Auntie Mame is everyones favorite aunt as theatre, and by every measure thats what the movie is. While theres been some minor effort to expand out from the confines of Beekman Place, director Morton DaCosta stays close to its roots. Probably too close—the movie fades after each act, an obvious blessing for TV stations clocking in the commercials. Rosalind Russell, recreating her Broadway success, has never seem more rehearsed, mechanical; 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 lines and libertarian import, still entertains. So it was inevitable that the star vehicle would be turned into a stage musical, with people like Mary Martin, Ann Southern and Lucille Ball very interested. (Roz cancelled herself out after her braying Gypsy.) But the plum called Mame went to Angela Lansbury, in a personal triumph. But Lansbury didnt get to the chance to repeat her acclaimed version because Hollywood didnt think she had the box office power, despite the persistent long lines waiting for months to see her on Broadway. In fact, she wasnt even asked, and, to Larry King, she was “ticked,” and has never forgiven Warner Bros., who purchased the movie rights for $3 million. Yet somehow the property ended up being controlled by Lucille Ball, looking for a career-capping vanity splash. Gossip has it that she quietly bought the rights from Warners—the sum of $5 million is often bandied about—because she was pissed off about not getting the stage version (she deceived herself into thinking she was a hot ticket on the big white way after Wildcat!), and to prevent Lansbury from filming it. Just how Ball, whose television ratings never translated into box office lure except for The Long, Long Trailer and that was in 1954, convinced Warner Bros. to give her $12 million to fuck up Mame remains a mystery unless, as suggested on the Internet and elsewhere, Ball actually financed it herself in order to get big studio distribution. (And to force Warner Bros. 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, perhaps because George Cukor had been 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 closed 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 the wrinkles), refusing to allow lyrics that were recorded to be included in the actual film, and frequently usurped director Gene Saks on set. As bad as Mame is, its a great party flick, enormous fun to mock: you and your guests will be whooping it up watching what you cant really believe youre seeing. Our Lucy—she cant sing, cant dance, wont do closeups. (In The Hollywood Musical, author Ethan Mordden quipped that shes “not clearly seen through the mass of Ponce de Leon filters.”) And Theadora van Runkles costumes for Lucy and Bea Arthur are hands down some of the most god-awful to be seen on screen during the 70s. Theyre like Adrian gone screamingly drag queen bonkers on shoulder pads, elephantine hats, turbans, dinosaurfins and furs galore. Ball’s unable to comfortably luxuriate in most of them—especially that pink-lavender ensemble (with blonde hair!) worn down at Robert Prestons little farm. Arthur is luckier: shes a grotesque to begin with, so shes every bit the match for the outfits. (Shes also got the movies one real laugh when asked by Ball if shed like to imbibe. The joke takes a long time in coming but whos looking a gift pigout in the mouth?) Rarely a bad actress, what was bad for Ball was her obsessive control of self-image. Always aware the World Loved Lucy, she seemed to outwardly fear losing that public if she challenged herself with material it might object to. In The Facts of Life and Critics Choice with Bob Hope, she had the opportunity to do some grown up themes, but silly plot devices like a leaky roof derailing an adulterous rendezvous and amateurish writing contests blocked the chance to see her (and Hope) unzip a bit. She couldnt consummate a marriage of adult language and sex situation; her Halo got in the way. Watching her turn Mame into an aging lush Lucy Ricardo, we see how she trapped herself in her own puerile web.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.