‘MAME’ (1974) – the end of the ‘Lucy’ era.

 

 

 

 

Lucille Ball’s Mame was one of the worst ‘flops’ in motion picture history. Other bad movies lost far more money, but few were brought undone simply because their leading performer was so woefully miscast. The picture is, of course, a musical remake of Rosalind Russell’s Auntie Mame (1958), for which Ms. Russell was unsuccessfully nominated for an Oscar. It appears that after watching Russell in the non-musical Auntie Mame, Lucille arrived at the conclusion that she had based her characterization on Lucy’s character in her hit TV series, I Love Lucy. This belief inspired Ms. Ball to chase the role in the up-coming musical version, titled Mame. She had also expressed her deep concern over the ‘gritty’ path movies had been taking recently (Last Tango in Paris, The Exorcist, etc.), feeling that a return to more ‘wholesome’ fare was needed. Mame, she believed, might well be the starting point for a revival of ‘family’ movies.

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Lucy as Mame

It is generally acknowledged that the extremely well-heeled Lucy kicked in $5 million to get the project off and running, on the proviso that she would be afforded first refusal to play the title role. At that time Angela Lansbury had become ensconced in the Mame role on Broadway and was wowing audiences night after night, so Lucy went along to see her performance. In fact, she even ventured backstage to congratulate Angela, telling her she was amazing in the part and a certainty to land the film role. According to Angela, she was touched by Lucy’s praise until she noticed the red-headed comedienne sitting in the wings during the performance – taking notes. No stranger to Hollywood intrigue and behind the scenes politics, Angela knew there and then that she would be most unlikely to be playing Mame on the screen.

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Angela as Mame on Broadway

Warner Bros. decision to overlook Angela for the lead is a puzzling one. She was an actress of considerable standing, not only on Broadway, but in the movies as well. A three-time Oscar nominee – for Gaslight (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), she had even won a Tony for her performance as Mame on Broadway! One can only suspect that Lucille’s $5 million, coupled with any other pressure her stature in the industry was able to exert on the studio, combined to give her the nod and to remove Angela from the running.

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Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame

Lucy was signed and her contract gave her casting approval. She did not like Madeline Kahn’s interpretation of Gooch, complaining that she was ‘too shapely’ for the character, so she fired her from the picture. At the time, Madeline was desperate to play Lili von Schtupp in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, about to commence shooting, so she needed to be fired (rather than quit) from Mame, in order to be paid for both films. Whether or not Lucille knew of this and decided to surreptitiously help her out is not known. Madeline herself stated years later that she was definitely fired from Lucy’s picture.

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Madeline Kahn as Lili in Blazing Saddles

Before shooting on Mame commenced, however, songwriter Jerry Herman (he wrote the score for Mame), went to Warner Bros. and begged them to reconsider, to cast Angela in the lead instead of Lucille. He argued that Lucy was far too old (she was 62 at the time and Angela was 47), that she would have to be photographed in soft focus, and that her singing would have to be dubbed. He lost the argument. As it turned out, Lucy refused to let anyone do her singing for her anyway. Instead, she croaked her way through song after song. Audio engineers tried everything they could think of to enhance her vocals, to make them at least ‘passable’, but most people would agree they were fighting a battle already lost.

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Lucy as Mame

Lucille’s breathing was such that she was barely able to complete a sentence without becoming winded. She was a heavy smoker and the habit had taken its toll. Even simple phrases such as, ‘Open a new window’, had to be patched together from several takes. All this splicing made it impossible for Warners to release a 5.1 stereo soundtrack for their movie without revealing the hodge-podge of Lucy’s original recording efforts. When the critics savagely attacked her croaky singing voice, her response was defiant. ‘Mame stayed up all night, drinking champagne. What did you expect her to sound like? Julie Andrews?’

Watching the film, it is painfully apparent that Lucille is continually shot in soft focus. Critic Rex Reed scarcely endeared himself to her when he famously suggested in print that it ‘looked like they had rubbed chicken fat on the camera lens to shoot her.’ In short, there is absolutely nothing to like about the screen version of Mame or Lucy’s performance in it. This became immediately apparent to Warners when they screened it for the first time at the studio. Their intention had been to release the picture in late 1973, in time to qualify for Oscar nominations. It did not require a genius to realize that any Oscar recognition was out of the question, so release was delayed until the spring of 1974.

Lucille was devastated by the critics’ savage reaction to her performance, but she was equally shattered by the dismal public response as well. She was used to success and adoration so public ridicule and disdain deeply hurt her. She vowed never to make another movie. In truth, after Mame, producers and writers were not exactly bashing her door down with proposals anyway. She had become persona non grata. The picture was budgeted at $12 million and recouped about half that amount, mostly due to the loyalty of Lucille Ball fans (there were still plenty of them) around the world.

Time Magazine was especially brutal with its revue, directing most of its venom at the hapless, aging star. ‘The movie spans about 20 years, and seems that long in running time’, it commented. ‘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.’ Stanley Kauffman, although conceding that she might have made an excellent Mame 15 years earlier, was scathing nevertheless, describing her as, ‘too old, too stringy in the legs, too basso in the voice, and too creaky in the joints.’ We can only speculate on Angela’s reaction to all this. My guess is that she was and is far too classy, (then or now), to comment or to criticize.

21 Comments

  1. I believe all those nay sayers of Lucy and Mame to be critics full of their own self importance.
    I saw this movie when it first came out and loved it. The production was luxe and Lucy was perfect for the role, playing the part with panache and style.
    Mame did as she said..proving to be wholesome family entertainment when gratuitus movie sex and violence were becoming the norm.
    On another note, I actually disliked the movie Auntie Mame and felt Russell’s acting was way over the top, silly and annoying.
    Lucille Ball in Mame may not have been Oscar worthy but certainly Russell in her portrayal, was not either. Talk about over-acting.
    Mame stands out as a terrific musical celebration and maybe people with their negative comments and critics with their negative criticism should remember that movies are about entertainment. Both Lucy and Mame are exactly that.

    • You liked Lucy’s performance. I did not. It is called a difference of opinion and that is ALL it is. I resent you saying I am full of my own self importance. The only person full of his self importance here is you my friend. In case you are unaware of it, it is possible to state your opinion WITHOUT insulting those whose opinions differ from yours. You should try it sometime. But not here.

  2. Interesting article, Alan. Makes me curious to see the film. Looks like the title song was filmed near the Huntington Library in Pasadena, rather than Georgia. Is that the case? I used to live in Glendale. Do you know when that scene was filmed, how long it took?

    • I cannot tell, Michael, if you are referring to ‘Mame’or to ‘Aunty Mame’ with Ros Russell. If you mean Lucy’s ‘Mame’, I cannot agree with you. If you mean Ros Russell, I agree wholeheartedly. That does not mean one of us is right and one wrong, of course. It simply means we have differing opinions.

  3. Interestingly, MAME was a smash at Radio City music hall for the Easter 1974 show. The story about Lucy contributing money towards MAME is pretty much show biz myth though. She did aggressively pursue the role, but several sources that I’ve read deny that she put up money. The film does have a gorgeous production though, and that “Mame” number! Wow!

  4. There is a lot of bitchy innuendo and rehash of popular propaganda against this film, which, despite the orchestrated campaign of negativity, has stood the test of time and has actually improved with age. Ball is Mame for a generation of movie fans who saw it first run, she photographed like a true screen star / and old loser Lansbury has said in interviews that Lucy was considered for the Broadway show Mame before she was. So let’s take a fresh and fair look at Lucy’s wonderful Mame.

    • Thankyou for your comments, Leslie. Personal opinions of movies are always varied. You happened to like Lucy’s performance; I did not. That does not mean either of us is definitively right or wrong. We simply disagree. A lot of people thought ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ was a good film (it won the Best Picture Oscar after all), whereas I thought it was lousy. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Caine in ‘The Last Valley’, yet the critics belted his performance mercilessly. I could go on along the same lines forever. We must agree to disagree.

  5. Lucille Ball was a consummate Entertainer performer and she cared about her audience. She wanted wholesome fun for the whole family to go see. I’m an extreme Lucille Ball fan and there’s nothing she ever did that I did not like. She deserves a lot of respect of young actors and actresses producers and directors she paved the way for many of them and privately she gave a lot of them jobs. Anyway since 1974 I’ve washed Maine every year at the holiday time. So let’s hear it for the Lucy. William Lewis impersonator Entertainer.

    • I have never questioned Lucy’s brilliance as a comedian and I never will, but far too many of her contemporaries complained about working with her, (especially on her TV show), for it to be ignored. As for her early days in Hollywood, well, she did what a great many pretty young things did to survive there. Needless to say, the executives, producers and the like were to blame for the plight many young women found themselves in. Lucy was just one of many. At least she managed to even some old scores in the end. As for her talentless jerk of a husband…

  6. Lucy was not so much a drinker (yes, she enjoyed Jack Daniels & coke) during socials and hours of playing backgammon. Bill Frawley had a long career as a character actress and prior to Lucy was known for heavy drinking, and love of horse racing, boxing and baseball. Desi Arnaz wanted Frawley to play the role of Freed Mertz and warned him if he showed up to work drinking, he was fired! Needless to say, Frawley performed to perfection and he, Desi and Lucy were lifetime friends.

  7. I will always love Lucy because it was with her strong support that her Desilu studio produced the television pilots for Star Trek & Mission:Impossible. Two of my favorite TV series.

  8. I was never really a big fan of the Lucy show. I couldn’t stand that awful noise she made when upset, but I viewed Mame on television when I was a young adult and I enjoyed it immensely. It was whacky, provoked social commentary and I felt that the vocals fit the character. All in all, it was a little madcap and a good bit of fun.

    • Thank you for your comments, Pamela. The wonderful thing about movies is that we all view them differently. And who is to say that any one person’s opinion is any better or worse than another’s. Not me, that’s for sure. In my site I voice my own personal opinions, nothing more. Just a bit of fun really. Thanks again.

    • I don’t think she was, Sheila. She was a hard-nosed business woman, but as far as I am aware she never had a drinking problem. Bill Frawley (Fred Mertz) sure as hell did though.

  9. As a kid, loved Rosalind Russell in the original pro.
    “Picture of Dorian Gray;” Don’t remember Angela Lansbury though. Also immersed myself
    in the book. [Just watched “Suspect,” 1944. Chas. Laughton, Ella Raines; really well done interesting story, well acted. Remembered Raines’ name; Hawks connection. TH&Have Not?]

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