Long Long Trailer, The: How Director Vincente Minnelli Tamed the Wild and Funny Lucille Ball

Producer Pandro Berman approached Vincente Minnelli with an idea for a new comedy, The Long, Long Trailer, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

It was Lucy, Berman’s old flame, who asked for Minnelli as director. She wanted to make a big screen movie that would exploit her comic TV style and yet not be totally imitative of it. To accommodate Lucy’s busy TV schedule, Minnelli shot the movie in the summer, during Lucys hiatus from her popular show, ‘I Love Lucy.”

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Screenwriters Goodrich and Hackett center the comedy on a housewife who almost drives her hubby crazy. Like the Father of the Bride, Long, Long Trailer has a dark quality to it, dealing with middle-class anxieties, both material and emotional. However, because of its star, Long, Long Trailer has a more anarchic tone and sharper satiric edge than the two Father movies.

Both as director and person, Minnelli could be warm and generous yet extremely demanding. He had an abstracted air about him that concealed a keen disciplinarian. Blessed with instinctive grasp of movie rhythm, Minnelli flaunted his penchant for throwaway wit and made another quintessentially Minnelli and MGM movie.

The difference between the Father of the Bride films and Long, Long Trailer reflect the shifting relationship between Hollywood and television as competing entertainment industries in the early 1950s. If the Father films featured legit movie stars in a story that led to small-screen imitations, Long Trailer tried to lure the growing TV audiences back to the movie theaters with TVs most beloved star, Lucille Ball.

 

At first, Hollywood tried to ignore the competition with TV. In fact, MGMs stars were not allowed to appear on TV, not even to promote their own movie. The studios were concerned with the fear of disclosingand losingtoo much of the stars glamour when presented on the small screen, without makeup and costumes, and with no pre-arranged script.

Unlike Paramount and Fox, MGM resisted wide-screen. In 1953, MGM trumpeted stereo sound, then magnified screens and 3-D, as a challenge to TVs smaller, black-and-white screen. Berman himself produced Knights of the Round Table, MGM’s first CinemaScope adventure.

Minnelli liked to follow his more somber and complex pictures with lighter comedic fare that was less expensive and took less time to shoot. It became a career pattern that would follow in the next decade. Hence, after the dark melodrama The Cobweb, Minnelli made Designing Woman, and after that comedy, he went back to melodramas with Some Came Running, made in the same year as the musical Gigi. In the 1960s, too, Minnelli alternated melodramatic movies like Two Weeks in Another Town with comedies on the order of The Courtship of Eddies Father and Goodbye, Charlie.

When Minnelli first met Lucille, she told him that she loved the idea of a big-screen comeback. The big-screen still held an edge over TV in cachet, if not in money paid or audiences size. After two decades in Hollywood, Lucille was still a second-stringer, and the public still associated her as Bob Hope’s foil in mediocre Paramount movies. At 40, Lucille was not young when I Love Lucy premiered in 1951, and the time was ripe to retry Hollywood before it was too late for her as a big-screen persona.

As for Dasi, he had fared in Hollywood even worse than Lucille, appearing mostly in B-pictures. The couple perceived their potential return to Hollywood stardom as a coup, and to do it in movie directed by MGM’s most distinguished filmmaker was even more seductive and prestigious. Blessed with shrewd instinct for comedy, Minnelli encouraged Lucy and Dasi to tackle the tailor-made roles with their special brand of farce.

Shooting began on June 18, 1953, during TV’s summer hiatus. For Minnelli, it was a pleasant reprise of the smooth process he had experienced with the two Father pictures. Though Long Trailer involved outdoor locations, Minnelli shot it under four weeks, benefiting from Lucy and Dasis habit of working rapidly and efficiently.

There was not interference, or much communication, from Berman, for a simple reason. The producer was in London supervising Knights, while Minnelli shot Long Trailer at Culver City. Minnelli had only one argument with the studio. Aiming to distinguish its picture from Lucys weekly TV series, Metros execs toyed with the ideas of 3-D Lucy in color to convey more vividly what they described as her “dizzying redhead.”

The studio was then in the process of dropping the saturated Technicolor in favor of the less complex and expensive Ansco Color system (soon to be supplanted by Eastman, redubbed Metrocolor). Minnelli disliked Ansco’s duller spectrum, which made women’s faces seem dirty.” Still in London, Berman defended his director, but MGM declined and Ansco remained. Minnelli relented, though a more urgent fight would occur two years later during pre-production for Lust for Life.

In real life, Lucy and Dasi were not much younger than the book’s author and his wife, but the script casts them as newlyweds, which was not exactly creditable. As a character, Nicky is a Latin amalgam of Father of the Bride and luckless bridegroom, surrounded by nuptial revelry. Lucy likes life on the open road, while Nicky is more earthbound. In the end, their very marriage is threatened by their slapstick honeymoon.

The movie contains many of Lucys classic slapstick routines. A night in the forest ends with a mud bath for her. While a cheery Arnaz navigates the road, she prepares the evening’s “gourmet” meal, a culinary catastrophe with flying utensils and flowing flour.

Usually, in Minnelli’s movies, the movement spells magic, but here, his camera’s full-tilt diagonals cant conceal the material’s low-farce nature. Rather consciously, Minnelli pays tribute to his own work. Always loyal to character actors, Minnelli cast Moroni Olsen (the grooms father in the Father movies) as a trailer-park manager who reunites the bickering Collinis. The Clock’s Keenan Wynn plays a stoic traffic cop, and Marjorie Main, Meet Me In St Louis’s bumptious housekeeper, was cast as the intrusive neighbor who turns their wedding night into a wild party.

As usual, detachment lends some wit to Minnelli’s style, and he benefits from treating the story as a farce. Despite these touches, however, Long, Long Trailer is one of Minnelli’s lowest concoctions, one of his few escapist comedies that’s a concession to the mass publics vulgar taste.

Initially, Metro feared that Lucy and Dasi’s fans would be reluctant to pay money to see them on the big screen, when they can get them for free in their living rooms. Nonetheless, the mass public embraced the feature-length romp, which premiered in February 1954 at Radio City Music Hall, and grossed over $4 million in domestic rentals, making it even more profitable than the already popular Father movies.