THEY DON'T MAKE movies like "Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter" any more -- for good reason. Though the plot is decorated with rocky shoals and turbulent straits, this story of the romance and marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the years leading up to the debut of "I Love Lucy" is still, at base, just another Hollywood fairy tale.
And in the Hollywood of such movies, the rocks are made of papier-mache, the turbulence comes from a wind machine and, in the end, everyone lives happily ever after. You would have thought that "Mommie Dearest" would have put an end to such nonsense, but no such luck.
This CBS movie, which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday night at 9 o'clock, has made the tabloid headlines because the Arnaz children, Desi and Lucie, have objected to its production. Reportedly, they were involved in a previous attempt to make such a film with the executive producer of this one, Larry Thompson, and were angered when CBS and Thompson decided to go on without them.
Comments attributed to Lucie Arnaz, who currently has a series on CBS of her own, "Sons and Daughters," indicate that her objections are for the right reasons, that this is a lightweight piece of fluff, not a genuine effort at biography.
The show is tructured as a series of flashbacks that are supposed to take place on opening night of "I Love Lucy," the first filming of that TV show in 1951.
At key moments, either Lucy or Desi gets some faraway look in the eyes and next thing you know we're in the studio commissary as a hot young Cuban bandleader tries to brush off his next would-be ingenue, a studio contract actress from upstate New York.
The script puts its emphasis on the romance between these two entertainers, with very little factual matter aside from those personal matters. You don't really know what movies Ball is making during these years, for instance, or exactly how Arnaz's career either flourished or faltered.
Indeed, the whole genesis of "I Love Lucy" is seen purely from a personal point of view, as a way of getting these two people working together so that their marriage could be saved. The more interesting story of how it evolved from a radio show to the first TV show that was filmed and not performed live, and what that eventually did to the TV business, is not even chronicled.
In most of the flashbacks, it's Desi who has "some splainin' to do" as he can't stop his eyes or other bodily parts from wandering during their courtship and marriage.
But, in keeping with the fairy tale aspects of this movie, though Desi's transgressions are properly cataloged, they are also carefully couched in a way that maintains his status as a cultural icon due appropriate reverence.
He is depicted as a hapless victim of extremely aggressive and highly attractive females. What's a fella to do, huh? He wants desperately to be a good husband, he's deeply in love with Lucy, but these women just won't let him alone. Ay, carumba!
The script is so silly and cartoon-like when it's not hard at work on narrative exposition that it's difficult to make any sort of judgment about the abilities of the stars who were clearly chosen in large part because they do resemble Lucy and Desi. There's no doubt that Frances Fisher comes off better than Maurice Bernard does, but it was written for Lucy to come off better than Desi, too.
Fisher is at her best on the few occasions when she gets to play Lucille Ball being the public persona of Lucy that we all know so well. As the actual Ball, she affects a nice physical presence and manner, but is hard put to deliver the lines she's given with any authenticity.
Bernard's Desi is almost a caricature. Even his accent, though basically correct, sounds silly at times. You do wish he would lose that hurt puppy dog expression he affects every time Desi comes crawling back to Lucy asking to be forgiven yet again.
The bottom line is that "Lucy and Desi" tries to make you think you're seeing behind the scenes while it actually keeps the scenery intact, supporting the illusion that, once the TV show began, Lucy and Desi really were Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the wacky and wonderfully in love people we visited every week.
And why not? The Ricardos got good ratings, so don't mess with success.
"Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter" * * A show biz biography of the turbulent marriage between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the years before the production of "I Love Lucy."
CAST: Frances Fisher, Maurice Bernard
TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)