Home Like No Place

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

photo: Warner Bros.

The Long, Long Trailer’s opening shot begins with a postcard view of the Sierra Nevada mountains, exactly as you’d expect in a ‘50s landscape adventure yarn/yawn. But the camera suddenly collapses, like an avalanche, from utopia and into wild contingency: the shadow of the mountain in muddy Ansco Color (cut-rate Technicolor), the backside of a cliché. A dim forest road where Desi Arnaz, as Nicky Collini, rounds a hairpin turn too quickly in his Mercury Monterey. 

Nicky pulls into a motor court. He stands in the rain and looks into the background, or rather at the Redman New Moon trailer, which is yellow and chrome and only just softened by the rain. He runs along its length, shouting for someone named Tacy. Along its length he runs, banging on its sides. Stopped short by a “FOR SALE” sign, he registers the future catastrophe, his face contorting like a figure from Guernica. And because we know the title is The Long, Long Trailer (is there a more unromantic title?) and he has run its long, long length, we read his mind: Oh no, he thinks, I will own this thing.

We are mistaken; he already owns the trailer. A comedy narrated in flashback, at this period in Hollywood history, would be sui generis if director Vincente Minnelli hadn’t established his own template with Father of the Bride. Nicky sloshes into the office searching for his wife, Tacy, played by Lucille Ball, who deserted him and took the trailer. History has piled wreckage at his feet, as in the opening of a noir or mystery, and the décor (a magical word in the history of Minnellian criticism, like mise-en-scène but referring to his stint as a window dresser) is accented by those genres, not altogether satirically; a lone man in a trench coat and fedora eyes Nicky, who paces and nervously peers from the blinds, while cinematographer Robert Surtees milks shadows from raindrops. “Don’t buy a trailer!” Nicky shouts, before launching into the story of how Tacy hounded him into doing just that—his voice on the verge of hysterics as we are whisked backward in time, to laughter in the Collini living room. The opening shot is reversed, now from a harried Nicky to the postcard, which can only appear precarious.


The postcard is more or less I Love Lucy, with Ball/Arnaz as the Ricardos as the Collinis. In her modest pre-Lucy, pre-Trailer career in movies, Ball was a round theatrical peg in the square hole of cinema. But she was introduced to television like a chemical reactant, transforming it into a fully-fledged medium; I Love Lucy pioneered multi-camera, uninterrupted shooting in front of a live studio audience, nurtured by—and nurturing—Ball’s gifts for rhythmic physical comedy that benefited from continuity in time and space. Not theater, not cinema—television, which tussled for cinema’s audience. But television confirmed cinema as the seventh art by withdrawing the frontlines of aesthetic contestation along its own bastardized contours. It was partly film’s whiff of prestige that led Ball back to it at 42. By her own admission, her window to surmount the medium was closing, and she and Arnaz were cast as newlyweds on a road-trip honeymoon, returning to the artform—now experiencing its own technological rebirth—that had once abandoned them.

MGM needed Ball as much as Ball needed them. If you can’t beat them—with color, stereo sound, 3D, or CinemaScope—join them by borrowing their stars. The Long, Long Trailer was another gambit by ‘50s Hollywood to tempt audiences lost to television, and it seems to have met the medium halfway in other regards, too: after ditching their initial plan for 3D, MGM also settled for Ansco Color (Minnelli fought for the superior colors of Technicolor), and, despite the proportions suggested by the trailer, employed merely a long 1.75 aspect ratio rather than a long, long 2.55. The trailer itself—with its garish color scheme, unwieldy inertia, ponderous slowness, shape, and length—arrives like a parody of the widescreen format and all the other technical accouterments that were designed to crush the paltry home TV set, but which sputtered out of the starting gate. Since much of the humor in the The Long, Long Trailer—not to mention existential dread—is generated by Nicky’s attempts to master the vessel, it’s a freak nightmare from the industry’s third adolescence, disguised in sitcom décor from the enemy TV camp. 

In her role as Lucy, Ball escaped from her domestic sphere episode after episode, encountering a series of slapsticky hijinks before surrendering to her home defeated and coated in some substance or other, welcomed by the breathless roar of the studio audience. In The Long, Long Trailer, escape is impossible to fathom. Her living quarters show no quarter—are at once home, means of locomotion, and destination. For a road film, it exhibits a remarkable sense of stasis; for a film designed to take the Ricardos from the diminutive screen to the silver screen, it exhibits a remarkable sense of claustrophobia. The New Moon is larger than any trailer needs to be, with a bedroom big enough to accommodate two twin marital beds, but so small that Nicky is forced to hang his clothes from the shower rod. Lucy fans were ultimately uprooted from their living rooms to see the Ricardos in an uprooted living room. (At one point, Tacy says a television would put the finishing touch on their trailer.) 


French film critic Serge Daney, seeing Minnelli’s The Pirate broadcast on television and noticing no drastic differences, mused on the disjunction between cinematic and televisual mise-en-scène: “Television, which lives in fear of someone bumping into something, empties its stages and simplifies its movements.” If Minnelli was unburdened in 1948 by such fears, by 1954 he was hitched to them. The Long, Long Trailer, which both was and wasn’t I Love Lucy adapted for the big screen, is a head-on collision between two forms of mise-en-scène, or between two dreams. One way of reading Minnelli’s films is to see them as a staged conflict between a protagonist’s dream and the contingencies of reality, and reality is nothing less than the dream of other people. If “Minnelli” brings first to your mind song and dance, you’re mistaken: his universe was a Hobbesian void of kill-or-be-killed window dressings. Tacy dreams of owning a trailer, but Nicky dreams of not owning a trailer. The American roadway is the battleground; the dreams of television and cinema circle like vultures.

For me, Minnellian mise-en-scène is not foremost décor—not its famous tastefulness (Meet Me in St. Louis), nor its infamous high modernism (Yolanda and the Thief )—but the complexity with which it coordinates bodies in space. The blocking of bodies, because they are imported from television, engenders new challenges in The Long, Long Trailer, and Minnelli’s mise-en-scène is never quite disordered, but never quite ordered, either. (And the décor is uglier than ever.) Even the musical duet is relegated to a two-shot of Tacy and Nicky trapped and lightly jostled in the car with their top down (escaping yet another disaster in the trailer), as dim, wilty, rear-projected Yosemite redwoods whiz past, and they croon purgatorial lines like “We’re just breezin’ along with the breeze.” As Arnaz steers, making the actorly decision to keep his eyes on the road, Ball can only contort her body in the passenger seat and stare upward, wide-eyed and pinned like a bug to pasteboard, forced to hit a high note on the line “The sky is the only roof I have over my head,” which makes us think of the MGM soundstage. For a director esteemed for his good taste, it’s a coarse, crackbrained mise-en-scène, far from the frictionless antigravity of Gene Kelly in The Pirate, the aging Fred Astaire in graceful concert with gravity in The Band Wagon, or the lived-in milieu of The Clock. Televisual mise-en-scène disrupts Minnellian filigree, which he can’t entirely bring himself to evacuate from the film, a clash between two dreams of motion-picture décor that are held in their contradictions. 


Midway on their journey to Colorado, the Collinis decide to stop over at the Victorian home of Tacy’s Aunt Anastacia. After being introduced to Tacy’s extended family tree on the lawn, Nicky returns to the Mercury on the unwelcome advice of  Uncle Edgar to reverse the trailer into the driveway. As Nicky consults the driver’s manual about reversing, the promise of his humiliation entices the neighborhood to leave their homes and gather around the runway, which is lined by manicured flower beds trembling in fear. 

It’s a classically Minnellian thematic setup: the dream home of Aunt Anastacia in the form of a décor—Old-World, lavish, ornamented, and resolutely stable—versus the dream home of Tacy in the form of a décor—modish, modular, garish, and resolutely unstable. (Tacy quips that children are forbidden to board the trailer until Nicky can stabilize it.) Again, reality is the dream of the other, and, also, Hell is other people. Dreams clash, not only aesthetically but physically, for the trailer flattens Aunt Anastacia’s flower beds. She maintains composure until the fall of a trellis, replete with full-bodied roses, drives her to hysterics. In the midst of this gag, Minnelli justifies the then-nascent auteurism then underway in France before undercutting it with a punchline. Nicky, receiving conflicting directions from everybody in the audience—some wanting him to cut the wheel left, others insisting on right—says that only one person should direct him to avoid incoherence. Tacy takes over, and all is well until she leads him crashing through an awning that she fails to notice.

Dreams clash metaphysically, too. Aunt Anastacia’s house, which fares worse in this collision of homes, is also the Smith family home in Meet Me in St. Louis, Minnelli’s most popular film. Throughout The Long, Long Trailer, Minnelli makes references to his own oeuvre, often mockingly. A marquee is emblazoned with The Band Wagon; Tacy recounts the convolutions of a film plot whose title she’s forgotten but which is Minnelli’s murky Undercurrent. It’s as though the couple travel through the landmarks (or tombstones) of cinema, not quite distinct from film and not quite I Love Lucy, either. Perhaps Minnelli intends to remind us (or himself) that he’s a filmmaker, or that he thinks of this as an assignment outside of his filmography, which becomes part of the landscape.


When Aunt Anastacia’s lawn was instead the Smith family home, and cinema was unencumbered by the fashion of television, still squared off and in Technicolor, it was covered in snow, and there were snowmen, each dressed like members of the Smith family. Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), enraged and helpless over her father’s (Leon Ames) decision to move the family to New York City, decapitates the snow family. In his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, critic Robin Wood thought this incident foreshadowed the startling direction the American horror film would take in the 1960s and ‘70s; during the 1950s, the family comedy died (and the Hays Code crawled onto its deathbed), but would return to haunt the horror film. 

As time goes on, the horror elements in The Long, Long Trailer appear less latent, moving to the surface. Even though it lacks the obvious horror iconography Wood saw in Meet Me in St. Louis, The Long, Long Trailer has aged into an unambiguously scary film. Taken as a horror film, it resembles a present-day, nascent trend in the genre that subtly departs from both the jokey postmodernism and “elevated horror” of previous decades. Is it possible one day that a shrill, funny, disquieting, and stressful movie like The Long, Long Trailer—a marital comedy and sitcom cash-in—comes closer to resembling the genesis of modern horror than Psycho?

The Collinis pass an unconsummated honeymoon night in a mobile home park after Nicky, carrying Tacy across the threshold, fibs to a concerned bystander that Tacy has sprained an ankle, and an impromptu party of trailerites bob up in the trailer. Minnelli’s camera inches past horizontally, a bird reincarnated as an impotent worm, tracking along the long, long hoi polloi. Nicky remains sandwiched against the trailer’s absent depth-of-field, forced to mix cocktails. As everyone shuffles out at midnight, a grandmotherly woman cheerfully informs Nicky that she drugged Tacy: “She’s gonna be right as rain in the morning. She don’t know it, but I gave her a sleeping pill!” 

After menacing the solid white line dividing motion-picture mediums, The Long, Long Trailer arrived at a curious crossroads in the evolution of Hollywood genres—not only of the family comedy, the marital comedy, and the horror film, but the Western, too. The classic Western was traditionally read mythically along a series of binaries; nomad/settler, cowboy/schoolteacher, masculine/feminine. If we think of the road film as an extension of the genre, Trailer is a topsy-turvy incarnation (one mobile home company during this period appealed to the “Covered Wagon” spirit of the American people), with archetypes and binaries in quantum flux. The settlement is yoked to the cowboy; the cowboy desires settlement; settlement is impossible because it is unsettled. No wonder the scenery, on this tour through the any-place-whatsoever, scarcely impresses itself upon the emulsion; a flatlining Ansco Color, with reds and blues conjugating in a barren, grayish nether region, is the ideal palette. The idea that obsessed Minnelli throughout his art—one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare—could also be the lesson of the American pioneer and their subjugation of Indigenous peoples. 


The wedding gift of $100 that Tacy was counting on from her aunt, which she hoped would buy a deep freezer—a hot new commodity—is understandably handed back by Nicky to Uncle Edgar, who quickly returns it to Tacy, before it’s finally snagged by Aunt Anastacia to pay for the damages to her property. Money changing hands is the upstroke of a piston in The Long, Long Trailer; nearly every episode in its picaresque structure concludes with Nicky counting bills to cover the disaster and prime the next explosion. Not that Tacy is usually present during these exchanges. Nicky assumes the brunt of the damage from her dream-turned-contingent reality, literally shepherding it via a steering wheel, making the means of its production invisible to her, not unlike a Hollywood movie. A dream, in this sense, is also a utopian lifestyle, an ideology, which Nicky’s sacrifices make possible as long as Tacy remains innocent of his hardships. Nicky enables Tacy’s slumber, sustaining her dream; even when calamities befall her, she behaves like a sleepwalker. She at last defeats Nicky’s objections and takes over the steering wheel. She speeds, impossibly weaving their behemoth in and out of traffic. As she tries to tame her hair in the rushing wind to a mounting din of horns and screeching tires, the world around her utterly unreal, Nicky writhes in terror, imploring her to slow down, bearing the full traumatic weight of travel. When Tacy finally relinquishes the steering wheel, it’s out of boredom. 

It’s her idea to collect stones for a fire pit wherever the couple eventually permanently settles down, each rock commemorating some part of the country—post-war consumer culture extended to the consumption of the country itself. Nicky demands that she jettison the tokens because their added weight taxes his Mercury. She hides them instead. 

When the trailer begins a steep climb up a treacherous mountain amongst the range that opened the film, on no less a postcard day, the stones express curiosity at rejoining the crags below, rolling from their cabinets to the rear of the trailer, causing the car to shudder while the newlyweds grow pale. It’s a set piece as suspenseful as anything in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s more esteemed trucks-in-peril film The Wages of Fear from the previous year. In order to distract them from the nearness of death in Minnelli’s silliest film—something of an extended sitcom episode—Tacy explains the plot to Minnelli’s Undercurrent, his most serious film, while Nicky pretends to be interested. 

He is a geological engineer, and to him the rocks are burdensome at best; at worst, they memorialize their various disasters. Tacy, however, relegated to her status as a homemaker, thinks of the rocks as sentimental reminders, as objects certifying her dream. During this period in American history, couples were having more children and divorcing less than at any other time. The Long, Long Trailer pushes that American dream to its logical conclusion: the Collinis are literally homebound and inseparable. A boulder erupts from a mid-century oven, whose glass door was a source of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-pride for Tacy, in a surrealistic image worthy of Magritte. Her rocks threaten to hurl the entire enterprise to its doom, but in doing so they gesture toward an escape from the dream that confines her. Perhaps that is why Nicky throws them overboard. Perhaps that is why she clings to them.