The making of the 'Lucy and Desi' documentary
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally, today, I bet you recognize this voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")
LUCILLE BALL: (As Lucy) Hello, friends. I'm your Vitameatavegamin girl. Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? The answer to all your problems is in this little ottle (ph) - little bottle.
MARTIN: Who else could that be but Lucille Ball playing Lucy in - what else? - the "I Love Lucy" show. The groundbreaking TV show, which featured Ball alongside her real-life husband, Cuban American bandleader and producer Desi Arnaz, catapulted the couple into superstardom almost immediately after it debuted in 1951. Now a new Amazon documentary called "Lucy And Desi" takes a fresh look at the legendary show and its impact on television, and it also draws an intimate portrait of the two stars' lives and careers and the impact of fame on their marriage. One of the voices offering expert commentary is someone who would know - Lucie Arnaz, Lucy and Desi's daughter and a performer in her own right, and she is with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
LUCIE ARNAZ: Thanks, Michel. It's my pleasure.
MARTIN: I got to tell you for me, one of the things that's special about the documentary is that we hear Lucy and Desi in their own voices, talking about their lives and careers from tapes that they recorded later in life. Did you make these tapes?
ARNAZ: No. These are many, many tapes that I was - well, when my mother made hers, it was in the mid, you know, '60s, early '60s. I was at school. I wasn't having anything to do with that. I was a young kid. She made them.
MARTIN: Well, what were they made for? What was the story of that?
ARNAZ: They were made because a woman was going to do an article on her for Ladies Home Journal, and so - Betty Hannah Hoffman. And Betty would come to the house and ask her questions and then tape, you know, my mother's answers. And then, for some crazy reason, the Ladies Home Journal decided not to do the article. I think that may have been the only time that ever happened to my mother in her whole entire life. They went, yeah, we're not doing that Lucille Ball thing. We're going to do something else. And Betty was horrified because she'd taken up all this time with my mother, and then they're saying they're not going to print the article, the interview. So my mother took pity on her and said, well, hell, you know, Betty, you have so much information here. You might as well do a book. And Betty said, oh, I'd love to. Let's do that, but I need to ask you even more questions now. So she sent her a list of questions, and then my mother would slap her tape recorder on and answer them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BALL: I got my big start for any of the comedy that I finally got into on radio.
MARTIN: There's just so much here. But, you know, I think when people think of the show, they think of Lucy and her comedic genius, and the film certainly unpacks that. But the documentary also highlights your father's gifts as a producer, you know, putting the show on film, taping it straight through with multicameras in front of a live audience. Why was that important to showcase?
ARNAZ: To put in the documentary, you mean?
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
ARNAZ: Well, I think a lot of people don't - still, after all this time, many people don't realize what his contribution really was, other than being the world's greatest straight man, which he really was. And that's not an easy job, to be the guy to, you know, sort of sit on the comedy and make it believable. And - but he was just this wonderful, inventive, brave Cuban Latino who wasn't afraid to take chances and risks and wasn't afraid to say, why not? What do you mean we can't? Why can't we? And I think that's a Latin thing. I really do. But he had a tremendous talent for being tactful, for being a good boss, for not micromanaging people, getting it done. What needs to be done? How do we do it? Let's do that. Let's figure this out.
MARTIN: Well, he launched so many - his - their production company launched so many of the shows that - I mean, "I Love Lucy" is certainly iconic, but so many of these shows the production company launched that are iconic today as well.
MARTIN: And, you know, it just floors you to think about it. But, you know, also, another thing is there are so many ways in which your parents - and I'm going to use the fancy, current word here - the way they challenged cultural norms, right? The fact that your parents came from such different backgrounds, the fact that your father didn't change his name or lose or hide his accent. He spoke Spanish on television sometimes. You know, this is at a time when I can tell you, look, I have friends whose parents who were their age would be punished for speaking Spanish in school. I mean, literally, kids would get their hands slapped with a ruler for speaking Spanish in school. And here - in some places. And here he is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")
DESI ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo, speaking Spanish).
BALL: (As Lucy) How dare you say that to me?
ARNAZ: (As Ricky) What did I say?
BALL: (As Lucy) I don't know. But how dare you?
MARTIN: And I could name a bunch of other things, like - you point out in the film female friendship, the fact that Lucy was open about the fact that she really wanted to work outside the home. So these days, we talk a lot about representation. They were representation. Did - do you think they knew that? Was that something conscious? You know, was that something that they talked about, or was that just who they were?
ARNAZ: Yeah. No. You know, everybody has now found what was amazing about, oh, it was, you know, before women's lib, and she was a feminist and a trailblazer, and he invented this. I don't think that they were anywhere near those thoughts at those times. They wanted to stay home, stay in California, not have to go to New York. And that's the only reason they had to figure out how to do that, which was Lucy works in front of an audience. If you're going to stay home, you're going have to figure out how to do it from there. We can't have this crappy kinescope film. You know, we can't - you can't send us that in New York. So we had to figure out, OK, how do I put her on film so that they get good quality? And how do we do film in front of an audience because she works in front of an audience? And it was just solving problems just every day, and they knew that she could do comedy and it was just being funny, finding situations that people could identify with. And my mother always said she didn't want to play rich people. She wanted to play ordinary people.
MARTIN: You know, I got to tell you, though, Ms. Arnaz, that I loved that show and I loved your documentary. But I don't know whether it warms my heart or it breaks my heart because - you said it yourself - they did the show so that they could be together and have a family. But they never got the one thing they wanted, which was to stay together.
MARTIN: And it talks so much about all the things that kind of, you know, conspired to make that not happen. How does it - how do you feel when you think about their story?
ARNAZ: The truth is they really - at least my mother really enjoyed working a hell of a lot more than she enjoyed actually staying home with her family. That's not to say she didn't love us. She did. But I don't even think she knew how much she needed to be in front of an audience. So when it got to be too big a deal, my father was like, hey, we could quit. We can just go. We got enough money now. We can live wherever we want to live, spend time with our kids, teach them how to ride and how to fish. We'll get a house at the beach. We're good. And she went, or. And he said, or? Well, we got a production company here. We either got to get a whole lot bigger to compete with the studios that are now coming into television - you know, either get - we got to quit, or we got to get a lot bigger. She said, well, I don't want to quit.
MARTIN: Get bigger. Well, before we let you go, it's been lovely talking with you. Thanks so much for chatting with us. Do you have - you know, isn't this terrible? I have to ask you this - does any - do you have a favorite episode of "I Love Lucy"?
ARNAZ: You know, I wish I'd had some really clever answer to that because I have been asked it an awful lot of times. And I - sometimes I would say something smarmy like, no, they never wrote an episode about where they actually come home.
ARNAZ: I missed them.
But truthfully, there are so many favorites. I mean, there are 180, 179 shows, and there really isn't a terrible one. Some are way funnier than others, but they're all really good to watch and laugh at and learn from. And I think that's the best legacy they left for people is this laughter, is such a healing, wonderful thing and a great way to communicate with people and break the ice. And we're even using it as a teaching tool now in schools, to show "I Love Lucy" and then talk about, how did she get into the predicament like that? And how could - how should she have gotten out of it? You know? It's just been a great thing in so many ways. It's a healing tonic for the planet, and I think the planet needs a healing tonic at the moment.
MARTIN: That was Lucie Arnaz. She's the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The documentary "Lucy And Desi," which is directed by Amy Poehler, is streaming now on Amazon Prime. Lucie Arnaz, thanks so much for spending this time with us and appreciate all of your work. And thank you for your parents, who gave us this great gift.
ARNAZ: It's been a delight. I listen to NPR all the time, and it's a pleasure to be on with you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELIOT DANIEL'S "'I LOVE LUCY' THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.