Desi Arnaz as Nicky Collini, civil engineer
Northern California, Late Summer 1953
Film: The Long, Long Trailer
Release Date: February 18, 1954
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Costume Designer: Helen Rose
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to write about many movies that carry meaningful or nostalgic significance for me, but one that has gone sadly under-discussed (until now) is The Long, Long Trailer, a movie that I would watch so frequently with my grandma—who was born 98 years ago today—that we wore the VHS tape nearly to shreds.
Watching this movie again after more than 20 years was a welcome blast from the past, a nostalgic sensation not only for the personal reasons cited above but also as a glimpse into the glory days of “the great American road trip” during the postwar boom when roadside Googie architecture sprang up to meet the increasing need for motels and diners offering respite and rest for weary motorists.
A time capsule to this fabulous fifties zeitgeist, The Long, Long Trailer was loosely based on Clinton Twiss’ 1951 novel of the same name, adapted as a colorful vehicle (pun!) to capitalize on the star couple who was revolutionizing television with I Love Lucy, though this Anso Color flick allowed audiences to see for themselves just how red Lucille Ball’s famous hair really was… though not as much as more saturated Technicolor, to director Vincente Minnelli’s dismay.
The filmmakers did little to conceal that audiences were coming to see Lucy and Ricky, naming our heroes”Tacy” and Nicky”… though there are a few moments where the cast—including Ball—slip and refer to Desi Arnaz’s character as “Ricky”! The movie has a surprisingly noir-ish start (appropriate for #NoirVember), as we meet our disillusioned protagonist, dressed in fedora and trench coat, as he searches for his wife one rainy night. Unable to find her, he lights a cigarette and begins narrating his story to a stranger in a motel lobby… though the soundtrack’s chipper leitmotif of “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze” reminds us that we’re in for an adventurous romantic comedy rather than a brooding thriller.
The source of Nicky’s disillusionment is a trailer, the 32-foot New Moon that he purchased at his wife’s dogged insistence and which swiftly split up the newlywed couple like a jack-knifing trailer rig with improperly applied brakes.
It wasn’t always all bad, though. We are treated to a few sensationally shot sequences of Nicky and Tacy finally living the idyllic life on the road that she had envisioned, stopping at the most scenic spots to pick out souvenir rocks from their travels, always blissfully unaware of how much this will weigh down their already three-ton trailer, particularly when they need it to be the most nimble!
We get signs of trouble in paradise, particularly when the persistent Tacy insists on driving (“Oh, come on now, I’m a good driver! I’ve been driving since I was 15… and in Los Angeles! What more could you ask?”) and all of Nicky’s fears are confirmed when she follows a reckless takeoff with speeding up the highway and weaving over the center line to pass other cars. While careless behind the wheel, she turns out to be capable and confident, though Nicky needles her just enough to the point that she slams on the brakes—including the trailer brakes, of course—and hops into the back seat, leaving him to take over again.
The night proves to be an awkward one as the quarreling couple tries to sleep in different rooms, though the close quarters of their home on wheels makes such a petty protest difficult. The couple reconciles after Tacy determines that the root of their arguments is too much time on the road before they can settle in for supper and sleep. Thus, Tacy resolves to cook while he drives, aiming to have dinner ready for them as they stop for the night.
Excited by the prospect of capping off a long, hard drive with beef ragu, angel food cake with fresh strawberries, and Caesar salad (with grated Parmesan cheese, not crumbled Roquefort!), we are treated to the memorably madcap sequence of Nicky blissfully singing his own hungry take on “La Cucaracha” as poor Tacy—in the lace-trimmed, green plaid garb of the “ideal” ’50s housewife—is tossed around the kitchen of their trailer coach.
Each bump in the road not only ruins dinner but also Tacy’s once-indefatigable optimism, and when Nicky parks the rig and bursts into the door of their trailer, he’s greeted not with the scrumptious scent of beef ragu but with a sunken living room covered with food… and a pie in the face, for good measure.
Even Tacy is forced to admit that her idealization of life as a “trailerlite” was far from reality, though she’s reluctant to part with the dream even when Nicky gets a tempting offer to sell the trailer and cut their losses just before their treacherous drive across the desert mountain range that will take them to their new Colorado home. Tacy insists on keeping the trailer, so Nicky offers a compromise: she must get rid of the dozens of rocks and canned goods (the fruits of her latest hobby) that perilously weigh the rig down.
In a great and legitimately gripping sequence, Nicky and Tacy try to distract themselves as they ascend the 8,000-foot mountain by making nervous small talk about the book she’s been reading while she’s all too aware that the trailer is still loaded down with the souvenir rocks and canned fruits she just couldn’t bear to abandon… making the journey all but impossible and all but ending their fledgling marriage as a furious Nicky discovers the contraband and jettisons the rocks and jars all over the mountainside.
Some may consider it interesting that, though a major point was made of the Collinis needing to purchase their cream-colored new Mercury convertible as a car heavy enough to pull the trailer, the 125 horsepower generated by the Merc’s flathead V8 engine wasn’t enough to properly power both the car and trailer up the mountain, so the filmmakers repainted and rebadged an otherwise similar-looking 1953 Lincoln Capri for these scenes as the Lincoln’s 205 horsepower engine was a better match for the hauling duties required by the scene.
The Mercury was likely an example of product placement, but both Lincoln and Mercury are divisions of the Ford Motor Company so one wonders why the filmmakers didn’t think to place our protagonists in the higher-powered Lincoln the whole time and avoid the continuity error.
What’d He Wear?
Once he and Tacy begin their new life on the road, Nicky Collini leaves his sharp suits hung in the admittedly limited storage space of their New Moon trailer and dresses for their journey in casual staples right from the pages of a Sears catalog.
Nicky makes frequent use of a sky blue nylon blouson, a waist-length zip-up jacket with knit collar, cuffs, and hem likely inspired by the contemporary MA-1 bomber jacket developed for American military pilots and a precursor to the famous Derby jacket that would be introduced in San Francisco about a decade later. Apparently, this jacket is a favorite among “trailerites” as Mr. Judlow (Oliver Blake), the final trailer park manager that Tacy and Nicky encounter, seems to be wearing almost the exact same one, with only the waist hem ribbing differentiating the two.
Nicky’s jacket is detailed with dark navy ribbed-knit cotton on the collar and cuffs and around the hem, though the ribbed section extends all the way around the waist unlike the MA-1 or the Derby, which break in the front on each side of the zipper. Nicky’s jacket also has a hand pocket on each side with a vertical opening just above the hem.
Nicky seems to prefer plaid and checked sport shirts with large camp collars for their travels. The first one that he wears with this jacket is a two-tone blue plaid shirt with a white overcheck, worn buttoned up to the neck where a loop on the left side connects to a button hidden under the right collar leaf, a device also known as a “loop collar” for obvious reasons. The rest of the shirt buttons up a plain front (French placket) with large white plastic sew-through buttons. Nicky’s shirt also has two set-in chest pockets covered with rounded-corner flaps.
The second shirt that he wears with this jacket, during the catastrophic dinner prep-while-driving scene and the climactic mountain climb, is a white shirt patterned in a gray mini-grid check. This shirt is evidently one of Nicky’s favorites as he also wears it with his brown leather flight jacket and navy loafer jacket, and it was the first casual shirt we observed him wearing when he brought breakfast in bed to Tacy the morning after their wedding.
Like the blue plaid shirt, this grid-check shirt has a large loop collar that he wears both buttoned to the top and open at the neck. The two patch pockets on the chest have a rectangular flap closure with no button to fasten. The long sleeves are fastened at each squared cuff through a single button.
In contrast to the fashionable suits and sport jackets that Desi Arnaz wore in real life, on I Love Lucy, and through the early scenes of this movie, Nicky starts almost exclusively wearing blue jeans after beginning his life on the road with Tacy, specifically dark selvedge denim jeans from Levi Strauss & Co., evident by the distinctive red LEVI-branded tag on the back right pocket that the company introduced in 1936. Though they had been around for eight decades at the time that The Long, Long Trailer was produced, Levi’s jeans were still a primarily West Coast fashion. In 1954, the same year that The Long, Long Trailer was released, Levi’s sought expansion to the East Coast and developed the 501® Z with a zip fly aimed to be more accessible to new audiences.
Nicky’s 501® button-fly jeans are consistent with the modernized pattern introduced after World War II, devoid of archaic details like back cinch and suspender buttons and styled with the now-familiar five-pocket layout with the double-needle Arcuate stitching that had been introduced on this postwar version as an evolution of the single-needle stitching that had been used for the distinctive Arcuate stitching since Levi Strauss & Co.’s early days.
Nicky’s jeans would have been made with 10 oz. selvedge denim from Cone® Mills of North Carolina, which has been a Levi’s brand partner for more than 100 years and their exclusive denim provider since 1922, the same year that Levi Strauss & Co. introduced belt loops to its coveralls, though the suspender buttons would be retained for another quarter century until the post-World War II modernization.
Nicky wears a thick black leather belt with a steel-toned single-prong belt buckle with mitred corners.
The black belt coordinates with his black leather cap-toe boots with a raised heel also known as a “Cuban heel”, apropos Desi Arnaz’ native nationality.
Perhaps best seen when Nicky attempts his first awkward shower in the trailer, Nicky wears a large silver medallion on a silver chain around his neck. It’s been reported that he wore a gold St. Christopher pendant in real life, engraved with the word “Darling”, though I would imagine that this silver-toned medal is a different one. As Desi Arnaz also carried an Elgin pocket watch with St. Christopher’s likeness on the back, it’s likely that the same saint is represented on this necklace.
Interestingly, St. Christopher is considered the patron saint of transportation and traveling, though that doesn’t account for the string of bad luck that Nicky and Tacy seem to encounter when traveling across the country in their latest mode of transportation.
Throughout the movie, Nicky wears a gold rectangular watch with a light silver square dial on a beige leather strap.
In all scenes following Nicky and Tacy’s wedding (and, in an interesting continuity error, some scenes prior), Nicky wears a plain gold wedding band that was likely also Arnaz’s real-life wedding ring.
How to Get the Look
As a reluctant road tripper honeymooning in his new home on wheels, Desi Arnaz embraces the comfortable practicality of mid-century casual wear with his typical attire of a nylon jacket, checked camp shirt, selvedge jeans, and boots.
- Sky blue nylon waist-length jacket with navy ribbed-knit cotton collar, cuffs, and waist hem with vertical hand pockets
- Blue plaid or gray-on-white grid-check long-sleeved camp shirt with loop collar, plain front, two flapped chest pockets, and 1-button cuffs
- Dark blue selvedge denim Levi’s 501® jeans with belt loops, button fly, five-pocket layout, and self-cuffed bottoms
- Thick black leather belt with steel-toned, mitred-corner single-prong belt buckle
- Black leather cap-toe “Cuban heel” boots
- Silver necklace with large St. Christopher medallion
- Gold wedding ring
- Gold rectangular watch with light silver square dial on beige leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.