Lucille Ball in MAME (1974) – A TV legend cut down to size


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The famous line from Mame goes, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.” Yep, and if they indulge in the excess of this movie, they’ll probably go on a diet.

Mame is one of those ultra-strange musicals like Gypsy. It does everything it can to present its supposed heroine as a passive-aggressive mental case and then tries to tell us how endearing she is. One wonders what drove poor Lucille Ball, who by then had over two decades as a sitcom legend behind her, to indulge in a previously undisclosed desire to become a drag queen.

images (3)To quote an eye-popping plot summary of the movie at The Internet Movie Database, “The musical revolves around the antics of Mame Dennis (Lucille Ball), a fun-loving, wealthy eccentric with a flare for life and a razor-sharp wit.” Actually, at least as presented here, Mame is one of those heavy drinkers who thinks she gets funnier as she gets drunker. It doesn’t help that Ball was continually shot in ultra-soft focus to hide all of her 62 years.

images (4)The big kicker in the story is that Mame inherits her late brother’s only child Patrick. The real-life Patrick wrote the book about his lively aunt that was turned into a Broadway show and non-musical movie (starring Rosalind Russell, and nearly as endless as this mess). But you’d never guess that Patrick was ever a real person based on the performance of his younger years by Kirby Furlong. Pauline Kael wrote an especially (and deservedly) vitriolic slam on Furlong’s acting, stating that he came across as so non-human that it wouldn’t be against the law to destroy him. A more generous viewpoint is that the script never shows Patrick in plausible terms. Far from suggesting a real boy who might be in shock or grief from losing his parents, here Patrick seems like a kid ready to party.

images (5)Another major debit in the story is the character of Mame’s assistant Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell, who played the role on stage as well). Ball made much of the fact that Madeline Kahn was to have played Gooch in the movie but weaseled her way out of it so that she could perform her Oscar-nominated role in Blazing Saddles. More likely, Kahn saw the writing on the wall and decided to bail before this movie killed her career.

In any case, the character of Gooch is painful to endure. She starts out as a mousy woman who is supposedly loosened up under Mame’s wing. Trouble is, she loosens up so much that she ends up becoming an unwed mother (not a role indulged well by American society in the 1920’s and ’30s, where the first part of the story is set). It’s supposed to be an absolute hoot when drippy Gooch returns to Mame and does a musical number that basically says, “It was your lifestyle that got me into this mess, now what do I do?” Yet even the musical’s writers knew they opened up a moral quagmire they didn’t know how to deal with; hence, we never see Gooch again after that number.

images (6)There are almost as many jaw-dropping moments in this movie as there are songs. There’s the supposed banter between Mame and her “good friend” Vera Charles (Bea Arthur), coming off more like two women vying for drag-queen history. Then poor Robert Preston gets dragged in as a Southern beau who gets knocked off his feet by Mame’s zest for life. Knocked off his feet, eh? Cowed is more like it.

It’s really head-shaking to think that Lucille Ball got her start performing as an ingenue in movie musicals, only to torpedo her movie career with one. Mame isn’t even enough of a hoot to be so-bad-it’s-good — it’s more to be pitied than sneered at. You’d be better off enjoying a DVD of a season of “I Love Lucy,” where Lucille Ball’s talents are vividly on display.

Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball in a 1965 TV appearance

Forgive me if you’ve heard this, but I have to provide a little background for those who haven’t.

Lucille Ball and Buster Keaton became friends on the M-G-M lot in the 1940’s. He was a gag man and some-time supporting player with his movie-starring days behind him; she was a supporting player with her TV-starring days ahead of her. It’s said that Ball gained much of her physical comedy skills from Keaton.

The only time they ever appeared together was in “A Salute to Stan Laurel,” a well-intended but majorly botched 1965 tribute to Laurel broadcast by CBS a few months after his death. One of the few highlights of the special was Ball and Keaton’s sketch, a routine that Keaton had previously done on stage with his wife Eleanor.

Here, at the 6:07 mark, Dick Van Dyke introduces the bit. Harvey Korman can be seen as an irate cop. Also, the unfolding-newspaper bit is taken wholesale from Keaton’s 1921 short subject¬†The High Sign.