‘Lucy And Desi’ Explained: What Role Did Desilu Studios Play In Changing U.S. Television Production?


Directed by Amy Poehler, documentary film “Lucy and Desi” focuses on the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The couple who produced the “I Love Lucy” show and also established the Desilu production company, created a benchmark in terms of television production. The documentary banks on archive footage and interviews of those who were involved in creating the show or were connected to the couple on a personal level. From the concept of a live audience to a woman in a comedy role, Lucille and Desi were paving roads for the future. “Lucy and Desi” pays homage to this iconic couple. It analyzes what worked for the couple and the reason for their separation later in life. This documentary is important to understanding television history and also the role Lucille Ball played in creating a space for women in comedy.

The History Of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball

Born into a working-class family and raised by her grandfather, Lucille Ball started working at a young age. She was not an overnight success; she worked hard to achieve her position in showbiz. Rejected by most production houses, she started working as a model. Later, she adopted the stage name Diana Belmont and performed on Broadway. Her journey in films started with the RKO studios, where she started with small roles but soon took the center stage in various B-films. In the 20 tapes recorded by Lucille Ball, she talks about how the fact that she worked in B-films never really bothered her. She was glad to be a part of the Hollywood industry and said yes to every role offered to her.

Desi Arnaz was a refugee from Cuba when he came to the United States in 1934. He did not speak the language and was searching for ways to earn some money. He started as a cleaner of canary cages. Later, he joined a band called the Siboney Septet, where he was paid more, and that marked the beginning of his journey in showbiz. Desi Arnaz’s mentor was Xavier Cugat, and he learned all about the band business from him. Lucille Ball met Desi Arnaz on the set of “Too Many Girls,” and the two fell in love. After dating for six months, Lucille and Desi decided to get married.

Ball started working on the radio as well. The radio show “My Favorite Husband” gained popularity, and CBS wanted to bring the show to television. Lucille expressed her interest in casting her real-life husband for the show, but the network was not in favor of it. They had their doubts regarding the acceptability of an inter-racial couple on U.S. television. The couple then took their act to vaudevilles, where they performed their comedy act in front of a live audience who loved watching the couple, and CBS finally offered them to create the “I Love Lucy” show. In the recorded tapes, she disclosed the reason for her interest in casting her husband for the show. The couple had been married for quite some time, but they had barely spent a month together owing to their professional commitments. Desi was busy with his shows and traveled extensively. The show was their way of spending more time together and also creating art while they were at it.

The End of Desilu

According to Lucille Ball, she was never truly funny; she created comedy with her body. From the maestro of the genre, Buster Keaton, she learned the importance of props in comedy. She also stressed the importance of understanding body movements as actors. She called it a divine thing to know about. She believed that observation was the key to understanding movement. Lucille Ball became an inspiration for women. She would not care if her clothes were not feminine; she simply did all that she could to get the laughs. When it came to breaking stereotypes, Desi as a Cuban-sophisticated gentleman, brought in a new representation for Latin Americans.

Be it his music or his presence; Desi was loved by the audience. The “I Love Lucy” shows gained immense popularity; people loved the show and adored the couple. Desilu started expanding by producing more television shows, and they later bought the RKO Studios as well. Desi enjoyed his role as a producer. He designed and collaborated with the best artists to create the ‘I Love Lucy’ shows, but with more shows at hand and a bigger responsibility, Desi started losing his grasp on things. In an interview, he commented how he wished to have learned moderation in life, as that was something he was incapable of. He knew that, with a production business, he had to either go big or quit; there was no other way of doing it. He chose to go big, but that affected him mentally. He was often drunk and not in his right state of mind. The fact that Lucille Ball became a more dominant name than him also bothered him. With the growing tension, the two decided to separate. They knew that their marriage was no longer working after a trip to Europe with their children. Right after their divorce, the two became friends and respected one another. Lucille would often turn to Desi for professional advice. 

The Role Desilu Studios Played In Changing U.S. Television Production

After their separation, Desi did not want to continue any longer with the business; Lucille bought his shares and became the head of the production company. The company produced various iconic shows, such as “The Untouchables,” “Star Trek,” and even “Mission Impossible.”

Lucille loved the creative process, but the responsibility of the studio overwhelmed her. She accepted the offer made by Paramount, and Desilu joined Paramount. Lucille, later in her life, started creating a space for young female comedians. She watched their shows and encouraged them. She conducted workshops to guide young artists. She was proud of her students and their success.

Desi suffered from lung cancer, and before he passed away, he spoke over the phone with Lucille. They both expressed their love for one another one last time. It was also the day of their anniversary. After two days in a coma, Desi passed away. The day marked the end of an iconic couple, who loved one another endlessly. Though their marriage was not a success, it was their love that gave birth to incredible television productions. It was Desilu who introduced the concept of a live studio audience, the use of more than one camera, and multiple sets adjacent to one another.

See More: ‘Being the Ricardos’ Ending, Explained – Why Did Lucy Freeze During The Shoot of ‘I Love Lucy’?

“Lucy and Desi” is a must-watch documentary for film enthusiasts. Through the use of archive footage, with a coherent timeline, interviews, and tapes, the documentary presents an interesting insight into the history of television production. The documentary film is directed by Amy Poehler.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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