The quintessential television couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, met on the 1940 RKO musical "Too Many Girls," an overscaled adaptation of Rodgers and Hart uncertainly brought to the screen by the Broadway director George Abbott. Though that curious film ends with Arnaz hammering away at a conga drum in a howling frenzy, while Ball is swept away by Richard Carlson, the film's ostensible leading man, the volatile Ball and Arnaz continued their off-screen relationship.
Switching to the small screen in 1951, the couple started "I Love Lucy," a pioneering situation comedy so immediately and immensely successful that when RKO ceased production in the late 1950's, they were able to buy the studio where they had first worked together.
The three-disc "Lucy and Desi Collection" from Warner Home Video unites "Too Many Girls" with the two MGM features Ball and Arnaz made after television stardom had made them box office attractions again. Alexander Hall's "Forever Darling" (1956) is a dull, unfocused romantic fantasy in which a guardian angel (a palpably uncomfortable James Mason) instructs Ball, a spoiled heiress, in the art of caring for her overworked husband.
But "The Long, Long Trailer," filmed in 1954 by Vincente Minnelli, remains one of the sharpest if least-known satires of the decade, a caustic deconstruction of the Ball-Arnaz relationship that turns into a nightmare vision of 1950's materialism and middle-class domesticity.
Hectored by his childlike bride into buying a 40-foot house trailer, Arnaz bravely sets out on a cross-country drive to their new home in a Colorado trailer park; this comes at a time when trailers were seen as space-age contraptions that allowed the average American to enjoy the freedom of open highways and an open society. But Minnelli, working from a script by the difficult-couples specialists Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich ("The Thin Man," Minnelli's "Father of the Bride"), films the comedy as if it were a film noir, opening in a pounding rainstorm and moving into moody flashbacks, narrated by Arnaz in a trench coat ensemble on loan from Dick Powell.
The freedom promised by the trailer soon turns out to be a cruel illusion as Minnelli films the gigantic lemon-colored contraption as the materialization of all the decade's consumerist pressures: a sort of Tupperware Moby-Dick.
As the trip continues, the trailer gathers more and more emotional and physical baggage. Ball has picked up a large rock from each of the scenic spots they've visited and hidden them around the trailer so Arnaz won't be worried about the excess weight; her sentimental gesture leads to a sequence only slightly less suspenseful than the driving scenes in "The Wages of Fear," as Arnaz tries to pilot the vehicle up and over the Rockies.
"The Long, Long Trailer" is a comedy with a very contemporary feel. The box retails at $29.98; individual titles are $14.98.