Desi Arnaz Bet $50,000 This Lucille Ball Film Would Break a Box Office Record

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are primarily remembered as television stars but they also made some good movies as a couple. Ball and Arnaz once starred together in an MGM movie — but not before Arnaz made a bold bet. He bet their movie could make more money than every previous MGM comedy. Here’s the story of a movie MGM was hesitant to make.

Lucille Ball about to kiss Desi Arnaz
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz | FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

What happened when Desi Arnaz lost the rights to a book

I Love Lucy was a tremendous success on television so it only made sense that the Arnazes would try to make the transition to film. According to TCM, Arnaz tried to purchase the rights to a book called The Long, Long Trailer, which is about a couple who travel across America in a motor home. MGM producer Pandro Berman beat him to the punch.

However, that wasn’t the end of Anraz’s connection to The Long Long, Trailer. Berman brought back the team behind the successful comedy Father of the Bride — director Vincente Minelli and screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich –to craft a film adaptation of The Long, Long Trailer. Ball and Arnaz had the opportunity to star in the film even though Arnaz lost the rights to the book.

The heads of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball on the poster for The Long, Long Trailer
A poster for The Long, Long Trailer | LMPC via Getty Images

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Ball was initially neutral about the prospect of starring in a film after finding success with I Love Lucy. However, she joked she might want to make a movie simply because she wanted to know what she looked like in Technicolor, as I Love Lucy was filmed in black-and-white. 

Why MGM thought a film starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz was a bad idea

According to AFI, MGM was initially unenthusiastic about The Long, Long Trailer. Minelli recalled “[MGM] subscribed to the theory that the audience wouldn’t pay to see actors they could get at home for free. But I insisted these were different parts, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz could make the picture hilarious.” Ultimately, Ball and Arnaz starred in the film — but not without making an expensive bet first. 

The trailer for The Long, Long Trailer

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Arnaz and Martin Leeds — his production executive — bet Benjamin Thau — a Lowes executive — $50,000 that The Long, Long Trailer would outperform MGM’s highest-grossing comedy, the aforementioned Father of the Bride, at the box office. That was certainly a bold bet to make given how MGM was initially concerned about the film’s prospects. 

How the bet panned out

Arnaz won the bet despite the fact that fans could see him and Ball at home on television. Combining their winnings with their salary for the film, Arnaz and Ball earned $300,000 from their work on The Long, Long Trailer. That was a tremendous amount of money back in the 1950s.

Desi Arnaz kissing Lucille Ball on a poster for The Long, Long Trailer
A poster for The Long, Long Trailer | LMPC via Getty Images

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Afterward, AllMovie reports they starred in another MGM film as a couple: Forever, Darling. Forever, Darling was a box office bomb. Regardless of their subsequent projects, The Long, Long Trailer proved Ball and Arnaz could entertain audiences on the silver screen as well as the small screen.