Sometimes a film’s reputation becomes so marked and legendary that it often outshines the film itself: this is definitely the case with Mame the 1974 musical based on Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame about a bohemian eccentric who suddenly becomes a mother to her orphaned nephew. Starring comic legend Lucille Ball, Mame took some unforgiving drubs from the critics, reportedly traumatizing Ball so much she forever abandoned feature films. In comparison, the 1958 version, starring Rosalind Russell has been warmly remembered, and Russell in particular, became a screen icon because of her grande performance as the title character.
Let’s be clear: the 1958 film is excellent. Russell is rightly lionized for her role. The story starts off with a decadent party in a gorgeous Manhattan apartment. The apartment is populated by archetypal “kooks” and “weirdos” that make life for Mame Dennis (Russell) so interesting. Newly orphaned Patrick (Jan Handzlik), wide-eyed and awestruck, is left at Mame’s doorstep. She takes to motherhood with big-hearted love and sincerity, but also with crazed abandon. Patrick’s trust is managed by the dour Mr. Babcock (Fred Clark), who does not approve of Mame’s more liberal, free-thinking ways. Angered at her behavior regarding Patrick’s schooling, he enrolls Patrick into boarding school; at the same time the Stock Market crashes, plunging Mame into penury. In the picaresque, episodic structure of the film, she rebounds by catching the eye of millionaire Southern charmer Beauregard Burnside (Forrest Tucker). Meanwhile, Patrick grows up (and is played as an adult by Roger Smith) and, despite Mame’s influence, becomes a bourgeois snob.
Because of the episodic nature of the film, it can drag a bit and feel longer than its two and a half hours. Also, some of the outrageousness is now seemingly tame – Mame’s long line of crazy guests aren’t all that crazy, really – and some of the madcap seems a bit forced. Also, Handzlik as young Patrick doesn’t make much of an impression (he also seems a bit old to be a cowed, wide-eyed kid). Still, despite this, Russell dominates with a force of nature performance – and while it’s her show, Clark’s fantastic, too, stealing scenes as the blustery Babcock.
In the 1974 musical version, the plot has some minor changes, but overall maintains a strong resemblance to the original. The major difference is of course, the cast will break into song. That’s when things get a bit creaky. Lucille Ball as Mame isn’t the disaster of apocryphal legend: in fact, when performing slapstick or verbal comedy, she’s aces. It’s when she has to sing that things go south: by the 70s, Ball’s voice deepened to an unattractive and rangeless bass growl. There is very little inflection to her voice. Despite being in her 60’s, she’s maintained her showgirl figure and can still boast some fantastic set of gams; she hoofs admirably, kicking up her long legs. Still, it’s a shame that Angela Lansbury who essayed Mame on Broadway didn’t have the Hollywood clout to get the role – she would’ve been infinitely better.
Thankfully, other vets from the Broadway Mame make their way into the film: namely Bea Arthur as the gin-soaked Vera Charles and Jane Connell as the meek Gooch. Both are musical theater pros and perform their musical numbers with aplomb. Also the kid playing the young Patrick (Kirby Furlong) is far more suitable.
So then why does Mame have the much-maligned legacy: well, aside from the miscasting of Ball, there are some choices that the filmmakers make that are pretty head-scratching – the first on the list is the questionable use of soft-focus for Ball’s close-ups. The view becomes so foggy and blurry, one would have to guess that it’s Lucille Ball on the screen. Also some of the costumes that Ball wears throughout the film betray her age and are unsuitable for a woman of her age (though when turned out right, she looks fantastic).
It’s interesting to watch this pair of films side-by-side to make notes. Both have a life-affirming message of being happy and kind to others, which is great. Also whether it’s Ball or Russell inhabiting her, Mame Dennis is a fascinating and endearing character. Her blunders come from a pure place of guile and ignorance. And in the age of intolerance leaving its mark in politics and popular culture, Mame Dennis is a much-needed antidote of kindness and tolerance.