Friday, 21 April 2017

Anti Maim

This week's blog was inspired by a suggestion from a reader. Thanks! (I think!)

Lucille Ball was an American institution: actress, model, television executive and slapstick star without whom - its arguable – we would never have had Star Trek. Although her iconic TV shows I Love Lucy, the Lucy Show and Here's Lucy were never huge hits here in the UK, back home she dominated the sitcom scene.

Ball was the first woman in television to be head of a production company, Desilu, the company she formed with her husband, the Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. After the pair divorced, Ball bought out Arnaz's share of the studio, and she proceeded to function as a very active studio head. She appeared in several hit movies, toured extensively, and was a favourite of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover – not a bad achievement for the former registered member of the Communist Party. She also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for contributions to motion pictures, and one for television.

But one thing Lucy wasn’t was a singer. Although she had appeared in musicals including Dance Girl, Dance, Easy to Wed and DuBarry Was a Lady, and had a passable voice her range was limited and, when a big song was demanded then her vocals were overdubbed (on DuBarry Was a Lady by Martha Mears, for example). Lucille Ball was a heavy smoker her entire life and there’s a good chance that the heart problems that killed her were directly related to her cigarette intake: smoking also affected her already weak singing voice, so by the time that the 1974 musical Mame came about, what little instrument that had been there was completely ravaged. 

Mame was a disaster: the film bombed at the box office and Ball’s reviews were brutal. Time Magazine wrote that ‘the movie spans about 20 years, and seems that long in running time . . . Miss Ball has been moulded over the years into some sort of national monument, and she performs like one too. Her grace, her timing, her vigor have all vanished’. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker asked if ‘after forty years in movies and TV, did she discover in herself an unfulfilled ambition to be a flaming drag queen?’ and other reviewers mocked her for being too old, with Ball filmed out of focus in a vain effort to make her look younger. Watch it: every close up looks as if a thin layer of Vaseline has been spread over the lens. In her defence Ball told one interviewer that ‘Mame stayed up all night and drank champagne! What did you expect her to sound like? Julie Andrews?’ Apparently it took two years to film… God only knows why. Maybe that had something to do with the 40 costume changes Lucille makes during the film, which came at a cost of $300,000. Certainly at one point Lucy had to take time off from filming as she had broken her leg.

Luckily Mame had Bea Arthur, who played Vera in the stage show and she steals the show by recreating that role here.

Mame really is the kind of film that helps explain why so many people hate musicals. In an interview to promote the movie Lucy admits that ‘you can’t really call it singing and you can’t really call it dancing, but I’m out there doing what they asked me to do. I love it [singing] but I can’t, I’m not good at it.’

Lucy is miscast, the musical numbers are overblown and old fashioned and the whole production suffers in comparison to the 1958 (thankfully non-musical) film Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell, or the stage show that debuted in 1966 with Angela Lansbury in the title role. The film is entertaining, but only for the unintentionally funny moments in it. Still it was a musical, and musicals need a soundtrack album. Original Soundtrack From the Motion Picture Mame was issued by Warner Bros at the same time as the film hit cinemas; The original Broadway cast recording with Angela Lansbury had sold over a million copies, but both film and soundtrack failed to attract an audience. The album claims to be the original soundtrack, but it’s clear that the songs have been re-recorded. However there’s little improvement evident. If He Walked Into My Life is just terrible, as is the bog-awful cutesy Open a New Window. 

But why take my word for it? Have a listen here and decide for yourself.



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