I was always more of a Honeymooners fan when I was younger, but I remember watching enough of I Love Lucy to appreciate it as one of the all-time great television sitcoms. Lucille Ball's transformation from B-movie starlet to television icon to studio mogul is one of the greatest of Hollywood success stories. Her love for husband, co-star and business partner Desi Arnaz lasted even beyond their eventual divorce, right up to their deaths.
Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by Coyne Steven Sanders & Tom Gilbert chronicles their life together in front of and behind the cameras. Desilu, of course, was the name of the studio they founded, the place where they filmed I Love Lucy, and its hour-long spin-off, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and created or produced some of the finest shows of TV's Golden Age. The book details its genesis, its rise and fall.
Lucy & Desi had a fiery relationship. For all the love they shared, their fights were equally epic. Desi had a reputation for drinking, gambling and womanizing, but as their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, explains in an early passage, it was his wild ways that drew Lucy to him in the first place:
... There's something in the kind of man you choose, the strength of the kind of man you choose. She knew what she was doing when she chose my father. She knew that he was a man who loved women, a 'Latin lover.' She always went after people like that, and kind of liked the challenge. It made her feel really womanly to love a guy who is clearly the 'loverboy,' and 'loverboy' falls in love with you, the clown. How fabulous that would make you feel.
Desi gets his due in the book as not just the perfect straight man for Lucy, but as an exceptional businessman and evaluator of ideas, one who built Desilu up into a formidable entity despite no prior experience as a Hollywood executive. Even after their divorce, Lucy sought his advice on day-to-day studio operations from time to time, including for series development.
We see Lucy not just as a gifted comic actress, but as a controlling, often dictatorial presence on the set, particularly on her subsequent series The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy, both made without Desi. She had very specific views on what she felt her audience wanted and expected from her, she used excessive measures to get them, on herself and others, and she refused to change with the times, even when she became less able physically to perform the same kind of slapstick she used to do in her prime.
That said, we also see examples of her remarkable generosity and sense of loyalty, her ability to make the cast and crew of each of her shows feel at home, like family. For all of the complaints of her intransigent ways, there are more hosannas in her honor. Plus, we see Lucy & Desi's children, Lucie and Desi Jr., their respective careers as well as their problems.
Among the many people interviewed include the late Robert Osborne. Long before he became the host of Turner Classic Movies, he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, but more importantly, he was an actor and a confidante of Lucy's way back in the 50s. Osborne was part of a group of Desilu contract players, organized and supervised by Lucy (including, Star Trek fans, a young Majel Barrett). I was pleasantly surprised to see what he looked like as a young man.
My only real criticism is that I would've liked a little more about some of the better known I Love Lucy episodes. Sanders & Gilbert touch on a handful here and there, but not the all-timers, the ones everyone knows: Vitameatavegamin, stomping the grapes, the chocolates on the conveyor belt, etc. I didn't expect an episode guide, but these were the moments that helped build the legend. Otherwise, I liked Desilu. Seeing the specifics of Lucy & Desi's relationship, the tension as well as the passion, was quite moving, especially towards the end. Theirs was a rare and unique love.
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