You may have loved Lucy --and Desi, too--but 'Lucy & Desi' is hard to like

February 08, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter," at 9 p.m. Sunday on WBAL-TV (Channel 11), is astonishing in how dull it manages to become after about 15 minutes.

The CBS film is supposed to be the docudrama of the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz from about 1940 when they first met to October 1951 when their television series, "I Love Lucy," debuted.

The story could be an interesting one. Arnaz was a sexy, Cuban-American bandleader come to Hollywood to make movies. Ball was a hard-working actress starring in a lot of B movies. Their real-life relationship is a fascinating one when placed against the sociology of Hollywood in the 1940s and the American TV audience of the 1950s.

But, as is so often the case in bad biographical docudrama, the producers make the mistake of analyzing the story in the context of contemporary values.

"Before the Laughter" might have worked as a love story featuring a very determined woman (perhaps inspired by expanded roles for women both in Hollywood and the rest of American life during World War II) and a man who spoke accented English during an era when foreign was considered bad.

But, instead, we have a two-hour snorer about the heartbreak of two-career marriages and the need for both partners to feel equal status in their careers.

For Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker in 1991, it's an important issue. For Lucy and Desi in 1949, I'm sorry, it just was not. I interviewed Arnaz at length before his death.

There is outrage at some of the license CBS has taken under the guise of "based on the true story." Lucie Arnaz, their daughter, calls the film a "cartoon of their lives . . . based on nothing."

Frances Fisher looks like Lucy. Maurice Bernard sounds like Desi. For 15 minutes that's interesting. Then it becomes all too apparent that looks and sounds are all there is. "Before the Laughter" is a tale of looks and sounds signifying nothing.

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