The date was Wednesday, March 27, 1974.
The film premiering that night at Radio City Music Hall was Mame. This first public screening of the
lavishly produced and choreographed story, which took Broadway by storm in the
1960s, was a laborious experience for everyone involved. With its much
anticipated release, cast and crew alike showed up to offer their support and
to delight in the audience’s appreciation. Even the star, Lucille Ball,
attended this highly publicized event. For the first time, fans got a different
glimpse of their favorite television personality. That evening, she arrived not
as the ravishing redhead people were used to seeing, but as a black-haired
beauty in a white dress, which was quite short and just happened to be featured
in the film. Moviegoers were getting a preview of what was to come.
And what an entertaining extravaganza
it was! The alluring ambiance in every scene, as well as the divine dancing and
sensational singing, kept viewers enthralled for the entire two hours and
twelve minutes of the picture. Everybody except the critics, of course.
For the most part, the reviewers did
not have nice things to say about Mame
or its featured players. Some noticed the sentimentality that came through
during certain moments, such as the scene in which the main character and
Patrick, her young nephew, sing “My Best Girl”. However, the majority of them
failed to properly acknowledge a movie that took two years to complete and cost
around $12,000,000 to produce. This was especially true with Lucille Ball’s
performance. Considering the faith Warner Brothers had in their chosen leading
lady, the negative notices were a major letdown to the studio and to the
Playing Mame meant so much to Lucille.
She saw the role as her last chance to prove to the world that she possessed
what it took to be a glamorous movie star. Never one to pass up an opportunity,
Lucille made it her ultimate goal to win the producers over. Indeed, they saw
something special in her that no other actress could radiate.
Once she nabbed the covered part,
Lucille put a lot of effort into creating her own interpretation of the
character. Unfortunately, all of this hard work came to a halt when she broke
her leg while skiing in Colorado. Lucille felt bad about holding up production.
When producers learned about her fear of being replaced, they quickly assured
her they would wait for her return.
With projects featuring such big names
as Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, Warner Brothers cranked out movies that
were popular among the younger crowds. When the company purchased the rights to
the musical version of Mame, they
envisioned it as a picture everyone could enjoy. Therefore, finding a seasoned
entertainer who had plenty of clout became necessary. At the time, Lucille was one
of the most influential women in Hollywood, due to her achievements behind the
scenes as much as on camera. This factor made it practically impossible for her
fellow contenders to be chosen over her.
All of the power in the world could not
prevent the barrage of crass comments made by the critics. They took aim at
everything from her gravelly voice to her extreme thinness. Despite the harsh
remarks, Lucille refused to let her anguish interfere with the promotional tour
she embarked on soon after filming wrapped. She willingly posed for
photographs, endured the mundane task of answering repetitive questions asked
by inquisitive reporters, and appeared on talk shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny
Carson and Phil Donahue.
Suddenly, the most recognizable female in the field of physical comedy was
popping up everywhere.
The cheerful facade occasionally
slipped, allowing her candor to reveal itself. Blaming photographers, Lucille
once admitted to a journalist that she felt old. Tired of seeing unflattering
images of herself every time she picked up a newspaper or magazine and the
press stomping on her already crushed ego, she vented her vexation at anyone
who would listen.
Having devoted such a huge chunk of
time to understanding the inner workings of an outspoken woman began affecting
what she said when discussing other topics as well. Always thought of as brash,
the ordeal that came with making and advertising Mame only hardened Lucille, solidifying her opinion of the changing
industry. Interviewers expecting her jocular side were shocked when she
unabashedly addressed her abhorrence for movies containing excessive nudity and
Those familiar with the bygone era of
the studio system comprehended Lucille’s belief that family friendly films had
the capability to restore traditional values that they felt had been tossed
aside for far too long. This wholesomeness started when she worked at MGM.
Louis B. Mayer prided himself on preserving the pristine illusion so
meticulously maintained by all who flourished under his supervision.
took on a deeper meaning for those who could remember that simpler, carefree
time in history. Just as they had done during the Great Depression, people
forgot about their worries and eagerly embraced the energy exuded on camera.
They listened with a gleam in their eyes and hope in their hearts as Lucille
sang the lyrics to “Open A New Window”.
Women related to her optimism. They
felt the movie catered to their tastes. In actuality, it was produced with them
in mind. When speaking about Mame,
Lucille expressed a strong urge to please the ladies who waited in line to see
the film. She wanted them to know it was their picture. Finally given the
respect they deserved, their gratitude poured out. If only Lucille Ball and Mame had received the same reverence.
(Considered highly knowledgeable in the vintage film
era, Barbara Irvin has written for Classic Images. Most recently, she wrote a
very detailed profile about Angela Lansbury and her husband, Peter Shaw. This
is her first article for Cinema Retro.)