Musical Monday: Mame (1974)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Mame (1974) – Musical #523

Warner Bros.

Gene Saks

Lucille Ball, Robert Preston, Bea Arthur, Bruce Davison, Kirby Furlong, Jane Connell, George Chiang, Joyce Van Patten, Don Porter, John McGiver, Audrey Christie, Bobbi Jordan, Doria Cook-Nelson (billed as Doria Cook), Burt Mustin

Set in the late-1920s and early 1930s, nine-year-old Patrick (Furlong) goes to live with his only living relative, Auntie Mame (Ball), after his father dies. Mame is eccentric, free-spirited and lives unconventionally.

• Lucille Ball’s last theatrical feature film.
• Musical remake of “Auntie Mame” (1958). The musical originated in 1966 on Broadway starring Angela Lansbury, and the show ran for 1,508 performances.
• Warner-Seven Artists bought the film rights to Jerry Herman’s Broadway show, “Mame” in 1968. Elizabeth Taylor and Angela Lansbury were rumored for the part, according to the book “Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball” by Stefan Kanfer.
• George Cukor was set to direct the film, but when Lucille Ball broke her leg in a skiing accident, so the film was delayed for 16 months. Cukor was replaced by Saks, according to Kanfer’s book.
• Bette Davis campaigned for the role of Vera Charles, according to Kanfer’s book.
• Madeline Kahn was originally set to play Agnes Gooch, but Lucille Ball wasn’t happy with her performance and she was replaced, according to Kanfer’s book.
• Writer Jerome Lawrence wanted Carol Burnett as Gooch, according to the book But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!: The Amazing History of the World’s Favorite Madcap Aunt by Richard Tyler Jordan.
• Bea Arthur and Jane Connell reprised their roles from the original Broadway show.
• Gene Saks directed both the original Broadway show
• Doria Cook-Nelson is billed as Doria Cook.

Kirby Furlong and Lucille Ball

• Costumes by Theadora Van Runkle

Notable Songs:
• “We All Need a Little Christmas” performed by Lucille Ball, Jane Connell, Kirby Furlong and George Chiang
• “Mame” performed by Robert Preston and chorus
• “Loving You” performed by Robert Preston

My review:
Lucille Ball is one of the most famous performers to ever have graced film and TV.

Her television role in “I Love Lucy” was groundbreaking, and she was a savvy businesswoman.

Unfortunately, even the most talented performers and discerning of entrepreneurs can make a mistake.

This week’s musical left Lucille Ball so discouraged by bad reviews that she never made another film following it. And that musical was the 1974 musical film adaptation of “Mame.”

The story of “Mame” began as a 1955 book called “Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade” by Patrick Dennis. The book was adapted into a Broadway comedy by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, starring Rosalind Russell, which ran from 1956 to 1958. Russell reprised her role in a 1958 film adaptation.

Jerry Herman then adapted the story into a Broadway musical in 1966, which starred Angela Lansbury, and ran on Broadway for two years. The rights to the Broadway show were purchased for the film. Angela Lansbury had openly said wanted to play Mame on film “in the worst way,” but she did not get her wish.

It was Lucille Ball who got the role.

This wasn’t the first time Jerry Herman and his Broadway star were disappointed by the outcome of a film. Five years earlier, Herman and his star Carol Channing were disappointed that she wasn’t considered for the film version of “Hello Dolly!” (1969). Channing was open about never seeing the film and how hurt she was that Barbara Streisand was cast instead, according to the documentary “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.”

Lucille Ball was eager to play the iconic role of Mame Dennis. Throughout her career, and even after their marriage, Ball would seek career advice from Desi Arnaz. Arnaz advised her not to do the film and this was one of the few times she didn’t listen, according to the book “Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball” by Stefan Kanfer.

Ball should have listened.

Making the film was strenuous and the reviews that followed the musical were negative.

Molly Haskell wrote in the Village Voice that she was “pro-Ball, but anti-Mame.” Time Magazine said, “The movie spans about 20 years, and seems that long in running time …”

And truthfully, I agree with both of those assessments.

Some reviews were perhaps needlessly harsh, some noting her appearance and Pauline Kael wondering if Ball discovered an unfulfilled ambition to be a flaming drag queen.

Taking potshots at Ball’s appearance in this film, in my opinion, are off base. Ball looks fantastic and wears some gorgeous gowns. Director Gene Saks and cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop were heavy-handed with a soft-focused, Vaseline lens, which I think made Ball seem more aged than a clear view would have.

“Mame” is a bit of a stinker of a musical, but I don’t think that is only the issue with this film. To me, the real problem with “Mame” is that it was released in 1974.

These late-1960s and 1970s musicals lack what the movie musicals of the 1950s and early-1960s had. They all have a phony Broadway feel to them and all are longer than 2 hours. Studios seemed to think that a lengthy, over-the-top musical was the way to save a dying genre, and they killed it in the process.

The beginning of the film is set in the 1920s, which feels even more phony. I feel like most 1970s and 1980s films don’t do the 1920s well, and everything ends up looking like caricatures dancing to tinny-sounding music.

Lucille Ball wasn’t well suited for the character of Auntie Mame. It’s easy to say that Angela Lansbury should have gotten the role, but I can’t say that the film would have been better with another lead actor. This era of musical just never ends up being charming. Bea Arthur, who plays Vera Charles in the film, reprised the role she originated on Broadway and I didn’t even love her in this. And Jane Connell reprising her role as Agnes Gooch from the show was downright annoying.

There are some bright spots though. The costumes are gorgeous, and I loved Robert Preston in his brief role as Ball’s husband.

Lucille Ball and Robert Preston

I didn’t know many of the songs going into this film, though I did know the song “We All Need a Little Christmas,” which has since become a holiday standard. It isn’t actually Christmas in this scene (though it’s close to the holiday), but it is a fun scene. This number and “Mame” were probably my favorite.

For the hard businesswoman she was, Ball was deeply hurt by the reception of “Mame.” She never got over the “shellacking” she received,” according to the book “Ball of Fire.”

“Mame” isn’t good, but I was able to get through it. I would still rank it higher than other musicals of this era like Finian’s Rainbow and Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

It is a shame, because I love Lucy, but I just don’t love Mame.

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1 thought on “Musical Monday: Mame (1974)

  1. In an interview later in life, Ball said she had not wanted to make Mame, and when she famously broke her leg before production she had hoped that would be the end of it, but Warner Bros. wanted her and she couldn’t get out of it. That said, the film is not nearly as bad as we have been told over and over again for forty plus years now. In fact, time has been quite kind to it. It holds up.


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