Monday, June 10, 2013

Vincente Minnelli | The Long, Long Trailer

a failed paradise

Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (based on a novel by Clinton Twiss), Vincente Minnelli (director)
The Long, Long Trailer / 1954

For several weeks now I have been trying to get a moment to review a film from my childhood, beloved by my family (one of the very few we attended as a family) at the time. My mother, in particular, was a big fan of Lucille Ball, and The Long, Long Trailer was ostensibly another occasion to see the couple together in the comedic high-jinks style of the television favorite. Playing Tacy Bolton, Ball is about to marry Nicky Collini (Desi Arnez), a relationship that will surely be fraught with all the zaniness that the TV’s Lucy imposes every week upon her husband, Ricky. Everyone in the audience of the day knew the formula: Tacy would involve Nicky in an adventure that would cost money they could ill afford, leading to a series of comically terrifying events in which Tacy could play out her manic physically comedic shticks.

     In this version of their “on the road” adventures (which they performed in their various trips throughout Europe in their television show), Lucy convinces a very dubious Nicky that they should buy a trailer—not a little “junior” trailer which she first proposes, but a long, long trailer, the New Moon, representative of both the sleek modernity of the period but also of the early 1950s increasing mobility. Since Nicky works as a civil engineer in this go-round, wouldn’t it be perfect if she could follow him, from job to job, serving him up great meals in their own moving palace, a place he might return to each night wherever his itinerant life might lead them?

     Since most of the Post-World-War II culture was on the move, I am sure to the writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (basing their script on a novel by Clinton Twiss), thought it was the perfect metaphor for the era in which American families were stretching their legs in what suddenly seemed like a large country. During the same period my own family traveled on summer vacations to St. Louis, South Dakota’s Black Hills, and eventually all the way to California. Each year I would joyfully send away to nearly every state’s tourism board for informational pamphlets, and would help plan for our trips.

     But someone forgot to tell the writers, director Vincente Minnelli, and his cast that this was meant to be a comedy. Although from time-to-time Lucille Ball tries to steer it back into range of her forte, she does it with such pouting grimaces that we hardly recognize the zany friend of Fred and Ethel.

    The film begins in a kind of panic wherein Nicky is seen rushing through the mountains through a downpour of rain in search of his missing “house.” When he finally discovers it in a small trailer park, he pours out his heart to a potential buyer (the man is intending to buy Tacy’s trailer), deploring a world where “when you come home to your home and your house is gone,” and damning a world in which, like a turtle, you carry your house upon your back. The couple whose life the story is about to recount has clearly broken up, and the rest of the movie suffers for our knowledge of the seemingly unfortunate results.

      While the TV Lucy is presented as a kind of innocent maniac, Tacy is represented as the ultimate consumer, a woman determined not only to purchase the largest of all trailers, but a new car which can pull it along with hooks, buckles, pulleys, ropes, and everything else needed to carry the beast with her and her husband. She fills it up, moreover, with every pot, pan, dish blanket, towel, and article of clothing that she can get her hands on; poor Nicky cannot even find room for a few articles of clothing and his golf bags. But the consumerism is not just about commercialism but includes nature itself, as she grabs up large rocks throughout their voyage, representing the places they have been, as if her own mind cannot retain them. Preserves, piccalillis, and other potted foods join in her already overflowing larder—this despite the fact that she hardly ever has the opportunity to cook a full meal during their disastrous voyage.

      All of this is made even worse by the fact that this film represents this couple’s world in the most claustrophobic of spaces. Even upon their first visit to the trailer show, both are impossibly surrounded by others in the small spaces in which they are expected to live. Soon after, at the wedding, Nicky cannot even find a way to reach his new wife through the masses of celebrants. I have already mentioned the scene where Tacy imports into the trailer nearly every object she has received as wedding presents, along with a whole retinue of giggling women friends. Upon their wedding night they are overtaken by an army of trailerites, led by the well-meaning but over-bearing Marjorie Main, who, convinced that Tacy has passed out (as she observes Nicky trying to simply carry his new bride over the doorway), spikes her drinks with a sleeping pill.

      Indeed, it appears throughout the film that this newly-married couple hardly ever has a moment to sexually consummate their union. The second night the exhausted Nicky falls to sleep, while Tacy cannot even lay down in her slanted (the trailer is trapped in mud) separate bed. Surely they cannot have slept comfortably in Tacy’s angry aunt’s home, particularly after they and the trailer has destroyed most of the woman’s gardens and sawed off a whole driveway wing of the beautiful house. As they plan the drive up to 8,000 feet, Nicky announces he will be away all night at the local garage as they work on the auto in preparation for the trek.

      Finally, the very stereotypes of American sensibilities make this film unpalatable. One might almost have thought that the usually suave Minnelli, who so lovingly created the American family of Meet Me In St. Louis, had transmogrified into Frank Capra in his presentation of the Americans Tacy and Nicky encounter during their trip. Does each car following the long trailer in an early scene have to be filled with hooting and shouting hillbillies? Do all the wedding guests have to be ridiculously insensitive dunces? Do the “trailerites” have to remind us more of a league of corny sloganeers than legitimate travelers? Is it truly necessary to have Tacy’s family represented as a grotesque mixture of Gothic types (posing almost as if Grant Wood were painting the Addams family), including a truly batty sister? This is an ugly America which, even if Tacy is loud and silly and Nicky insensitive and selfish, seem somehow completely unrelated to their attempts to achieve a normal relationship

     As she does over and over in the TV series, Tacy/Lucy lies, seriously endangering her and her husband’ lives; she has simply been unable to abandon her consumerist sensibilities enough to  get rid of the numerous rocks she has hoarded. And, so it seems, as we have already glimpsed in the first scene of this now fairly bleak presentation of the American 1950s, their relationship is, quite literally, on the rocks. Is it any wonder, given the consumerist, claustrophobic, unconsummated, and caricatured world of this movie? In the end, the characters can only bleat out what should have been expressed by the writers and directors: “I’m sorry,” as the put-upon couple reenter their failed paradise, the door, caught in the wind of the storm, seemingly the only celebrant of what might finally happen within.

Los Angeles, June 9, 2013

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