Richard J. Leskosky: Film series returns to Virginia

It might seem to you like a long, long time since The News-Gazette Film Series went on hiatus to accommodate the restoration project at the Virginia Theatre.

So it's perhaps appropriate that it starts up again at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday with "The Long, Long Trailer," a 1953 comedy starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

When Tacy Bolton (Ball) and Nicky Collini (Arnaz) get married, they've already had a major disagreement, and he has capitulated. He wanted to save up to buy a house, but she wanted to buy a trailer so that she could accompany him on his various civil engineering jobs out west and "make a home" for him.

They wind up with the title juggernaut, and their problems only multiply from there. With that big a trailer, they need a bigger car (a long, long car by today's standards). Then they need a special hitch to connect the two.

Then Tacy's penchant for collecting heavy items (souvenir rocks, cases of preserves) only adds to the weight — and instability — of the trailer.

"The Long, Long Trailer" was not the first film where Ball and Arnaz appeared together. That would have been 1940's "Too Many Girls," in which she starred as a spoiled heiress, and he played one of her football player bodyguards, re-creating his role in the Broadway stage version.

That's how they met, and they married shortly thereafter.

In 1953, the couple had the most popular show on TV ("I Love Lucy"), and their sponsor, the Philips Morris Tobacco Co., had just renewed their contract with very lucrative terms. Even though they were riding high as TV personalities, MGM was nonetheless reluctant to produce this feature film venture. Arnaz's aggressive campaign won over the studio, however, and the film became a huge hit.

Top Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli turned out this comedy between two of his best-known musicals, "The Band Wagon" and "Brigadoon."

Ball and Arnaz harmonize on one song here, "Breezin' Along with the Breeze." Fans of their TV work should note that it's really Ball singing here. Her raucous wailings on "I Love Lucy" were just part of the act; she really could sing.

Rivaling some of her classic TV bits, though, a scene where Tacy (short for Anastasia) tries to cook a meal in the trailer while it's moving down the highway shows her at her slapstick best.

Besides being a minor domestic comedy classic, "The Long, Long Trailer" presents a fascinating look at some aspects of life in the early 1950s. There is, of course, the way married couples interacted — or at least the way popular culture represented that (such as the dictum "always put the house in the wife's name" that causes distinct problems when the house is mobile).

But the America presented here also is very physically different from today. The trailer here is described as 40 feet long (though the model used might actually have been shorter), but in the late 1960s, trailers 60 feet in length became common.

Most significantly, though, it was only in 1956 that the Interstate Highway System began to be built.

So that 40-foot trailer would have been a real challenge to tow along narrow two-lane roads and up ungraded mountainsides. One tensely funny scene in fact centers on Tracy and Nicky trying to act nonchalant as they drive up a narrow mountain road with various parts of the trailer hanging over the edge of an abyss.

One of the challenges that Minnelli faced as a director was presenting the long, long trailer, the long, long car, and the mountain and highway vistas in the squarish Academy ratio.

If there ever was a film that demanded a wide-screen format, this is it. But that was not available in 1953. Minnelli was such a genius at staging, however, that the viewer doesn't notice the lack of that extra width.

Series schedule

A look at the 2013-14 News-Gazette Film Series (shows are at 1 and 7 p.m. at the Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C):

Saturday: "The Long, Long Trailer" (1953); organist David Schroeder will perform on the Virginia's Wurlitzer organ before the screening

Sept. 21: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)

Oct. 26: "Rebecca" (1940)

Nov. 9: "All About Eve" (1950)

Dec. 7: "It Happened One Night" (1934)

Jan. 18: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)

Feb. 8: "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)

March 15: "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928)

April 5: "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951)

May 24: "A Night at the Opera" (1935)

June 21: "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)

July 12: "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935)

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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