview used in the doc. Most of the interesting sound bites made it to the final product, so I'm not sure why you'd want to see it unedited. "Outtakes" (20:33) is a mixture of "bloopers" and clips cut from the film (some due to being "too blue" for TV)--it is entirely too long, in addition to being cutesy and self-conscious.
The good stuff includes "Lucy & Desi Commercials" (12:51), a compilation of the scripted commercials that the pair (and Fred and Ethel) did for Westinghouse in the later years of their show. They're work a peek--quant and funny, if not quite up to the comedy standards of the show that surrounded them. MPI also had the good sense to include a "Here's Lucy Promo" (2:03), pushing their DVD releases of Lucy's later, follow-up sitcom.
The best extras of the bunch are a pair of vintage TV game show clips. First we have an excerpt from "What's My Line?" (9:16). This 1955 clip shows Lucy and Desi popping in as the mystery celebrity guests for the popular panel show; it's a lot of fun. So is the full 1956 episode of "I've Got A Secret" (23:48), on which Lucy served as a panelist.
A viewer-controlled Photo Gallery closes out the bonus features.
As a biography, Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie comes up short; it lacks any particular spark or insight, with little of note added by the countless family members involved. But the rare, previously unseen home movies within, and the vintage TV appearances added for this disc, are valuable enough to at least invest the cost of a rental.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.