FOR MOCKSTERS ONLY
Auntie Mame is every lib’s favorite aunt as theatre, and by every measure it’s what the movie is. While there’s some minor effort to expand out from the confines of Beekman Place, director Morton DaCosta and Warner Bros. stay close to its roots, as the movie fades after each act, an obvious blessing for TV stations clocking in the commercials. Rosalind Russell, recreating her Broadway success, has never seemed more mechanized; every line, every inflection, intonation, wave of an arm, adjustment of the hair or scribble on a pad are fixed for posterity. Yet the role, with its zany freethinker import, has lasting appeal and inevitably the vehicle would be turned into a stage musical, with people like Mary Martin, Ann Southern and Lucille Ball chomping at the bit. (Politely asked if interested, Roz wisely bowed out after her braying Gypsy.) The plum called Mame went to Angela Lansbury, in a personal triumph. She didn’t get to the chance to repeat her acclaimed version because Hollywood didn’t think she had the box office power, despite the persistent long lines waiting for months to see her on Broadway. In fact, she wasn’t even asked and, saying to Larry King how really “ticked” she was over the slight, never forgave Warner Bros., who purchased the rights to the musical for $3 million. Yet somehow the property ended up being controlled by Lucille Ball, looking for a big career-capping vanity splash. Gossip has it she quietly bought the rights from the studio—the sum of $5 million has been bandied about—because she was pissed about not getting the stage version (deceiving herself into thinking she was a hot ticket on the big white way after Wildcat!) and to prevent Lansbury repeating her smash. Just how Ball, whose television ratings never translated into box office lure except for the 1954 The Long, Long Trailer, convinced Warner Bros. to give her $12 million to fuck up Mame remains a mystery unless, as suggested on the Internet and elsewhere, she actually financed it herself in order to get the studio’s coveted distribution apparatus. (And inveigle the studio to pull Auntie Mame from public view for a limited time to prevent embarrassing comparisons.) Her former husband Desi Arnaz, who still advised her on projects, cautioned against doing the role, but, with George Cukor originally tabbed as director, she was determined. During early filming, she took a brief ski holiday, during which she broke her right leg in several places and the movie had to close down for months. Upon resumption, production became ever-increasingly arduous and her behavior, always emphatic on any set, became dictatorial. She certainly ruled the roost, having had Madeline Khan fired, lashing out at her makeup artist (who used a form of glue on her face to reduce or squeeze together the wrinkles), refusing to allow lyrics already recorded to be included in the actual film, and frequently usurping director Gene Saks on set. These otherwise intolerable misfortunes circumstantially back up the belief she used her own cash to make and keep afloat the movie. As bad as Mame is, it’s still a great party flick as enormous fun to mock: you and your guests will be whooping it up watching what you can’t really believe you’re seeing. Our Lucy—she can’t sing, can’t dance, won’t do closeups. (In The Hollywood Musical, author Ethan Mordden quipped, she’s “not clearly seen through the mass of Ponce de Leon filters.”) And Theadora van Runkle’s costumes for Ball and Bea Arthur are hands down some of the most god-awful to be seen on screen during the 70s. They’re Adrian gone screamingly drag queen bonkers on shoulder pads, elephantine hats, turbans, dinosaurfins and furs galore. Ball is particularly unable to comfortably luxuriate in most of them—especially the pink-lavender ensemble (with blonde hair!) donned at Robert Preston’s little farm. Arthur is luckier: a grotesque to begin with, she’s every bit the match for the outfits. (She’s also got the movie’s one real laugh when asked by Ball if she’d like to imbibe.) Rarely a bad actress, what was bad for Ball was her obsessive control of self-image. Always aware the World Loves Lucy, she feared losing the public if she challenged herself with material it might object to. In The Facts of Life and Critic’s Choice with Bob Hope, she had opportunities to do some grown up themes, until safety devices like a leaky roof derailing an adulterous rendezvous in the former and amateur writing contests in the latter blocked any unzipping. Watching her turn Mame into an enhaloed lushed-up Lucy Ricardo, she and the mucilaged face get stuck in her puerile web.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.