“‘I Love Lucy’ Was Never Just A Title”

The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

The 2022 Amazon Prime Video documentary “Lucy and Desi” dives deep into the success, hardships and vulnerabilities of “I Love Lucy” stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Director Amy Poehler touches upon their innovations in television history but shines a greater spotlight on Ball and Arnaz as individuals and as an off-screen couple. With never-before-seen archival recordings, including home movies and tape-recorded recollections, Ball and Arnaz tell most of the story themselves: the story of their professional and personal relationship.  

It was great that the documentary outlined their relationship history, as I felt extremely connected with them. Ball and Arnaz were married for 10 years. During that time, Arnaz was on the road for eight and a half years. His absence put a strain on their marriage. The solution was to find a way to work together, and the answer to that was the creation of the TV show “I Love Lucy.” The show was an immediate success and brought them multiple Emmys. In preparing the show to air, Arnaz got the idea to film the episodes so each episode’s high quality could be shown on the east and west coasts. He developed a three-camera system that filmed simultaneously from different angles and each episode was taped in front of a live studio audience. This information was interesting to learn because the filming process was all new to television and it set the precedent for TV shows being able to be rerun for decades to come. This is why you can watch your favorite shows in reruns as much as you like!  

As the success of the show grew, the two formed a production company, Desilu Productions, in which Arnaz was the president and Ball was the vice president. Over time, many additional TV series and movies were filmed on the lot at Desilu. Though there were rewards to the success from “I Love Lucy,” there was also a cost which eventually strained their marriage. Neither Ball nor Arnaz knew how to appreciate the joy of doing the show without making it bigger. Arnaz admitted that he never learned moderation; his work was harder and becoming more tiring, and he felt as though he needed to get away. Their home life was unhappy, so Ball’s relief was her work, whereas Arnaz’s relief was drinking. He wanted the business so terribly that he let their marriage fall apart, and yet, the business overwhelmed him. “I hated every minute of it…after a while,” he stated. This surprised me because one tends to think that with great success comes great happiness. The portrayal of their unhappy marriage was broken up throughout the documentary with scenes from “I Love Lucy,” intentionally done so to break up the tense, more heavy information about their lives. It felt like a good balance between the on-screen and off-screen Ball and Arnaz, since otherwise, the documentary would not have been as exuberant.  

I found it extremely ironic that they created the show to strengthen their marriage and start a family though ultimately this is what drove them apart. The one thing never in question was their deep-rooted love for each other. Ball concluded with a definition of love, stating, “for me, it’s wanting to devote myself.” And she did just that; as Arnaz struggled throughout his life with the feeling that he never really was at home in America, Ball never left his side. Personally, it was shocking to see the documentary include Arnaz’s traumatic experience in Cuba, especially because Arnaz-Luckinbill stated that he rarely talked about it, other than the occasional mention of his hometown’s beauty. Arnaz was a refugee, not wanting to leave his home, but being forced to for political reasons. Because of this, Arnaz’s heartbreaking struggle in his life was that he never really felt at home, and he kept looking for it everywhere, to no avail. “If it hadn’t been for Lucy, I would’ve stopped trying a long time ago,” Arnaz recalls.  

Arnaz also stood by Ball’s side when the House Unamerican Activities Committee claimed that Ball was a communist. In fact, she had registered as such years earlier in deference to her grandfather’s wishes. She was never involved in the communist party. It was curious to witness the court trials, press swarming Arnaz and Ball, and Arnaz’s reaction as a protective husband because you get the true sensation of how it would feel to be accused of something you did not do. I could feel the claustrophobic nature that Ball must have felt when the tapes from the trials were shown, as she was surrounded by hundreds of people, spitting questions at her. When these claims emerged, Arnaz took control, inviting the press and an audience to one of their live shows, where he had the head of the F.B.I. (J. Edgar Hoover) on the phone stating that Lucy was cleared of all charges. To quote Arnaz, “the only thing red about [Lucy] was her hair, and even that was not legitimate.”  

Despite playing a happily married couple on a comedy show, there was much drama behind the scenes, and that made me think of how you never really know someone based on what they show publicly. After “I Love Lucy,” they did one more season called “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.” That ran for one season, and it was evident both on and off screen that both the marriage and the series was over for good. Watching an episode of “I Love Lucy” and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” back-to-back, it was painfully clear the two had entirely lost their chemistry. They divorced soon after.

One of the more fascinating things that I learned, and that the public doesn’t realize today, is that before the divorce, Ball and Arnaz bought out RKO Studios and made it part of Desilu Productions. I found it even more interesting that after the divorce, Ball bought out Arnaz’s share, becoming the first female president of a major studio. Ball is a female inspiration, paving the way for females as business executives for generations to come. As the years went on, Arnaz continued to produce Ball’s follow-up series and they remained working partners. Lucie Arnaz-Luckinbill, their daughter, claimed their attitudes toward one another softened once the divorce was finalized, and they both went on to long-term marriages with other people.  

When Arnaz passed away in 1986, Ball was one of the last people to speak to him, expressing their mutual love for one another. That final, tear-jerking conversation turned out to be on the anniversary date of their marriage. Five days later, Ball was honored by the Kennedy Center, which read a letter composed by Arnaz before his death. In it, Arnaz said, “I give Lucy 90% of the credit for the success of ‘I Love Lucy;’ the rest of us were just props. Lucy was the show. And ‘I Love Lucy’ was never just a title.” Watching this letter be read to Ball, and watching Ball’s reaction to Arnaz’s profession of love for her, was incredibly emotional for me; despite the ups and downs of their marriage, I was able to not only see, but feel, the everlasting love between the two of them.

The documentary was raw and emotional, comedic yet heartbreaking. It truly makes you think about how one’s public image can be so different from what goes on behind the scenes. The use of tape recordings was crucial to the authenticity of this documentary, as it allowed Ball and Arnaz to tell their story themselves. At the opening of the documentary, one of the first statements Arnaz-Luckinbill said was, “At the core of all the painful stuff is unconditional love.” That has become the legacy of Lucy and Desi as a couple.