CMBA GUILTY PLEASURES BLOGATHON: Mame (1974)

The Classic Movie Blog Association, of which Backlots is a member, is hosting a very interesting blogathon–dealing with those films that we know are stinkers, but that we love anyway. This is a real opportunity for me not only to extol my love for a bad movie, but also to explain WHY I love this failure as much as I do! So without further ado–light the candle, get the ice out, roll the rug up, it’s….MAME!

The story is of Mame Dennis, a madcap bon vivant who takes in her orphaned nephew Patrick and raises him as her own, teaching him that “life is a banquet” and educating him in the ways of her world. Mame is initially awkward with him, but over the course of the film we see a strong maternal love develop within her, and Patrick becomes close with her too. It is a simple plot that really touches on basic human emotions, and that in itself makes it a successful story.

Mame was inspired by a long line of successful stagings of the classic Patrick Dennis story Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, written in 1955. Though the plot was entirely created, Dennis passed it off as autobiographical by employing his own name as that of the book’s narrator. As he stated in LIFE magazine in 1962: “I write in the first person, but it is all fictional. The public assumes that what seems fictional is fact; so the way for me to be inventive is to seem factual but be fictional.” The book was an instant success, and shortly thereafter a Broadway show, entitled Auntie Mame, was created by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee with Rosalind Russell in the lead role. The play opened in 1957, and Russell’s portrayal of Auntie Mame landed her a Tony nomination. The following year, Russell reprised her role on film, which in turn earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, and Auntie Mame became the highest grossing film of the year.

Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame.

In 1966, the plot was revisited again for a musical version of the Broadway show, this time entitled simply Mame and headed by Angela Lansbury in the title role and Bea Arthur as Mame’s best friend Vera. This production had enormous success, running a total of 1,508 performances in New York before touring the country. Both Lansbury and Bea Arthur won Tonys for their performances. The 1969 West End production of the show starred Ginger Rogers and ran for 14 months.

Angela Lansbury performing “It’s Today” during the revival run in 1983.

Then came the film.

Deeming Angela Lansbury too unknown in films to reprise her role (which I think makes no sense, because by that point she had been in 36 films and had been nominated for the Academy Award 3 times), Lucille Ball was booked to play Mame Dennis in a planned film version in 1972. Shortly before filming was to begin, Ball broke her leg in a skiing accident and could not start work on the film until she was healed. The proposed director, the legendary George Cukor, was forced to withdraw from the film due to the delay in shooting, and the task of directing the film went to Gene Saks, who had directed the Broadway production (and who happened to be married to Lansbury’s Broadway co-star Bea Arthur, also slated for the film version). The disasters of the production were not over. Madeline Kahn was cast as Agnes Gooch, Mame’s secretary, and when filming started, Ball (who had casting approval) was not satisfied with her performance and had her fired. It also became devastatingly clear that Lucille Ball could not sing, and was far too old to be playing Mame Dennis with any sort of credibility (she was 62 when filming began). This necessitated the use of soft-focus filters to disguise her age.

Note the soft-focus in this trailer.

Ball had to have long rehearsal sessions with Jerry Herman in order to increase her singing ability, but it was in vain–she could not sing. It is very clear in the film that Ball is uncomfortable.

Despite all the problems, Mame WAS a successful film, breaking records during its run at Radio City Music Hall, but Lucille Ball could not be saved. Critics were very harsh, and reviews included:

“Miss Ball has been molded over the years into some sort of national monument, and she performs like one too. Her grace, her timing, her vigor have all vanished. When she is photographed at close range, the image goes soft, indicating that the lens was smeared with Vaseline and shrouded in gauze. The other actors in the movie are clear enough on their own. But when they step into a shot with her, they go out of focus too.”

-TIME magazine

“After forty years in movies and TV, did [Lucille Ball] discover in herself an unfulfilled ambition to be a flaming drag queen?”

-Pauline Kael, New Yorker Magazine

“Hopelessly out-of-date musical … will embarrass even those who love Lucy. Calling Fred and Ethel Mertz!”

Leonard Maltin, Movie Guide

I often wonder what would have happened if just a few changes were made to the film–if they had realized that Angela Lansbury DID have clout on film, and if George Cukor had stayed. I have a feeling that it would have been a much better film.

It does have some saving graces, for example the magnificent Bea Arthur, who I’m convinced can do no wrong. She won a Tony for the role of Vera on Broadway, and her performance here is really the highlight of the film.

Arthur and Lucille Ball singing “Bosom Buddies.”

Needless to say, the music is also extremely quality. Jerry Herman’s successful Broadway score translated into some brownie points for the film, but one can hardly say that this is a credit to the film, as Herman simply uprooted the Broadway score and placed it onscreen–a simple cut-and-paste job.

Now let me tell you why I love this movie.

It is SO INCREDIBLY CAMPY.

You know how sometimes a movie is so bad, it’s good? This is one of those. It may not be in the category of Plan 9 From Outer Space bad, but the campiness of this one blows Plan 9 out of the water. The colors, the lighting, the ridiculously expensive production (estimated at $12 million), and the sheer low quality of the script and acting make it a recipe for a cult smash.

I first saw this movie when I was about 12 years old at a friend’s house, and I was immensely taken with it. My friend and I developed a whole new set of inside jokes from it (see above re: the script), and it became an instant favorite. That’s really what this movie is good for, and despite its bad quality, it’s still a great and fun movie-watching experience.

Thank you to the CMBA for hosting this fun blogathon!!

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20 responses to “CMBA GUILTY PLEASURES BLOGATHON: Mame (1974)

  1. I don’t care what anyone says I love this movie! Okay so Lucy’s no Rosalind and she can’t really sing (but that didn’t stop Rosalind from doing “Gypsy” did it!?!??!) but I think she holds her own here and then some. I’m so glad to read a post where someone agrees with me! Thanks!

  2. I will admit to avoiding all versions of Mame’s story based solely on glimpses of Lucille Ball’s interpretation. I never considered Lucille Ball a singer, although she certainly had the legs to be a dancer, but leave it to Pauline Kael to provide the most succinctly vicious comment of the entire lot of critics. Although the clip reveals the actress is out of her depth when singing, Lucille’s scenes with Bea Arthur could be some of the best in the film. I know Rosalind Russell was a wonderful screwball comedian, watching her in His Girl Friday proved this, but she is really funny in the clip you included. I love the line, “Well, when you’re from Pittsburgh, you have to do something,” which immediately made me think of Andy Warhol. I think the most surprising element of the Mame saga is the lack of foresight regarding Angela Lansbury. I was first introduced to her as a musical actress in The Picture Of Dorian Gray and later Sweeny Todd, although I never saw her perform live. Angela Lansbury’s appearances in the stage version prove she would have moved effortlessly into the screen version, but would it have retained the same “camp” appeal as Lucille Ball brought to the role. I wonder, perhaps I should take another look at the film.

  3. Backlots,
    Thanks for your honest review on Mame. I must say that the reviews were scathing (poor Lucille) and after watching the Bosom Buddie clip I can see why Ball was referred to as a drag queen but Arthur should have been included with her.
    I am no fan of Lucille Ball nor have I ever enjoyed her comedy shows from beginning to end. Her voice grates on my last nerve and now I can add her singing to that list! (I’m sure I’m not very popular with Lucy fans for saying that) Youza, she was a mess here, although a vaseline lens covered one. I’m a big fan of Russell and Lansbury but even their appearances couldn’t get me to tune into this one.

    With that said, your review was fun and quite interesting with the added trivia, backstory. Thanks for sharing your guilty pleasure and your well written take on Mame.
    Page

  4. I adore Lucy, but this has always been a difficult movie for me to actually get through. It’s just so BAD. Then again, a bad movie with Lucille Ball is better than nothing, in my opinion. That foghorn voice of hers may grate, but no one can deny that she tried to give her performance as much gusto as possible, and that zest redeems her horrible singing (at least in part!).

  5. You know – this movie isn’t as bad as I originally thought. Yes, Lucy is all ego here, but, hey – she’s Lucy and we miss her.

  6. Lara, I thoroughly enjoyed your informative post about MAME the movie. I had loved the Rosalind Russell film version when I saw it on TV as a youngster, and I remember seeing it at Radio City Music Hall during its theatrical release. Back then, I was wowed as much by the Music Hall itself as I was by the film; however, as the years passed, I realized Lucille Ball was too old (the Vaselined lens wasn’t fooling anyone) and worst of all, too cold to play Mame, who really should have been played by Angela Lansbury, or perhaps even Madeline Kahn, who was originally cast as Agnes Gooch. Rumor had it that Lucy got skittish at having a pretty young thing like Kahn competing for screen time with her. On the positive side, it meant Tony-winner Jane Connell was able to reprise her original role as Agnes! But, um, one tiny correction: on Broadway and in the Rosalind Russell film, Peggy Cass played Agnes Gooch, not Vera Charles.

    Having said all that, there was much to like about MAME, too. Jerry Herman’s songs are wonderful no matter who sings them. The cast was terrific overall, with Robert Preston having nice chemistry with Lucy as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. And best of all, Lucy and Bea Arthur were a great funny/bitchy pair of “Bosom Buddies,” which happens to be one of my favorite songs and scenes in the film. Admittedly, it also reminded me of my smart, snappy mother and my aunt, so I was predisposed to get a kick out of it in any case. Great post, Lara!

  7. Thanks for your nice comment! And oops about the Peggy Cass role! Promptly changed, this is why I love getting comments. I’m so glad you liked the post!

  8. Sadly, I haven’t seen this version of Mame–or maybe not sadly, based on the above comments. Whenever was Madeline Kahn not up to par? I am not a big fan of Lucille Ball…and I can’t imagine anyone else playing Mame other than Russell–I never saw Lansbury’s take, though I suspect she was excellent as usual. I don’t like camp…either the film type or the actual type where you sleep on the ground, so I don’t know if I could take this film. I just keep wondering what Ball was drinking when she axed Madeline…the mind is befuddled.

  9. I am such a fan of “Auntie Mame” that I’ve never been able to make the effort to see “Mame.” I’d read the reviews, heard some of the backstory – about Angela Lansbury who, it seems we all agree, should’ve gotten the role. Enjoyed your review, though – was surprised to find out Lucy would have Madeline Kahn fired. Seems to me she would’ve been a great Gooch!

  10. It is a dreadful movie. But then, to be honest, I am not a fan of AUNTIE MAME either. The soft-focus photography of Lucy (which you pointed out) only draws attention to the fact that she was miscast in the part. I’m glad you pointed that it was financially successful. Considering when it was released–when musicals weren’t at their zenith–that’s actually impressive. Well-done review!

  11. That Pauline Kael quote was just downright mean.

    I don’t remember much about “Mame” but the score can’t be beat. I would watch Robert Preston read the phone book, so his presence lifted the movie for me.

    I think his song – is it called “Wanting You” – was written for the movie and is a lovely song. But don’t hold me to that.

  12. Well-done! I must admit that I like the material better than this film. I was reading a book that described out Lucille Ball really thought this was going to be her triumphant return to the big screen after three successive TV shows, and that she thought it would bring her an Oscar nomination! She was devastated by the reviews. If anything, the film captures Bea Arthur’s performance that won her a Tony.

  13. I haven’t seen MAME, but I remember the reviews when it came out (especially the one about the soft focus–pretty cruel!). However, its campiness sounds like its saving grace. While I (like most everyone) love Lucy, and think that she was an underrated actress in her films, I wonder why she either couldn’t pull off MAME or couldn’t see that she was not right for the part. We can only wonder what might have been if Lansbury and Cukor had been involved. Thanks for your excellent post!

  14. Mame is a stinker, there’s little room for argument there…but I think the reason this movie has its fans despite its sheer awfulness is that the source material is so strong (Auntie Mame, with Roz Russell, is simply sensational) and with the exception of Page the Heretic and her sidekick Kim (just kidding, kids), everybody loves Lucy, soft focus and all.

    And Kevin’s right: Pauline Kael was a meanie.

  15. There’s not enough Bea Arthur in this film. She’s hilarious!

  16. I have not seen this film, but .. I will run over to you- tube and check it out. I really enjoyed reading your awesome review. I’m a huge fan of Lucy.

  17. I think time has been kind to this film, and Lucy’s performance, and her singing.

  18. Any movie where Lucy swears in front of a child is okay by me.

  19. The only sour note in this film is Lucille Ball herself. She was all wrong for Mame in every possible way. The nonsense that Angela Lansbury wasn’t know to moviegoers is just that, nonsense. Ball help finance the movie with $5,000,000 of her own money in return for the role of Mame.

  20. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like this film, but even I found the reviews of the time to be shockingly vitriolic. Anyone know why? In “But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!” by Richard Tyler Jordan, he theorizes that the most negative reviews were from New York based reviewers, who usually also reviewed Broadway shows and bristled at the thought of Angela Lansbury passed over in favor of Ms. Ball (that can’t explain all of the outright hatred displayed, though). He also relays a nasty rumor that a high 5 figure hunk of the marketing budget for the film was used up airbrushing Ms. Ball’s publicity photos and Ms. Ball broke down in tears during Gene Siskel’s interview for her press junket.

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