What a pair of daydreamers that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz seem to have been. In the CBS Sunday night movie "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter," at 9 on Channel 9, they take turns dozing into and out of one drowsy flashback after another as they prepare to film the first episode of their TV classic "I Love Lucy."
Lucy looks into the mirror and -- whoosh, flashback. Desi lights a cigarette -- he's gone. She gets a bouquet of yellow roses from him and -- you know. It's a clumsy structure for a crummy film, but one that belongs to the TV genre of tolerably terrible. Since it is based, however raggedly, on the lives of two famous people, it does have a moderately compelling, gossipy glitz.
Not only the lives, but the sex lives. The film covers the rocky courtship and stormy marriage of Arnaz and Ball, who met in the '40s at RKO when they made the prophetically titled film "Too Many Girls." Too many girls would prove to be a problem for the marriage, since Arnaz had a penchant for philandering. You might call it a Cuban missile crisis.
The movie is so obsessed with this aspect of their lives, however, that it ignores most others and becomes groaningly repetitious. It's ironic that CBS, whose success was helped immensely by the Ball-Arnaz team in the '50s, would produce a film that comes very close to trashing them now.
It's a sloppy film too, and a cheap-looking one, right down to the poorly recorded, tiny-tacky band that plays the "I Love Lucy" theme on the soundtrack. Ay, caramba! But there's one thing in the movie's favor: Frances Fisher's performance as Lucille Ball. It's not a caricature, though in some shots she looks a great deal like Lucy, and it's far more intelligent than the movie itself.
One does feel sympathy for the character as Fisher plays her, struggling to keep a shaky marriage together, having paranoid panic attacks every time Desi even glances at another woman, suffering a miscarriage the first time she gets pregnant. Ball insisted that band leader Arnaz star as her husband on her TV series -- after playing opposite Richard Denning on the radio sitcom "My Favorite Husband" -- because she wanted Arnaz to quit the road and the temptations it offered.
Ball's daughter, Lucie Arnaz, and son, Desi Jr., have both denounced CBS's film. They were reportedly to be involved in production of the movie so they could safeguard their parents' reputations. When no script could be agreed upon, producer Larry Thompson went on without them.
In making their objections public, however, they provided Thompson's movie with a ton of valuable publicity that could help make tomorrow's telecast a ratings hit.
Maurice Benard, the young actor cast as Desi, can't hold a candle to Fisher, and certainly doesn't hold one to Arnaz, either. Benard looks less like Arnaz than like Keefe Brasselle; maybe he can get himself cast in "The Keefe Brasselle Story." (Who is Keefe Brasselle? You are young, aren't you?) Benard keeps lapsing into plaintive pouts while Ball bawls. Benard's voice is weak too, whether talking or, disastrously, singing.
In addition to inauthentic versions of Arnaz trademarks like "Cuban Pete" and "Babalu," some scenes are accompanied by an off-screen singer offering inappropriate oldies like "Night and Day." Whose dumb idea was that?
In the second half of the film, Arnaz and Ball are seen breaking in a comedy act onstage during one of Arnaz's appearances with his band. Fisher is up to the task and Benard is not. That holds true later when they re-create, in black-and-white, an excerpt from an "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy thinks Ricky is trying to murder her.
The dialogue dips pretty low along the way, with one of the lowest points a scene in which Ball's aging and ailing grandpa, staring at her from a sick bed, announces, "You look like an angel, Lucy Ball -- and soon, I'm gonna be one." The film was directed by Charles Jarrott, the dull fellow who made "Anne of the Thousand Days" seem more like a million.
Of course, everyone knows why this Lucy-Desi movie exists. It was made because each time CBS has mined Lucy lore in recent years, it has struck ratings gold, whether with the telecast of the long-lost Christmas episode of "I Love Lucy" or with the airing of the even longer-lost pilot show.
The most depressing thing is that "Before the Laughter" is said to be Part 1 of a trilogy. Clearly, CBS doesn't mind tarnishing a legend in order to exploit it.
"The Chase" is the darndest movie.
NBC's film, airing tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4, is about how the lives of disparate, ordinary people are changed when they intersect with the flight of a fugitive. But halfway through the film, most of those lives still have failed to do any intersectin'.
You're following umpteen plot lines and wondering when on earth they are going to converge. Even so, the very oddness of the film becomes an asset, as do the many airy Denver locations. Most TV movies look like each other. This one, supposedly based on a true story, is different.
All the characters in the film are on the brink of turning points. Helicopter pilot Mike Silva (Robert Beltran, of "Eating Raoul" fame) is tired of his chopper jockey job at a local TV station and has been taking night classes in meteorology. He has a bold dream: "I want to be the first real flying weatherman," he says.
Talk about thinking big!
In completely separate story lines, we also meet Ricki Lake as Tammie Davis, a fat girl at a credit union who has a crush on the boy in the next cubicle; Ben Johnson (who seems to be turning into Burl Ives) as John Laurienti, a crusty codger who cares for a retarded daughter and who fears he and his truck are both on their last few miles; and Barry Corbin as Bob Wallis, a likable cop who is 100 days from retirement, he thinks.
There's also Megan Follows, who played "Anne of Green Gables" on public TV and the Disney Channel, doing an about-face as the confused, pregnant, dope-toting mate of a sleazy drug dealer.
The catalyst who changes all these lives unexpectedly is a small-time low-life named Phillip Hutchinson (Casey Siemaszko), who has escaped from a Texas prison and come to Denver to compile a new record of crime, in the hope of stealing enough money to escape to Brazil. Why Brazil? Because, he explains to a pal, he hates wearing hats and coats.
Whether fact-based or not, some of the details in the script, by Guerdon Trueblood, defy logic. One cop dies when he steps in front of a speeding car driven by the fugitive -- never a good idea. But the stories tumble out arrestingly, and Siemaszko's portrait of the armed thief is complex enough that you are likely to find his plight poignant and his demise sad.
The title is misleading, since the actual chasing doesn't occur until the last quarter of the movie, and then takes about only 12 minutes of screen time. Besides, the title was already used at least twice previously, most recently for that awful 1966 potboiler written by Lillian Hellman and starring Marlon Brando.
NBC's "Chase" isn't one for anybody's archives, but there's something artlessly proficient about it just the same.
You never know what's going to pop up on cable's ragtag Discovery Channel, and neither, it would seem, do the executives who run it. Last Saturday, they sneaked onto the air with no fanfare a delightful 1988 British-made series about American cult movies called "The Incredibly Strange Film Show," written and hosted by Jonathan Ross.
It's a nifty little expedition, just the kind of thing those stuffy snobs at PBS would never dream of doing, but should.
The first program was a profile of the bawdy bard of Baltimore, John "Pink Flamingos" Waters. The second show, at 11 tonight, looks at the work of George A. Romero, director of the "Living Dead" trilogy, and Tom Savini, the goremeister makeup man who teamed up with Romero and brought sickening realism to cinematic blood-and-guts.
Ross has just the right attitude for dealing with movies that are called "psychotronic" in some circles (and I do mean circles) and which nobody makes with the same panache as Americans. Romero, interviewed in his native and beloved Pittsburgh, seems affable and accessible discussing his work.
"Night of the Living Dead," the zombie cannibal masterpiece that marked Romero's debut, launched a new kind of explicit horror film. It has also been hailed as a nihilist metaphor about social collapse. "As far as the tone of the picture, I think it just came from the anger of the times," Romero says. "It was 1968, and nobody was in a very gleeful mood about the way the world was going... ."
Ross corralled two members of the original cast: Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, who played Harry and Helen Cooper. Hardman doubled as co-producer and Eastman as a zombie, explaining, "We were short of ghouls that day." The film's low budget required the help of family and colleagues. Says Romero, "The zombies were all friends of ours."
Tom Savini, interviewed later, is less likable than Romero and has a penchant for saying things that are thoughtlessly offensive. When Savini was preparing his own 1990 remake of "Night of the Living Dead," he compared the demeanor of the zombies to that of Nazi concentration camp victims he had seen in newsreels.
With Ross, he explains that as a veteran of Vietnam, he knows he has achieved a good makeup effect when the corpse reminds him of those he saw on the battlefield. Obviously, Savini is one filmmaker who should stay behind the scenes and shut the hell up.
At the opposite side of that scale we find Ray Dennis Steckler, a self-mocking maker of really really low-budget films whom Ross encounters in Las Vegas on next week's show. Lauding him as "one of the true eccentrics of American cinema," Ross interviews not only Steckler but his alter-ego leading man, surly Cash Flagg, who is Steckler photographed from a different angle.
Steckler's ill-assorted works include one that inspired the title of Ross's series: "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies," billed in its trailer as "the world's first monster musical!" Like other Steckler films, it was shot without a script, which helps explain why, as Ross notes, Steckler's movies "start as one genre and end up as another."
The most tantalizing clips are from Steckler's "Rat Pfink a Boo-Boo," made for less than $5,000 in 1965. This one changed midstream from thriller to comedy because, Steckler says, "I got bored with the way we were doing it." The title was originally "Rat Pfink and Boo-Boo," but the opening credits arrived from a supplier with a typo, Steckler says, and he couldn't afford to have a correction made.
Future programs in the series (11 in all) will look at the work of such fringe-dwellers as the notorious Ed Wood, who made "Plan 9 From Outer Space," now proudly touted as the worst film of all time; and Herschell Gordon Lewis, expired auteur of "10,000 Maniacs" and other hysterical splatter shockers.
Once or twice on the Romero show, Ross seems to sneak in a snide anti-American remark. But his little 40-minute essays are really celebrations of pop Americana, a culture of such breadth and life that it shows enormous vitality even at its outermost, furthermost, nethermost limits. It is, indeed, the envy of the world.