Who said nostalgia ain’t what it used to be? Obviously, someone who hasn’t spent three hours with Lucille Ball and Paul Whiteman in two movies from the thrilling days of yesteryear: The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and The King of Jazz (1930). The former is slapstick-in-a-Winnebago, while the latter is. . . well. . . something else. I’m writing about both films this month because I believe that this is the kind of double bill that gives us all a welcome break from sanity. There’s an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about these old Technicolor films: you fall down the rabbit hole and wind up in a world that looks exactly like the ads in 1950’s copies of National Geographic and Life magazine. A world where you can get away with 10-minute musical fantasies about wedding dresses, operatic solos about Caesar salads, and calling an RV a “Bungalette”.
If, before I watched The Long, Long Trailer, someone had asked for my opinion of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz, I would have done them an injustice. I’m not a fan of comedy based on hysteria. The old Lucille Ball Show which I remember from my childhood struck me even then as overly shrill—humor succumbing to frenzy. A couple of decades after the show went off the air, the NBC Saturday Night Live crew parodied it unmercifully, with Lucy putting nuclear warheads together on an assembly line until the inevitable foul- ups called down Armageddon. I still believe it was the ultimate Lucille Ball Show. Where I was mistaken was in underestimating how genuinely talented Desi and Lucille were as comedians. The Long, Long Trailer shows them in their prime. The movie’s got some of the energy and mechanical inventiveness of a Buster Keaton film.
I could try and describe some of my favorite scenes in The Long, Long Trailer, but would you rather read about a deadly chocolate cheesecake with hazelnut crust, served with poached figs, and passion fruit and cherry sauces, or go out and eat one? Suffice it to say that Lucy and Desi, as honeymooners hauling a 40-ft Titanic across America, are the biggest recipe for disaster since the Ancient Mariner shot the albatross.
The Long, Long Trailer wouldn’t work at all without Lucille Ball’s and Desi Arnaz’s talent-for-catastrophe. That the overall film is as good as it is also owes a lot to the director, the cinematographer and the supporting cast. Trailer was directed by Vincente Minelli, one of Hollywood’s finest, who had already caused a sensation with Gene Kelly in An American In Paris. Photography, which covers everything from the lawn-ornamental splendor of a 50’s RV spectacular to the natural splendor of Yosemite National Park, was by multiple Academy Award-winner Robert Surtees (Ben Hur). The large cast included such veterans as Marjorie Main, Keenan Wynn, and Moroni Olsen. A good time was obviously had by all. Particularly memorable are the Breeze-way “trailerites” who descend on Lucille & Desi in an orgy of neighborliness, and the stunned driver who finds himself being passed by a 40-ft juggernaut on an 8,000-ft high mountain switchback! (And speaking of switchbacks, you have to admire Vincente Minelli’s chutzpah for including a send-up of George Arnaud’s Wages of Fear in the middle of a romantic farce.)
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“I’m a Cozy Coach man myself!” –trailer show guy
I can’t say that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s 40-ft travel trailer is the comedic equivalent of the trains in Buster Keaton’s The General, but The Long, Long Trailer is one of the most entertaining comedies of the early 50’s. Both leads were consummate professionals, and the film shows them at their best. Vincente Minnelli was equally professional in the director’s chair. Minnelli and three-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Surtees also make excellent use of on-location shooting. The Technicolor pinks and blues and yellows give the picture the nostalgic look of old National Geographic and Life magazine ads (there’s a framed 1950’s SPAM Dinner ad on the wall in my office). As a couple of reviewers point out, one can’t help but pine for the days when $46 would pay for towing a 40-ft trailer into town from a muddy logging backroad, with a complete car wash thrown in. Doubling down on the nostalgia are the vintage vehicles from a pre-plastic era of glorious excess. The supporting cast (including Keenan Wynn and Marjorie Main) reminds one of the large pool of talent on which studios such as MGM could draw.
Sure, there’s probably solid material in this movie for a Marxist thesis on the evils of American consumer culture, or for a Freudian essay on the roots of our desire to possess enormous phallic motor vehicles. The satirical look at Vegas-style trade shows, trailer park culture, and life on the open road isn’t far off the mark. The crowd scenes—weddings, house-warmings, visits with relatives—turn natural American gregariousness into a kind of social feeding frenzy. For myself, though, I’m just happy to see this as a lighthearted lesson in being careful what you wish for, and maybe a not-so-lighthearted lesson in how to tank a marriage. Desi’s nightmares about the mechanic yelling “Trailer brake first! Trailer brake first!” hit home for those us who are nervous about taking even a small tent trailer out on the highway. I still haven’t forgotten the half hour it took me to back a trailer full of lumber into position on one of the first construction jobs I worked. I wasn’t fired, but they never let me near the truck again.