Friday, August 5, 2011

MAME: LUCILLE BALL'S FOLLY

When Broadway shows are adapted to film a lot of consideration takes place. Even though they are just transferring an existing production to the screen, countless things need to be reworked. For every Broadway hit that becomes a movie smash, there are countless other movies that just don't seem to work. One such movie was the ill fated Mame in 1974.

Mame was based on the 1966 Broadway musical of the same name, directed by Gene Saks, written by Paul Zindel, and starring Lucille Ball and Beatrice Arthur. Warner Bros. heads were concerned that Angela Lansbury, who had originated the title role on Broadway, had not yet captured the attention of the general public since she was mainly a Broadway star at this point (although she had starred in Disney's live-action/animated musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971). Her popular television series Murder, She Wrote, which would make Angela Lansbury a household name, would not debut for another ten years.

The film focuses on eccentric Mame Dennis, whose madcap life is disrupted when her deceased brother's son Patrick is entrusted to her care. Rather than bow to convention, Mame introduces the boy to her free-wheeling lifestyle, which includes his nanny Agnes Gooch and Mame's husband Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, a Southern aristocrat with a Georgia plantation called Peckerwood.

Filming, scheduled to begin in early 1972, was postponed when Lucille Ball broke her leg in a skiing accident. Owing to the delay, original director George Cukor was forced to withdraw from the project. The assignment went to Gene Saks, who had helmed the Broadway production, and his influence resulted in his then-wife Beatrice Arthur reprising the role of Vera Charles she had created on stage, a role that had been actively sought by Bette Davis.

Production began in January 1973. Ball, who had casting approval, was dissatisfied with Madeline Kahn's interpretation of Gooch and had her replaced by Jane Connell, another member of the original Broadway cast. Cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop made a valiant effort to draw attention from Ball's age by filming her with special lens filters, but the contrast between her soft-focus close-ups and the clarity of everyone and everything else was noticeable and jarring. Furthermore, despite extensive rehearsal sessions with Jerry Herman, who had composed the score, there was nothing that could be done to disguise her lack of singing ability. Herman held a grudge over Lucille Ball being cast in the main role. Not only could Ball not sing, but Herman had written the role especially for his friend Angela Lansbury.


It was originally planned to have Lucille Ball's singing voice dubbed if her vocals were not good enough to use in the film. Alternate vocals were rumored to have been recorded by Lisa Kirk, but at any rate Ball intervened and her vocals (a point of contention for many critics) were ultimately used. While, Ball's voice was adequate during many of the musical numbers like her superb duet with Bea Arthur on "Bosom Buddies", Lucille Ball just did not have the voice to pull off a musical. Earlier in her career Ball starred in a musical DuBarry Was A Lady, and her vocals were dubbed in - so how could Lucy be expected to sing some thirty years later!

Jerry Herman disliked this film so much (and was also unhappy with the film of his prior musical Hello, Dolly!) that no film of his musicals can be made again without his direct involvement and approval. Bea Arthur has confessed that she had reservations about making this film, but agreed to do so in order to work with her husband, director Gene Saks. In a 2008 interview, she called the film "a disaster." Even the star of this opus, Lucille Ball later regretted the movie. She would later say that "making the movie was about as much fun as watching your house burn down." Mame would be Lucille Ball's last theatricial movie.

Some parts of the movie do work. There was a definite chemistry between Lucille Ball and the actor Kirby Furlong, who portrayed her nephew in the film. That chemistry made the movie both touching and heart warming at times. Despite the lack of Lucille Ball's musical ability, she was surrounded by great musical stars like Bea Arthur and Robert Preston. That alone makes Mame worth seeing.


It is a movie that as a youth I saw on a lazy Sunday with nothing better to do. Lucille Ball does her best, and even Ball in a horrible movie is worth watching. Mame is not Lucy's proudest moment on screen, but some 100 years after her birth, it is still an example of Ball never being afraid to attack a project and give it her all...

12 comments:

  1. Thank you for this beautiful profile of one of my guilty pleasures! I love how campy it is, and watching Lucy in ANYTHING is so much fun! Not to mention Bea Arthur, who is of course brilliant. Thanks again!
    Lara (from Backlots)

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  2. Lucy took a whack at a Broadway musical in 1960's Wildcat, which was also a bust though it did produce the memorable "Hey, Look Me Over" which she did warble on The Lucy Show occasionally in her imitable Lucy fashion. (I never was able to understand how Lucy Ricardo ever expected to get far in show business since she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.) Thanks for the background on this movie, Lobosco -- very well-written and full of detail!

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  3. Thanks for the great post, I haven't been able to see this movie yet, but this post makes me excited to!

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  4. Great post and really great information. Thanks for participating in the blogathon!
    -Carrie, True Classics

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  5. I have to admit, this is not one of my favorite Lucy performances. She tries so hard--you can practically see her trying to WILL the role to work for her--but ultimately, it just doesn't fit. I wasn't aware of much of the backstage turmoil surrounding this movie--I can only imagine that it must have been a tense set (to say the least). Still, as you indicated, you have to admire Lucy's tenacity in even tackling the role in the first place!

    Thanks for your great contribution to the Lucy blogathon! We're so glad you joined in.

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  6. Even though the movie falls a little short. It is worth watching. Lucille Ball is a great dancer, and the story is great. If Lucy would have only been a better singer!

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  7. Lobosco, I must admit that although Lucille Ball was wonderful in so many roles, I'm afraid the big-screen version of MAME wasn't one of them -- although I did like it when I first saw it in Radio City Music Hall as a kid, and it's become something of a guilty pleasure ever since!

    I wasn't surprised to learn that Lucille Ball bankrolled the MAME movie; it certainly explains her miscasting. Don't get me wrong: Ball looked gorgeous in the spectacular costumes, and her slapstick clowning was still up to par, even if her singing wasn't. The good news is that even Lucy's bullfrog singing voice could never completely ruin Jerry Herman's wonderful songs.

    In any case, Lucy's singing didn't bother me nearly as much as the fact that she was too old and, worst of all, too *COLD* to play lovable madcap Mame Dennis. Though Lucy looked lovely, I'm afraid she looked more like she was modeling than acting, and she had all the warmth and tenderness of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Moreover, although I know Lucy was quite the dancer back in the day, it looked to me like the dances in MAME had been slowed down to accommodate Lucy's diminished dancing skills (from lack of practice or decreasing flexibility, perhaps?) Notice how, except for the "Loving You" number, people seem to dance *around* Lucy rather than with her).

    Frankly, I've always felt that Madeline Kahn should have been playing Mame Dennis! Luckily, Lucy's miscasting is balanced out by the terrific casting in the other roles, especially the hilarious Beatrice Arthur and Jane Connell recreating their Broadway roles (gotta admit Lucy and Bea really nailed it in the wickedly funny/bitchy "Bosom Buddies" number!); Joyce Van Patten as Sally Cato; and the ever-delightful Robert Preston as dashing Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. Despite my complaints here, MAME is still worth a look for die-hard Lucy fans, for both its good and bad points. The letterboxed version occasionally turns up on AMC. In any event, although the MAME movie might not have wowed the crowds, your fine blog post certainly did -- great job!

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  8. I consider "Mame" one of her best! A Christmas never goes by without me watching my copy.

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  9. I am watching this film right now and am surprised by how much I'm enjoying it, especially given all the regrets regrets regrets those involved expressed about it. I think by the time this was filmed musicals of this ilk had fallen into audience and critic disfavor, as dinosaur fare. Ball's voice is adequate to the part. Does Mame really need to be a top-notch singer? Her life is built on bravado. Come on.

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  10. This steaming pile is one of the worst films (not just musicals) ever made. I remember seeing it in 74 and all of us kids remarking what a dog it was.

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  11. Rosalind Russell is the only Mame Dennis for me

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  12. I loved the movie and have it in may library.

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