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teaser Mame (1974)

A variety of famous actresses have essayed the role of Mame Dennis, the world's most celebrated madcap aunt. Counted among them, in addition to Lucille Ball in the 1974 film musical Mame, are Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Greer Garson, Eve Arden, Beatrice Lillie, Ginger Rogers, Constance Bennett, Janet Blair, Janet Paige, Elaine Stritch, Ann Miller, Celeste Holm, Ann Sothern, Jan Sterling, Juliet Prowse, Gypsy Rose Lee, Susan Hayward, Alexis Smith, Carole Cook, Morgan Brittany, Carol Lawrence, Christine Ebersole and Christine Baranski. And that's just a partial list!

But no other performer was given the critical drubbing in the role that greeted Ball upon the release of the Mame movie. Perhaps it was because of resentment that Angela Lansbury, the much-admired star of the Broadway musical, had not been cast in the film. Whatever the reason, critics for the nation's leading publications were out for blood, lambasting the 62-year-old Ball for everything from her age and appearance to her misconceived interpretation of the role, her singing and dancing and the way she was photographed.

Newsweek noted, "There she stands, her aging face practically a blur in the protective gauze of softer-than-soft focus... looking alternately like any one of the seven deadly sins." The New Republic maintained that "She is too thick in the waist, too stringy in the legs, too basso in the voice, and too creaky in the joints." According to The New Yorker, "The sound is somewhere between a bark and a croak... and it doesn't quite match the movement of the lips." Drama-Logue wrote that, "Like the song says, 'She'll make the South revive again.' Unfortunately, it will probably be to lynch Lucy."

It had all started with the runaway success of Patrick Dennis's 1955 book, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, about a super-sophisticated member of New York's Algonquin set in the 1920s. This privileged denizen of Beekman Place unexpectedly becomes the guardian of her 10-year-old nephew and, through the ensuing three decades, teaches him lessons about handling wealth (or lack of it), remaining open to new ideas and battling prejudice. Above all she admonishes him to "Live, live, live!"

Producers Robert Fryer and Jimmy Carr immediately saw the potential for a successful Broadway comedy and bought the stage rights, casting movie superstar Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame in a script by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee under the direction of Morton DaCosta. The 1956 Broadway production was a triumph for Russell, winning her a Tony as Best Actress in a Play. She repeated that success in the 1958 film version, which was again directed by DaCosta, this time from a screen adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Russell was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar but lost to Susan Hayward for I Want to Live!

The 1966 Broadway musical Mame, with songs by Jerry Herman and book by Lawrence and Lee, starred Angela Lansbury and was an even bigger smash than the original play. It ran for more than 1500 performances and spawned numerous touring companies and stock productions. Lansbury and costar Beatrice Arthur, playing Mame's actress buddy Vera Charles, won Tonys as Best Actress and Supporting Actress in a Musical. Herman's songs included the soon-to-be Broadway standards "It's Today," "Open a New Window," "My Best Girl," "We Need a Little Christmas," "Bosom Buddies," "If He Walked Into My Life Today" and, of course, the rousing title tune.

On July 13, 1970, Daily Variety announced that Mame would be filmed by Warner Bros. Lansbury, who had fought to get the role on Broadway, hoped to star in the movie as well. Playwright Jerome Lawrence saw the dream cast for the film as Lansbury, Bette Davis as Vera and Carol Burnett as Agnes Gooch (Mame's awkward assistant). Jerry Herman also made a pitch for his friend Angela. But in those days, before she became a household word with TV's Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury was known as an expert character actress who had enjoyed this one star sensation onstage.

At the time, thanks to her widespread fame as TV's most popular comedienne on I Love Lucy and its subsequent incarnations, Ball had a "Q" rating (awareness level) of a whopping 98 -- the highest of any star anywhere! An actress who had come up in the world of movies and wanted to regain her position there, she had earlier hoped to star in the 1969 film of Hello, Dolly! but lost that one to Barbra Streisand. Rumors have abounded over the years that Ball put up $5 million in financing for the film with the understanding that she would play the lead. This has not been confirmed, and it seems more likely that Warners voluntarily cast her as likely box-office insurance because of her huge fan base.

And so it was announced in 1972 that Lucy would indeed be Mame. Paul Zindel, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, wrote the screenplay for the film, and George Cukor -- a specialist in guiding female stars through challenging roles -- was assigned to direct. But filming was postponed after Ball broke her leg while skiing near her condo in Aspen, Col., and Cukor's schedule would not allow him to proceed. His replacement was Gene Saks, director of the Broadway production and the husband of Bea Arthur, who signed on to repeat her role of Vera in the movie. Robert Preston would add star power as Mame's Southern-fried beau, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, and Madeline Kahn was cast as Gooch.

Rehearsals started in August 1972 at Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank. Ball made her clout felt from the first day, challenging Kahn on her line readings and seeing to it that the younger actress was removed from the cast when she failed to respond to Ball's satisfaction. Jane Connell, who had played Gooch on Broadway, was brought in as her replacement. The Hollywood Reporter claimed in its December 22, 1972 issue that Beatrice Arthur was also leaving the cast because of "conceptual differences" between her and Ball regarding Arthur's playing of Vera. Ball angrily complained, a retraction was printed and Arthur remained in the cast -- although some insiders claimed that the two actresses did have their differences. (In later years Arthur said she regretted having done the film, calling it "a disaster" and saying that Ball was "terribly miscast.")

If Lucy was hard on others, she was equally unsparing of herself. For the 90-day shoot of Mame she rose at 5 a.m. six days a week to tackle the demands of the role, which involved parading a daunting collection of Theadora Van Runkle costumes (budgeted at $300,000), dancing on the injured leg to meet the exacting standards of Broadway choreographer Onna White and, of course, singing -- not a Ball strong point.

Ball refused to be dubbed, although Lisa Kirk (who had done some work for Rosalind Russell in 1962's Gypsy) was proposed as a singing stand-in. Because she had trouble sustaining a melodic line with her smoker's growl, Ball's vocals were comprised of multiple takes spliced together. This meant that Warner Bros. could not release the movie with a 5.1 stereo soundtrack as planned, because that would underline the patchwork quality of the star's numbers.

Principal photography on Mame was completed on June 5, 1973, presumably in time to complete a final print for the expected Christmas opening. But as months of postproduction work wore on, there were rumblings in the industry that the movie was in trouble. Finally, it was announced that Mame would be released during the Easter season of 1974, and a lavish premiere was arranged at the Pacific Theatres Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. The official opening date was March 27, and that's when the cruel reviews were unleashed.

Frank Rich capped them all by writing in The New York Times that "The biggest turkey on Beekman Place is star Lucille Ball. To make matters worse Saks accommodates the elderly star's wrinkles by shooting her close-ups in soft focus -- so gauzy you think you're in a hospital." Even Rex Reed, a personal friend of Ball's, snidely suggested that she had been shot "through chicken fat."

Ball, who had seen the film at a preview and been "99 percent" satisfied with the way it had turned out, was astonished and devastated by the vitriolic reviews. There was scant comfort in the fact that she received a Golden Globe nomination (for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy), or in the movie's initial success during its opening run at New York's Radio City Music Hall. It broke house records there, including the highest single day's business in history for any film theater with a total of $69,220 on March 23. But Mame faltered at the national box office, joining a list of failed musicals of the period that included Star! (1968), Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Darling Lili (1970).

Jerry Herman would later summarize, "Nobody loves Lucille Ball more than I. She was a great lady and a very hard worker. But she was simply not right for the role. A clown cannot play that part and we had America's greatest clown."

Today Mame holds some entertainment appeal as a bustling, old-style family musical, and Herman's score remains engaging in essence if not always in execution. Arthur, Preston and Connell acquit themselves with professionalism and at times more than that. But the movie will be remembered chiefly as the somewhat heartrending folly of a great yet misguided star. Lucille Ball, bewildered and discouraged by her failure, returned to television work but never again attempted a feature film.

By Roger Fristoe

Source: But Darling, I'm Your Auntie Mame! by Richard Tyler Jordan, Kensington Books, 1998

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