Retro Cinema Classics: ‘The Long, Long Trailer’ (1954)
The Long, Long Trailer is a 1954 film starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz directed by Vincente Minnelli. At the time of the film’s release, I Love Lucy was about to start its third year and was the highest rated show on television. This film was made clearly made to capitalize on their success, and puts a lot of effort into mirroring the formula that made their show so popular. Tacy (Lucille Ball) and Nicky (Desi Arnaz) are a newlywed couple who buy a luxury trailer home that they must drive from California to Colorado, where Nicky has a new job. Even the names are clearly mirrors of the ones from the show, and the characterization is extremely similar in all regards. What The Long, Long Trailer has that the TV show does not is Technicolor, outdoor locations and a variety of locales. What it lacks? Just about everything that makes I Love Lucy popular to this day.
It is difficult to really say what happens when a television series transitions from small screen to big screen and why it doesn’t always success. Though this isn’t a direct spinoff from the show, there is little doubt that they were looking to capitalize off the show’s success. The film, however, lacks all the humour and heart that still makes I Love Lucy popular today. It ultimately feels bloated and lazy, totally lacking in a dramatic structure that makes the characters or situation sympathetic or interesting. The humour falls universally flat and the various obstacles facing this young married couple feel artificial.
A perfect example of the film’s ineptitude comes about midway, when the couple arrives at the home of Tacy’s relatives. Tacy introduces Nicky to the family, while making jokes about not being able to distinguish between two young twin girls and consistently forgetting to identify the “strange” cousin Grace. The family members go onto feed Nicky’s ego by praising his bravery and skill in being able to navigate the three ton trailer, only to have the sequence lead him to having to unsuccessfully back it up into the home’s drive-way. The characterization of the supporting characters never amounts to very much, except for the occasionally strange shot of Grace behind a tree or making a strange face as she watches in gleeful horror at Nicky’s failures. The sequence not only fails in terms of suspense, but lacks in terms of comedy. As it quickly becomes apparent that Nicky is not going to hit the drive-way and instead hits some roses, there is little in the way of stakes involved – even when he rips away part of the house, you can only shrug your shoulders and think “so what?” There is nothing very funny or clever about seeing a rose bush destroyed. Even as the sequence rounds to an end the next morning as Tacy and Nicky head back on the road, they are neither richer nor poorer for the event, as the family refuses to accept a cheque from Nicky and he insists they keep their wedding gift. What was gained, what was lost? Nothing at all.
Where did this film fail? Obviously the chemistry between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is well honed at this point, and for very brief moments we are able to glimpse at the rapport that makes them such a credible screen couple. Small details, like the way that Arnaz will give Lucille Ball a small kiss on the nose before the lips are precious and incalculable moments of intimacy that are rare in films from this era. The director, Vincente Minnelli is one of the very best from the studio era, and consistently was able to elevate the material he was working with. Even the film’s writer, Albert Hackett, had worked on some of the best films ever made; including It’s a Wonderful Life and The Thin Man, as well as a variety of other Vincente Minnelli films. Perhaps it is a classic case of producers underestimating audiences, believing they will eat up a sub-par product based solely on the pedigree of its stars.
The Long, Long Trailer feels like a pale imitation of the I Love Lucy TV series. Though today the original TV series does not necessarily scream with the same originality it did when it initially aired, the many innumerable sitcom plot lines and conventions of television making that began with this show make it to this day one of the most important TV series of all time. The strength of that show though, always came from the relationship between the leads, especially as we watched them grow over the course of the series from young couple just barely scraping by, to a middle class nuclear family. Considering the intuitive business nature of both Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in terms of their TV show, one would think that they would bring the same sense of innovation to the big screen. Unfortunately that isn’t the case, and this film offers very little to the contemporary viewer.
– Justine Smith