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.”
“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!!