In life Mame Dennis made a lasting impression on her nephew Patrick – so much, that in death he immortalized her into everyone’s favorite ‘Auntie Mame’ in a glowing novel that eventually became a hit Broadway show, then later, an equally impressive film extravaganza starring Rosalind Russell. That Gene Saks’ Mame (1974), based on the Broadway musical that followed the aforementioned film, failed to generate as much frenetic energy, excitement or even basic entertainment value on the whole remains a mystery – since the film was blessed with a solid – if overly theatrical – score, and a stellar cast, of which the galvanic Lucille Ball headlines.
Oddly enough, few of these pluses seemed to matter in the end; a weighty, costly and grossly under-nourished spectacle from which only the film’s title number survives relatively unscathed. Lucy – everyone’s favorite madcap on television – became utterly stifled by the material in the Robert E. Lee/Paul Zindel screenplay. While Russell’s Auntie Mame had been a buoyant, lovable and flighty dame about town, Ball’s Mame seems more adult and less able to assimilate into a child’s world – less likely to be beloved without her Mickey Finn and the occasional romp through a seedy burlesque or local speakeasy. In effect, she seems more like a corrosive influence than an endearing and compassionate matriarch.
The plot – truncated to accommodate the musical offerings, and veering wildly away in many respects from Patrick Dennis’ original novel – has young Patrick (Kirby Furlong) arriving with (not Nora – his nanny) but Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell). This apprehensive duo is introduced to the wily Mame (Lucy) in the midst of one of her gloriously decadent parties at her fashionable terrace apartment. Mame tells Patrick that she is going to open doors for him; doors to possibilities he never even dreamed of – then, relegates him to a few sordid debaucheries peppered with gangsters, free love and bathtub gin.
In the original film, the gregarious Rosalind Russell was able to make these less than stellar experiences seem the epitome of light-hearted good taste and humorous chic. But Ball’s Mame, worldly and less optimistic on the whole – seems more like an aging pedophile who delights in corrupting tomorrow’s youth today.
Eventually, Patrick grows up and becomes engaged to Gloria Upson (Doria Cook) – a snobbish debutante whose parents believe in restrictive communities and anti-everything that does not fall under their limiting white bred world. Naturally, Mame won’t stand for much of this.
The roll of Mame would have been ideal for Lucy in her prime, as it had been for Russell in hers; but, by 1974, age had significantly withered both Ball’s appeal and physical strength for slapstick (always Lucy’s strength), enough for choreographer Onna White to excise Ball from the more strenuous musical numbers whenever and wherever possible. Though White’s rather mechanical choreography is an asset, Ball’s obviously hoarse vocal capabilities are decidedly the film’s unraveling.
Quite simply, she cannot sing – croaking three of the best songs, ‘It’s Today,’ ‘Open A New Window,’ and ‘We Need A Little Christmas’ until all one can think about is how glorious Broadway’s Mame (Angela Lansbury) had belted out each of these songs with aplomb and a genuine feel for the melody.
In the end, Mame – the movie - serves as a cautionary tale for aging actresses attempting to stretch themselves beyond their means, and, as a proponent against the Hollywood musical in general; especially one as expensive, flat-footed, tone deaf and utterly bloated as this one so tragically is.
Warner Home Video has done an excellent job transferring Mame to DVD. Though there had been some initial talk of remixing the film to Dolby 5.1, the DVD preserves the theatrical mono blend with satisfactory sonic characteristics. Philip Lathrop’s photography effectively blurs Ball’s aged façade in a soft lit glow that is complimentary.
Colors are rich, bold and vibrant on this DVD, though there is a decided reddish characteristic to flesh tones in general. The anamorphic elements are in good shape on the whole. Occasionally stock footage is blurry and faded, but most of the film exhibits a razor sharp and grain free quality with only minor aliasing effects in some fine details sporadically displayed in several scenes. Extras are limited to the rather disappointing ‘Lucky Mame’ vintage featurette and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)