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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lucy and Desi In The Movies --- Part 1

Do the names Perry Sheehan and Kathryn Reed ring a bell for anyone? I mention these forgotten MGM starlets as they were elected to accompany the New Moon trailer shown here on its cross-country tour to promote The Long, Long Trailer, Metro’s 1954 comedy feature with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. For every Lucy, there were a hundred --- no, make that a thousand --- Perrys and Kathryns. They were the utility girls, $200 a week (if that) contract players being tried out in bit roles and walk-ons to determine whether they had the stuff for a major stardom push. I looked up both ladies on imdb. Perry Sheehan was two years at Metro. She was never credited. Her "parts" amounted to extra and/or walk-on. A magnifying glass might reveal Perry in Dream Wife, The Girl Who Had Everything, Battle Circus, or The Long, Long Trailer. Kathryn Reed (if it’s the right person) came up on my search, with a credit for Around The World In 80 Days, in which she too is listed as an extra. Non-starters both, but if either are alive today, I wonder how they look back upon those weeks of travelling the countryside on Metro’s behalf, meeting with fans, exhibitors, car dealers, Philip Morris field men --- that vast army of advertising troops deployed on a mission to sell The Long, Long Trailer during a cold 1954 winter. Omaha mayor Glenn Cunningham gave them the key to the city, shown here. Glenn no doubt assumed Perry and Kathryn were stars because someone told him they were stars. Folks took things pretty much at face value in Omaha, I suspect. These cash awards being dispersed in Jacksonville were MGM Record’s recognition for the best display window tie-up for The Long, Long Trailer album. Perry and Kathryn are greeting a department store employee, a theatre manager, and an art shop designer. Each of these guys probably picked up fifty or so dollars that day for jobs well done and were surely thrilled to get it, for like the two starlets, they were cogs in a well-oiled Metro publicity machine, still operating at maximum efficiency, even in this twilight of the studio system.

New Moon trailers aren’t around anymore, but they were a big deal in the fifties. So were Ford-Mercury automobiles. And Philip Morris cigarettes. All of them wanted to climb aboard that parade float with Lucy and Desi as it headed for the bank deposit window. MGM hated television, but they weren’t above doing business with the most popular couple in America, and their weekly viewership of fifty million people (imagine any program pulling that on a regular basis today). By the summer of 1953, when The Long, Long Trailer went into production, Desilu Manufacturers had developed a full line of varied products, all of which figured into the campaign. There were dress patterns, Little Ricky dolls (here’s Lucy and Desi inspecting one of those), smoking jackets, his and her pajamas, furniture, sport shirts, hobby horses, and puppets. Philip Morris was I Love Lucy’s principal TV sponsor, so they naturally wanted in on the action. Five hundred of their field men went to work on co-ops with Blue Moon and Mercury (Philip Morris signs show up twice in the finished movie). A work print of the feature was shown at the Cleveland Trailer Exhibition in the fall of 1953, and Blue Moon dealers were addressed by Lucy and Desi via long-distance hook-up. The trailer/starlet junket set forth on January 19, 1954, four weeks in advance of the opening at Radio City Music Hall. A shimmering new 1954 Mercury, just like the one Desi drives in the movie, was used to pull the trailer. Local dealers were briefed as to the caravan’s arrival, and seven-foot standees were provided to decorate Mercury showrooms. B.W. Faires was a trailer dealer in Charlotte, NC who was handling the Blue Moon line. He got permission from the local police to park one of his leviathans in front of the Carolina Theatre for their engagement, and from that vantage point, he conducted tours for departing patrons. A lot of people bought their first home on wheels as a direct result of seeing The Long, Long Trailer.

The money train might have derailed in September 1953 were it not for Metro’s expert intervention in a ticklish situation that had developed for Lucy. Scandalmongers claimed she was a communist sympathizer, and The New York Times reported her admission of having registered with the party seventeen years before. It was one thing to pillory a Larry Parks or Gale Sondergaard, but this was the most beloved comedienne in the nation, and her public wasn’t about to accept an industry shutout for their Lucy. The expected avalanche of letters and telegrams, all of them spread thin across the columns by MGM flacks, took care of naysayers, and fans were reassured that The Long, Long Trailer would indeed open on schedule (here's Lucy and Desi on-set with Keenan Wynn and MGM boss Dore Schary). That crucial period between production (June/July 1953) and release (February 1954) saw nationwide rollout of Cinemascope and remodeling of Radio City Music Hall, The Long, Long Trailer’s premiere site. Their new screen, shown here, was a whopping seventy feet wide and thirty-two feet high. MGM’s first Cinemascope release, Knights Of The Round Table, had just come off a triumphal engagement when standard ratio Trailer opened. It seemed the public now wanted everything projected on a wide screen. Toward satisfying said unexpected demand, Metro issued fresh (if not misleading) ad art heralding the "Great Panoramic Screen" upon which The Long, Long Trailer would be projected. Exhibitor attempts to impose wide screen projection would find director Vincente Minnelli’s
compositions badly mangled. Minnelli was heard to complain as well about economy measures with regards the color. Ansco was anything but flattering to human subjects. Actresses’ faces look dirty, he said, but the director's warnings went unheeded --- for as it turned out, seeing Lucy and Desi even in substandard color proved irresistible for ticket-buyers. The mop-up started with domestic rentals of $3.9 million against a negative cost of $1.5 (Lucy and Desi took a $250,000 fee for their combined effort), and foreign rentals were $1.1 (their names didn’t mean so much in television deprived territories). Profits amounted to $1.6 million.

Ann and I watched The Long, Long Trailer this week. She is one of those who loves Lucy. I’ve seen only three of four of the TV episodes. The two of us were in agreement about this feature, however. It is anything but funny. Disturbing might be a better word to describe this one. Obviously, it worked better in the fifties. The Long, Long, Trailer has always been fairly well regarded, so perhaps I’m just too old for these gags and situations to work anymore. The prospect of Desi’s character investing every penny he owns into such a colossally misguided venture proved every bit as stressful for me as for him. The orgy of destruction and misfortune that dogs the couple, augmented by Lucy’s non-stop hectoring (itself a slippery slope on her TV programs), really gets out of hand here. Ann said Trailer played like I Love Lucy on speed. If nothing else, it shows how vitally these two needed another couple to play shock absorber. The Mertz equivalent is sorely missed. Marjorie Main and Keenan Wynn might have filled the breach, but they’re only in for what amounts to extended cameos, leaving the Arnazes to flail about in mudholes, fall face first into gooey cakes, and otherwise engage in conduct unbecoming a middle-aged romantic comedy couple. Pratfalls on a black-and-white apartment set are one thing. These slapstick set pieces are staged all too realistically on what look to be dangerous locations. When Lucy and Desi attempt to pull their overloaded trailer up the side of a mountain, the thing assumes a Wages Of Fear level of tension, and shots of them hanging precariously at the edge of the abyss evoke Cary Grant’s later imperilment in North By Northwest, only Cary manages to get more laughs. The fact no one wore seat belts in those days makes it all the more threatening. When Desi unintentionally wrecks a house (on the old Meet Me In St. Louis street), I felt every bit as abashed as he. Do we find destruction of property less a source of humor as we grow older and appreciate the value of money? While all this wreckage piled up, I kept thinking of the character's increasingly desperate financial position. I just don’t like to laugh when they hurt, and there are moments when Desi in particular conveys desperate hurt. The Long, Long Trailer's opening, for instance, plays like noir, even to the point of having Maroni Olsen, Mildred Pierce’s old interrogator, as underlit counsel to Arnaz. For what it’s worth, I much prefer Forever Darling
, the despised Lucy/Desi follow-up feature, and the subject of tomorrow’s Part 2.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

M-G-M already had a sort of under-the-counter relationship with Lucy and Desi prior to "The Long, Long Trailer" in that the studio's animation department provided the cartoon titles (with a stick figure Lucy and Desi carvorting around a pack of Phillip Morris cigarettes)that opened original network air prints of I Love Lucy.

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is remotely possible that "Kathryn Reed" could be the same Kathryn Reed who has been married to Robert Altman since 1959. Ms. Reed Altman is reportedly a former actress.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine example of true classic Americana is always had when watching this movie. An iconic couple navigating through their new relationship during a time when each sex had a true role. Include excitement like gleaming new cars and modern luxurious trailers, happy people in 5-star trailer parks willing to lend a's a sadly missed era when life is so serious right now. Who can't relate to their stuggles and for me, it's still greatly irresistible.

11:36 PM  

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