By the mid-’70s, old-fashioned movie musicals were mostly relegated to the slag heap of cinema history—the same year this misguided project was released, for instance, MGM issued the first of its That’s Entertainment documentaries celebrating the good old days of singing-and-dancing extravaganzas. Given this context, the interesting question to ask about Mame is not why it failed so spectacularly with audiences and critics, but why the folks at Warner Bros. expected any other outcome. The type of fizzy Depression-era story told in Mame was a cliché better suited to satire (as in 1978’s Movie Movie) than straight treatment; the overwrought production numbers in Mame evoke the bloated CinemaScope/VistaVision movies of the ’50s; and aging star Lucille Ball had just finished an epic two-decade run as TV’s reigning comedienne, meaning there was zero evidence that people wanted to see her in a movie, much less a musical. Add in the fact that the movie’s tunes are pure cornpone schlock, and the recipe for disaster is complete. Throughout its unrelentingly boring 132 minutes, Mame bludgeons viewers with bland music, contrived storytelling, stiff acting, and tired one-liners. Other affronts to good taste include flamboyant costumes straight out of a drag-queen revue and ridiculous close-ups of Ball photographed with the world’s thickest haze filter.
It’s amazing that something this inert derived from beloved source material. The story of Mame begins with Patrick Deenis’ semiautobiographical 1955 novel Auntie Mame, a fanciful account of the eccentric aunt who raised Dennis after his father died. The book inspired a popular 1958 comedy film starring Rosalind Russell, which in turn led to the creation of the 1966 stage musical Mame, with Angela Lansbury. Inexplicably, Lansbury was replaced with Ball, who couldn’t sing half as well as Lansbury. Worse, director Gene Saks—a holdover from the stage production—clearly lacked the chops to control a production (and a star) this big. Artificial, dull, and flat, Mame just sits there on screen, droning one from one laborious scene to the next. Ball is wrong on nearly every level, bungling jokes and steps and tunes while troupers including Bea Arthur and Robert Preston try to enliven supporting roles. Meanwhile, Saks and co. borrow camera and editing tricks from Robert Wise—who dominated ’60s musicals with The Sound of Music and West Side Story—without matching Wise’s gift for brisk storytelling. If anyone ever decides to make a documentary titled That’s Not Entertainment!, scenes from Meme should definitely be included.