Thursday, February 19, 2015

THE LAST OF SHEILA 1973

“Just goes to show what can be accomplished when a bunch of closeted gay men put their heads together!”                     Overheard following a screening of The Last of Sheila


In 1973 Stephen Sondheim, Anthony Perkins, and Herbert Ross - three closeted gay men in show business who knew a thing or two about keeping secrets - collaborated on The Last of Sheila, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery with a touch of All About Eve vitriol set aboard a luxury yacht on the French Riviera. 
The Last of Sheila came about after Herbert Ross, one-time choreographer (Funny Girl) turned director/producer (The Owl and the Pussycat, The Turning Point), persuaded composer Stephen Sondheim (Company, Follies) to channel his extracurricular passion for inventing elaborate games and puzzles into a movie project. To that end, Sondheim, who at the time was working on the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, sought the help of friend and frequent game collaborator Anthony Perkins (then filming Play It as It Lays) and the two devised a brain-teasing murder mystery thrilling enough to be entertaining and intricate enough so that audiences can play along with the characters in the film.

An early first-draft from these two first-time screenwriters had the mystery take place over the course of a snow-bound weekend in Long Island between business associates. But at Ross’ suggestion, the locale was changed to the more photogenic south of France, and the game-playing participants changed to a glamorous, in-joke cross section of Hollywood movie industry types.
James Coburn as sharkish movie producer Clinton Green
Joan Hackett as heiress and Hollywood outsider Lee Parkman
Richard Benjamin as floundering screenwriter Tom Parkman
Raquel Welch as glamorous movie star Alice Wood
Ian McShane as Anthony Wood, Alice's ambitious manager husband
Dyan Cannon as pushy talent agent, Christine
James Mason as once-famous director Philip Dexter
A year after his gossip-columnist wife Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) was killed in a hit and run accident near their Bel-Air home, movie producer Clinton Green (Coburn) invites six friends – five of whom were guests at his house that fateful night – to spend a week aboard his yacht (The Sheila) in the Rivera. A gathering that promises to be part vacation, part memorial, and part career-carrot dangled under the noses of a gaggle of show business opportunists willing to subject themselves to week of sadistic game-playing in hopes of being offered a job on Clinton’s planned film about the life of his late, not-exactly-lamented wife. A film to be titled, “The Last of Sheila.”

This being a murder mystery, the murder half gets under way when, in the course of playing an elaborate, subtly cruel, detective/gossip game in which each player is assigned a gossipy secret the others must discover first, one of the participants winds up dead. The mystery revolves around the true inspiration for Clinton's game  - the public exposure of the identity of his wife's killer - and whether or not that person or persons is willing to go to even greater lengths to keep their secret a secret. The stage has been successfully set (an isolated group of people seeking to discover who among them is a killer) for a rise in the body count, the typical-for-the-genre tearful revelations, several heated incriminations, and skeletons tumbling out of closets faster than you can say whodunit. 
The ability to watch and rewatch The Last of Sheila on DVD has revealed it to be a much sharper and smarter film than it was credited with being when first released. Virtually every single frame and bit of character business reveals information pertaining to the overall mystery.

The Last of Sheila is a cinema rarity: a real corker of a murder mystery which plays fair with the viewer and doesn’t tip its hand in the first five minutes. It’s a nesting-doll of a murder mystery in which characters who initially enter into a game just for the fun of it, must eventually draw upon similar gamesmanship wiles to unearth the answers behind  what turns out to be an actual murder mystery. A mystery which, in itself, is one we in the audience are invited to participate in solving (Sondheim and Perkins are our literal “Clintons”…peppering the film with visual and verbal clues which, should we be swift enough to pick up on, lead us to the solution to the mystery).

And if, as many critics cited at the time, The Last of Sheila lacks the humanity necessary to make this murder mystery scarcely much more than a fun intellectual exercise (the common critical complaint was that the characters are all so despicable, you don’t give a hoot about trying to solve the mystery because you couldn’t care less whodunit or who it’s about to be done to); the passing of time and its availability on DVD has been kind to The Last of Sheila experience.

And by that I mean, not only is it a kick to see folks like Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and Raquel Welch all in the same film, but the characters and their deep, dark secrets seem almost quaint when compared to celebrities get away with these days (and happily tweet about). Most significantly though, the ability to rewind, rewatch, and reexamine The Last of Sheila, a film about whose mystery critic Rex Reed wrote, “…requires a postgraduate degree in hieroglyphics to figure out,”  has made watching it a considerably less frustrating experience than it was back in 1973.
Let the Games Begin
The original boat sank before filming. Original cinematographer Ernest Day (A Clockwork Orange) was fired after a week. Joan Hackett refused to say certain lines and was nearly replaced by Lee Remick. Arab terrorist group, Black September, threatened to blow up the set. James Mason couldn't stand Raquel Welch. Welch ruffled the feathers of costume designer Joel Schumacher (later the director Batman & Robin) by arriving with her entire wardrobe already designed and fitted by boyfriend, Ron Talsky. Welch (my, her name does keep popping up, doesn't it?) temporarily halted production when she walked off the film threatening to sue director Herbert Ross for assault and battery.

The Last of Sheila was made in the 70s, so it almost goes without saying that a post-Watergate cynicism and asserted preoccupation with exposing the ugly side of the lives of the Rich & Famous runs like an undercurrent throughout the film .
Hollywood is never at its most naïve than when it thinks it has to ratchet up the heartlessness in an attempt to dramatize for us plebeians what a phony, anything-for-a-buck business it is. The joke of course has always been that only Hollywood thinks its celluloid soul and cash register heart are well-kept secrets. Most of us over the age of ten grasped long ago what an assembly line of falseness the movie industry is, and after years of “seedy underbelly” exposés  (S.O.B., The Day of the Locust, Burn Hollywood Burn, The Bad & the Beautiful, Sunset Blvd., The Player, Two Weeks in Another Town, A Star is Born, The Oscar, etc.) I’m STILL waiting for a film to really capture just how callous and venal it can be…something perhaps possible only if the movie is conceived as a horror/porn film with traces of science fiction.
The Last of Sheila 
Gossip columnist Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) moments before she,
as Christine so tactfully puts it "...got bounced though the hedges." 
The busy schedules of Sondheim and Perkins prevented the two from having many opportunities to actually write the script while in the same room, thus the bulk of The Last of Sheila was done through phone calls and courier (Perkins has said only two scenes were written while both were in the same room at the same time), Sondheim handling the particulars of the game (natch), Perkins working hard to infuse Stephen’s academic brain puzzler with scare elements and Hollywood insider atmosphere. The result, while entertaining, sometimes feels as choppy and disjointed as the process of its creation.

The Last of Sheila, is the result of the combined efforts of a composer not exactly known for his warmth; a tortured, somewhat embittered actor whose promising leading-man career was derailed and forever haunted by the spectre of Psycho’s Norman Bates; and a famously grumpy director whose idiosyncratic relationship with his actors rivals that of Otto Preminger. With nary a sympathetic character in sight, The Last of Sheila is a unified cold front of a movie desperately in need of a few genre chills and perhaps some script tweaking to help raise the modest level of high-toned bitchery to a level of wit and bite worthy of the intellectual wizardry of Sondheim’s puzzle.


Stephen Who?
With A Little Night Music opening on Broadway in February, a Newsweek Magazine cover story in April, and a June release set for The Last of Sheila; 1973 marked the beginning of Stephen Sondheim's emergence as a household name. (Center) Perkins and Sondheim on the Cannes set of The Last of Sheila.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
To have Joan Hackett, that darling of idiosyncratic vulnerability, in the same film with the magnificent Raquel Welch, a startlingly uncraggy and boyishly cute Ian McShane, and the comically raucous Dyan Cannon, is quite a treat. But the real star of The Last of Sheila is its twisty murder mystery plot and the cunning “game” motif which runs throughout the film.
From the start, an atmosphere of narrative disequilibrium permeates every scene. 
All the characters are such phonies with ulterior motives behind everything word and action, it’s clear any number of games are already well underway long before Clinton bullies everyone into participating in what he calls “The Shelia Green Memorial Gossip Game.” Once the real game does begin, it becomes harder and harder to know who to believe, who to trust, or who’s reality you're seeing. 
Elaborate Clues Are Part of the Game
And if, in the end, the frequent scenes of lengthy exposition and reenactments necessitated by the complexity of the puzzle have the effect of leaving scant room for fleshed-out performances or dimensional characterizations (in Craig Zadan's book, Sondheim & Co., Perkins conceded to he and Sondheim "writing too much" and having to excise some 100 pages of the script before filming); one at least gets to console oneself with the not-unpleasant fact that The Last of Sheila is a fun, difficult-to-solve mystery that respects the viewer’s intelligence and rewards attentiveness.
One of what I can only assume was a series of The Last of Sheila character promotional pinback buttons 

PERFORMANCES
It’s unlikely anyone seeing this now 42-year-old film today knows or even cares that the characters in The Last of Sheila are based on and cobbled together from real-life Hollywood notables (equally unlikely is that anyone could identify them). But at the time of its release, the whole “Who is that supposed to be?” element was just one more of the many games The Last of Sheila set before the viewer.

Of those rumored, Orson Welles was said to have inspired James Mason’s failed director character (even the casting of Mason, Lolita's memorable Humbert Humbert, a mystery clue). Richard Benjamin was Anthony Perkins' surrogate, and the sex-symbol and pushy husband portrayed by Welch and McShane were presumed by many to be Ann-Margret and Roger Smith. Although more popular opinion favored the filmmakers somehow getting Welch to agree to play herself (and then-husband Patrick Curtis), the character’s oddly unglamorous name (Alice “Wood”) being a sly allusion to  the writers' opinion of Welch’s acting ability. However, it was no secret that Dyan Cannon was playing  super-agent Sue Mengers (Bette Midler portrayed Mengers in a one-woman show on Broadway in 2013), as the actress’s lively impersonation was a major point of publicity at a time when Mengers ruled Hollywood with her client list of Barbra Streisand, Anthony Perkins, Richard Benjamin, Ryan O’Neal, Dyan Cannon, Faye Dunaway, et al.
Any movie that affords the opportunity to hear Dyan Cannon laugh is a worthwhile endeavor
Like pawns in a chess game, the somewhat overqualified cast of The Last of Sheila are there chiefly to be in service to the riddle of a plot, the minimal requirements of their roles rarely rising above TV-movie competency. So even if few are offered opportunities to really shine (Dyan Cannon has the best lines and the most to work with) all are in fine form and The Last of Sheila offers up an attractive gathering of some of the most familiar screen faces of the 70s. My particular favorites are James Coburn and Dyan Cannon, with the always-terrific Joan Hackett giving the film a much-needed dose of humanity. (With this film, The Group, Five Desperate Women, and The Class of ’63, Hackett must be the queen of reunion-themed movies).
Hunting Clues In An Abandoned Monastery

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I was 15-years-old when I first saw The Last of Sheila, dragging my family to see it the first week it opened (smug in my film/theater geek certainty that I alone among my high school peers knew who Stephen Sondheim was). I recall being very taken with the film as a whole, this being the first time I ever saw the traditional Agatha Christie drawing room mystery setup played out in anything resembling a contemporary setting.
I’m not sure how audiences respond to it today, but in 1973, the mystery plot worked especially well because, outside of James Coburn, no one else in the cast had ever been typed as a villain. What with the Riviera setting and Hollywood types featured, it all seemed very glamorous and sophisticated to my adolescent eyes, the only dissonant chord being how old-fashioned all the name-dropping seemed. In the 70s Hollywood of Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Ali MacGraw, chummy references in the script to Steve & Edie, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, and Sandra Dee seemed very Old World and out of touch.
Oh, and The Last of Sheila introduced me to Bette Midler. She sings “Friends” over the film's closing credits and I so loved the song, I immediately went out and bought The Divine Miss M album. I've been a fan ever since.
Christine tries to convince Anthony that two heads are better than one

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As much as I loved The Last of Sheila, poor advance press (it opened out of competition at Cannes to disappointing word of mouth), mixed reviews (claims of it being indifferently directed and aloof were outdistanced by critics throwing up their hands saying the whole thing was just too damned confusing!), and perhaps the overall sourness of the film's tone, kept it from being a hit. It disappeared from theaters rather rapidly and for years you could mention the title and nobody would lay claim to having heard of it, let alone seen it.
Now available on DVD,The Last of Sheila has developed  quite a cult following. Worth checking out if you've never seen it before, worth revisiting to discover all the giveaway clues you missed the first time out.
Friends?
A fun bonus on the DVD is the commentary track provided by Welch, Cannon, and Benjamin. Cannon and Benjamin are obviously watching the film together and having a blast, while Welch (who always comes across more relaxed and funny on the commentary tracks for her films than she does in the films themselves) recorded hers separately.

Little in the way of inside information is imparted - 42 yeas is a LONG time - but in its place is a nostalgia among the actors which appears to have erased memories of the troubled, over-schedule and over-budget shoot, replacing them with diplomacy (Cannon alludes to a person causing a long delay because they were dissatisfied with their outfit...one can't help thinking of Ms. Welch) and fond recollections of the experience.
Everyone cops to having found the complex script very hard to follow during filming, and amusingly, Dyan Cannon (who had to gain weight for the role) can't seem to get over how fat she looks, while Raquel Welch laments that she herself looks too thin. All the while Cannon and Benjamin make references to Perkins and Sondheim in such a manner as to suggest perhaps they were a couple for a time.
I certainly hope so. I'm sure that both gentlemen would be pleased if told their sole screenwriting collaboration still had a few gossipy secrets to impart.
Games People Play

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Ian McShane - 1980




Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, February 9, 2015

MAME 1974

In Praise of Older Women or: I Love Lucy, But Even That Has Its Limits

Though not originally conceived as such, this look at Lucille Ball’s Mame makes a fitting companion piece to my previous post on Mae West’s Sextette. Both films were made in the '70s; both star actresses who found their greatest fame after turning forty; and both films represent the simultaneous big screen return/farewell of beloved show-biz legends in star vehicles (vanity projects?) modeled after the old-fashioned, large-scale musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Although light years away from each other in terms of competency, quality, and budget; both films were greeted with near-identical waves of incredulity and hostility from the press and public upon release. The lion’s share of the brickbats hurled centering on accusations of fan-pandering, a distracting over-reliance on age-concealing diffused lighting and fog-filters, and the overriding sense of the stars in question being both ill-served by the material, and frankly, too old for their roles. (West was 84 playing 32. Ball, at 62, starts the Mame—which spans from 1928 to 1946—at roughly the age she should be when it ends.)
Lucille Ball as Mae Dennis
Bea Arthur as Vera Charles
Robert Preston as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside
Jane Connell as Agnes Gooch
Bruce Davison as Patrick Dennis
Kirby Furlong as Young Patrick Dennis

The eccentric heroine of Patrick Dennis’ fictional 1955 autobiography, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade  (who made her first appearance in the 1956 Broadway play, later in the 1958 film, and ultimately the 1966 Broadway musical upon which this movie is based) is logically somewhere in her mid to late 40s, but, philosophically-speaking, has always seemed “ageless” ("Spoken like a press agent." - Margo Channing). It’s conceivable to me that an actress of any age could convincingly play the wealthy, irrepressible free-thinker who becomes an instant mother when entrusted with the upbringing of her late brother’s son and teaches the child to “Open a new window” and live by the motto,“Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death ; provided she has the necessary iconoclastic verve, bohemian personality, and spontaneous, life-affirming energy to bring Mame Dennis to life.

Sixty-two-year-old Lucille Ball certainly had plenty of energy, but after six seasons each of I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy (the last episode aired a week before Mame was released wide), most of it had calcified into drive, determination and will. Before Mame, Ball hadn’t appeared in a film since 1968's Yours, Mine, & OursMame presented the actress with a dream role she actively campaigned to acquire. This in spite of the expressed preference for Angela Lansbury (the role’s originator on Broadway) by the show’s creators: Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee, and Jerry Herman.
Luckily for Ball, there was no way any studio would mount a $12 million film adaptation of Mame without a star of her caliber and popularity attached to it, so, clearly not having learned his lesson from the film version of his Hello, Dolly! (where the common complaint was that Streisand was too YOUNG for the role), composer Jerry Herman handed over Mame’s singing and dancing chores to a well-loved household name of advanced age. One who'd repeatedly gone on record decrying her own inability to either sing or dance.

(I’ve read that Herman, so displeased with how Mame and Hello, Dolly! turned out - and apparently after having banked enough money from both to finally buy himself some principles - has since refused to grant permission for the film adaptation of any of his work without his having creative control.)
Mame was one of the most heavily-promoted musicals since 1973s Lost Horizon (and we all know how that turned out). Lucille Ball supported it tirelessly through personal appearances television interviews. (Top) Hollywood's Cinerama Dome theater is decked out like an Easter bonnet cloche hat for the March 26 premiere. (Below) An advance trade magazine ad. 

It can’t be said that a movie version of Mame didn’t have timing working in its favor. In 1974 the nostalgia craze in fashion (BIBA), music (The Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler), and TV (The Waltons, Happy Days) was in full swing. in addition, serveral period films were slated for release as well: The Great GatsbyChinatown, and the remake of The Front Page.
I was stoked to see Mame not only because I was such a huge fan of Rosalind Russell’s non-musical Auntie Mame (perhaps too much so, since I think that film is hilarious and Russell slays in the role), but because, like everybody else, I was raised on Lucille Ball. I totally adored I Love Lucy (not so much The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, or – and this should have been a tip-off – her infrequent film appearances. As Lucy Ricardo, Ball was adorable, warm, and outrageously funny; in films, she tended to lapse into into a starchy, ladylike persona that was rarely any fun).
Mame - starring Diane Belmont
Fans expecting to see Lucille Ball's rubber-faced TV persona were surprised to find, in its place, the regal, slightly haughty grande dame Lucy of the 1943 Al Hirschfeld caricature that closed every episode of  The Lucy Show. Ball goes through most of Mame with her chin tilted up, lips pursed, and cheeks sucked in. A look that does wonders for her close-ups, but absolutely kills the comedy. Diane Belmont was the hoity-toity stage name Ball adopted during her early modeling days as the Chesterfield Cigarettes Girl.

Nevertheless, in March of 1974 my family allowed me to drag them (kicking and screaming) to see Mame. And if hard work paid off in entertainment value, I would have had a wonderful time, for Lucy is clearly working her ass off. But under several pounds of make-up, elaborate wigs, movement-constricting Theadora Van Runkle costumes, a network of face-tightening surgical tape and straps - not to mention nursing a leg broken in four places just a year before - I'm afraid there wasn’t much room for fun, élan, or even much in the way of a performance to rise to the surface. 
In fact, the character named Mame Dennis is less in attendance in this film than Lucille Ball: the revered “comedy institution.”
All the while the musical around her has been transformed into a kind of formal, laugh-free, drag-queen-inspired, fandom career tribute. Lucy enthusiasts, those who had stuck by their star through 18-years-worth of black-and-white housedresses and dowdy office attire, were rewarded with a two-hour-plus fashion parade of Lucille Ball looking like the glamorous movie star Ricky Ricardo and Mr. Mooney never allowed her to be.
Joyce Van Patten is an all-too-brief bright spot as the conniving Sally Cato 

Lucille Ball's age factored in my enjoyment of Mame only insomuch as it seemed to preoccupy the filmmakers to distraction. Everything in the film is so constructed with an eye toward camouflaging its leading lady’s age. Filtered lenses, careful lighting, and a raised chin become the film’s dominant motifs. Ball looks terrific throughout, and I really only thought about her age (and that broken leg) when it came to the physical comedy and modest dance requirements. Ball can kick as high as a chorus girl, but I don't think my reactions - alternately, relief that she didn't hurt herself and awe at her moxie in even undertaking these moderately strenuous endeavors - were conducive to getting in the spirit of things. Mame is a character so full of life she gives the impression of never sitting still. Lucille Ball, for all her efforts, always made me want to offer her a chair.

She'll Croak the Blues Right Out of Your Heart!
Much was made of Lucille Ball's "singing." A lifetime of smoking, a voice-damaging stint on Broadway in Wildcat (1960), and a fondness for bourbon, left Ball with a distinctive rasp that wasn't always kind to Jerry Herman's songs. Some critics at the time claimed Lisa Kirk (Rosalind Russell's voice in much of Gypsy) dubbed some of the vocals (Ball said Kirk should sue!), but Ball claimed all responsibility. While it would have been nice to have had a singer in the role,  if we had to have Lucy (and it seems like we did), I prefer hearing her real voice. I'm not a big fan of dubbing. Marni Nixon's soulless voice ruins West Side Story and My Fair Lady for me, Marianne McAndrew's voice in Hello, Dolly! seems to emanate from her hat, and don't get me started on the voices they chose for Liv Ullman and Peter Finch in Lost Horizon...

Mame Dennis is a bohemian at heart, a sophisticated misfit thumbing her nose at convention. But like the actress herself, Lucille Ball's Mame exudes too much practicality. The only thing oddball about her is her wardrobe.

If anything, I found Agnes Gooch’s age to be far more problematic in the context of the film. I know Jane Connell originated the role on Broadway and all, but I couldn't help wishing that her pregnancy number "What Do I Do Now?" had been scrapped (it's always been pure torture for me, anyhow) or refashioned into a menopause anthem or something. She just seemed too old. And her sheltered virgin bit was a cartoon. All through the film I kept imagining what fired-during-rehearsals Madeline Kahn might have done with the role.
Open a New Window
Ball has the best onscreen chemistry with Kirby Furlong, who plays young Patrick (my favorite moment is when he's allowed to slide down the banister in her apartment). The actress's legendary comedy timing seems to have abandoned her throughout much of the film, but whenever she is allowed to smile or laugh, her childlike appeal is irresistible. 

For all its faults, I have to say it was rather thrilling seeing Mame on the big screen for the first time; a feeling that has diminished significantly with subsequent DVD revisits. The scale and glossy sheen of the film was breathtaking to me at the time, Ball looking spectacular, if not exactly comfortable, in her elaborate wardrobe (she seems about as at-home in those outfits as she does in the role itself). And if hampered by a lumbering pace, overlong running time, too-familiar plot, and a paucity of real humor (Jerome Lawrence: “The screenplay was by Dostoyevsky…they took out all the laughs!”), something about Mame is so eager-to-please and well-intentioned, you kind of want to forgive it. Just like Ricky always forgave Lucy.
Audrey Christie & Don Porter as the uppity Mrs. & Mr. Upson
Mame does a lot of things wrong, but for me, three of the things they get right are so sublime that Mame has remained a favorite all these years strictly on the strength of them.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The Title Sequence.
In his review of Mame, New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed, "The opening credits, which look like a Cubist collage in motion, are so good they could be a separate subject."
Indeed, the titles are so classy and eye-popping (footage from old Warner films like Public Enemy and Forty-Second Street are utilized) they whet your appetite and set a standard of style and sophistication the film only intermittently lives up to.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Loving You.
It's common practice for musicals adapted from Broadway shows to have at least one original number written for the screen version. Cynics (or are they realists?) say its to make a bid for a Best Song Oscar nomination, as only songs written expressly for a film are eligible. But in the case of Mame, one can make a good argument for needing to beef  up the supporting role of Beauregard (he has only the title song) in order to attract a two-time Tony Award winner like Robert Preston. Also, since Mame was being marketed to women (so-called women's director George Cukor was initially attached to the project but had to drop out when Ball's skiing accident delayed production for an entire year) there was a desire to place a stronger emphasis on the romance.
But most important of all, Robert preston could actually sing, and Mame needed all the good voices it could get.
The song composed for the film is "Loving You," and not only does the very dashing Preston sing and perform it beautifully, but the number as staged (a honeymoon montage) is so sweepingly romantic, I find myself moved by it each and every time. It's a great song anyway, but how its presented is so nicely handled. Special applause goes to the musical arrangement. The segment in a great ballroom has the most amazing recreation of a '30s orchestral sound; then, when the scene changes to a grand garden, the music erupts into a piano crescendo of such goosebump-inducing romantic lushness, blending magically with the image of the dancing the couple...that the waterworks that had been building up just have to go for it. I just love this sequence. It's so wonderful it really does feel as though it were hijacked from another film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
The Title Number.
In a word: Perfection. Every single thing about how this number is done just puts a smile on my face. It's rousing and old-fashioned in just the right way, vibrantly staged and choreographed...it's everything that ever made me fall in love with musicals. The sight of all those red jackets and white jodhpurs in a kickline on the big screen was quite unforgettable! Had the rest of the film been up to this standard, Mame would have been a classic.

PERFORMANCES
On its release, all the performers were understandably positive about the film (to the press, at least). In later years Bea Arthur spoke of Ball as having been being miscast, and that the film was "A tremendous embarrassment." Even Lucille Ball later recanted all her initial happy talk and described making the film as being, "...About as much fun as watching your house burn down."

Personally, Rosalind Russell spoiled my chances of enjoying anyone else in this role, so Lucy bothers me less than those who perhaps loved Angela Lansbury in the role. I don't think Lucy's very good in the role, but how does one go about disliking Lucy? To this day no other TV show can make me laugh like I Love Lucy, and I think she is a genius in that regard. When she was still around, it was easy to rag on this picture....now that she's gone, I find myself a lot more at peace with my disappointments. She's missed, what can I say?
Other than a few unflattering costumes, the late-great Bea Arthur in Mame really has nothing to be embarrassed about (although she should have been upset the way her hilarious number "The Man in the Moon is a Lady" was butchered by so many cutaways). To my taste, Auntie Mame's Coral Browne IS Vera Charles, but Arthur is Mame's saving grace. (Bette Davis famously campaigned for the movie role of Vera opposite Lucy. Can you imagine a sound technician trying to measure those two voices in a duet?)

Mame is one of my "Fast-forward Favorites": A movie I find it difficult to watch all the way through, but delight in watching a la carte...hopping from one favored scene to another. I highly recommend this method with this film - most of the film doesn't work, but there are flashes of brilliance here and there that are just too good to miss.

BONUS MATERIAL
Mame opening title sequence. (Designed by Wayne Fitzgerald thru Pacific Title & Art).

Here's Lucy: Lucy Carter Meets Lucille Ball. This episode aired March 4, 1974 to tie-in with the release of Mame. Lucy appears in one of her Mame outfits hosting a lookalike contest and plugging her film.

Lucille Ball on The Merv Griffin Show. Ball talks to the host about the making of Mame.

Ginger Rogers in Mame 1969.  Mame's choreographer, Onna White also choreographed the original Broadway production. Here's a chance to see the same equestrian choreography from the film as it was performed on the stage.

Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur perform "Bosom Buddies."  The 1987 Tony Awards give us an opportunity to see what might have been.

My Three Mames: An ingenious montage of the "Mame" number as performed by Lucille Ball, Angela Lansbury, and Ginger Rogers created by Neil Wilburn.

Bosom Buddies: Another clever Mame mash-up by Neil Wilburn. This incorporates the OBC with the film soundtrack.
Copyright © Ken Anderson