Saturday, May 16, 2009

IN 1973, THE HOLLYWOOD MUSICAL REACHED ITS NADIR WHEN LUCY DECIDED SHE COULD INDEED SING AND TRIED TO BRING JERRY HERMAN'S DELICIOUS BROADWAY HIT TO THE SILVER SCREEN.



Among connoisseurs of unintentionally hilarious movies, MAME separates the men from the boys. It’s so terrible that it’s not just funny, it’s frighteningly funny. Watch it and wonder, "What were they thinking of?" Sunset Boulevard aficionados will quickly realize that this movie, rather than the Salome that Norma Desmond hoped would return her to glory, is the faded Hollywood star’s vanity production nonpareil, and that Lucille Ball as Auntie Mame is a good deal scarier than Gloria Swanson as Desmond. The difference, of course, is that Swanson was supposed to be scary.

Ball allegedly sank a large chunk of her personal fortune into the making of this musical Titanic, which is the only possible explanation for how anyone in Hollywood could possibly have offered her the title role. A movie chorus girl way back in the years before TV’s Lucy Ricardo, Ball envisioned a triumphant return to the silver screen in Jerry Herman’s hit Broadway musical (based on the earlier play and movie Auntie Mame). But to put it kindly, it had been so long since she’d sung or danced, every number in Mame had to be s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n for Ball’s minute vocal range and one-two terpsichorean talents.

The results are like watching a musical taffy pull. It’s a model of self-deception: Ball, trying to look young enough for the role, employs every trick of the trade to tautly pull her wrinkles and lines into a mask-like visage of middle age. When she dons a plastic Santa Claus face for the song "We Need a Little Christmas," the eerie effect of one mask over the other sends chills up the spine – it stops the show, all right, but not the way Ball and company imagined.

Maybe you won’t want to watch Mame all the way to the end, but do: The conclusion is a loony montage of earlier scenes showing Auntie Mame hugging one co-star after another – a movie first and, one hopes, a movie last.

With Jane Connell, who stepped in to recreate her Broadway role of the nanny Gooch after Ball had Madeline Kahn fired (perhaps Ball realized that it was Kahn who should have been playing Mame?), Robert Preston, a scene-stealing Beatrice Arthur, Bruce Davison, Joyce Van Patten, John McGiver, and as the young Patrick, the utterly resistible Kirby Furlong.

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