Monday, May 20, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Mamed

It's been four years since Bea Arthur died, but she has resurfaced this week, or at least her image has.  Here's why:
Those puppies were added by some humor editor somewhere;  the original painting shows Arthur completely topless.  It's a little too unsettling for me to post here.  Bea herself was not unsettled by the thing, and has been quoted as suggesting that the painter may have been enamored of the feminist movement of the 70s, with which Arthur was sometimes equated, due to her performance as Maude.  But the painting was created without the aid of the subject;  Bea Arthur never sat for it.
The above portrait sold at auction last week, for 1.9 million dollars.  I've been a big fan of Arthur's since she burst on the national scene with her sitcom Maude, but I had never heard of this painting until last week's auction.  The artist is a man named John Currin, and he has a reputation for providing provocative work. 

Regular visitors to these pages know I have a great admiration for Bea Arthur, evidenced by my many mentions of her.  I wrote about her life and career when she died four years ago, and since then, she showed up in this Dance Party clip, opposite Rock Hudson.  When the Oscars rolled around, and our Bea was left out of the tribute to the stars who had died in 2009, I fired off this response, which includes one of my favorite Arthur clips.  And when I was celebrating my being cast as one of musical theater's most enduring "side-kicks," I had to include this clip of our gal's most famous musical moment. By coincidence or not, that song is this week's Dance Party as well, but in a very, very, VERY different way.
Bea Arthur as Vera Charles

The song is "Bosom Buddies," which Bea sang opposite Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production of Mame
"Lucy. Mame." The publicity said
it all: an icon playing an icon. What
a lousy decision.

Bea recreated her award winning performance for the film version of the show, not that anybody really noticed.  When Mame the movie was released in 1974, the reviews were brutal, particularly for the leading lady, Lucille Ball.  This film flop version of a smash Broadway show is a classic example of how Hollywood can turn huge success into crushing failure.

Lucy spent her early years as a chorine, but
without much success. Go here for a look at how
she handled musical numbers back then.

Around 1970, when Mame's original Broadway production was winding down (after a substantial four year run), talk turned to a film version.  Warner Bros paid an almost unprecedented amount for the rights to put the musical on film (only My Fair Lady had cost more), and were smart to engage legendary director George Cukor.  Bette Davis was actively campaigning to play the show's drunken sidekick, Vera Charles, and it was suggested that Carol Burnett, at the time TV's reigning female clown, would be the perfect Gooch.  The studio made a disastrous error, though, in their decision to cast Lucy as Mame.  Ball was determined to invigorate her film career, as her third and last hit TV series, Here's Lucy, was drawing to a close;  she invested 5 million of her own dollars to help finance the project. 
The original musical Mame was not famous enough
to carry the film. She went on to become one of
the most beloved TV stars, earning 18 Emmy
nominations and three more Tony Awards.

Despite the fact that original Mame Angela Lansbury had already won two of her five Tony Awards, and had three Oscar nominations to boot, producers were not convinced her name could carry such a large budgeted film.  Lucy was chosen without regard to the fact that she could not carry a tune, and in her 60s, could not dance well either.  She was an international superstar, and the studio was convinced Mame would make a bundle.
1937's Stage Door featured three future Mames. Ann Miller (left) was a replacement Mame in the original company (a tap number was added for her). Ginger Rogers (center) opened the London company and ran it for over a year.  Lucille Ball (right) preserved the role on film (did I say she "preserved" it?  I should say she pickled it).

Before shooting was to begin, Ball broke her leg, and the decision was made to delay the picture for a year. 
Lucy looked great in her costumes.

The delay caused George Cukor to bow out, which proved to be catastrophic for Mame.  Cukor had shepherded My Fair Lady from stage to screen, creating a film which won the Best Picture Oscar and is now considered a classic (Cukor won for Best Director, too).  Original Broadway director Gene Saks was hired to replace him.  Paul Zindel, who had won the Pulitzer for his play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, was hired to provide the screenplay, though he had never written a musical.  Saks dismissed suggestions of Bette Davis in the role of Vera, and cast his wife, Bea Arthur, who had originated the role (and won the Tony for it).
Bea Arthur emerged from the Mame debacle relatively unscathed, though one critic pointed out that the role of Vera Charles could be played by a man...and that Arthur had played her as such. It was a tense shoot, as Lucy became disturbed that Bea's performance was more comedically satisfying than her own.  Though Ball had casting approval, Arthur was at the time a substantial star (Maude was the #2 rated sitcom, while Here's Lucy  languished at #15, the first time a Lucille Ball sitcom had fallen out of the top ten), so neither the studio nor Bea's husband the director would support replacing her.  In later years, Arthur regretted appearing in Mame, calling it a disaster and an embarrassment.
When production finally began, it was immediately apparent that Lucy could not sing the part. 
Composer Jerry Herman begged the studio to
reconsider the casting of Lucy, but he had sold
his rights.

Mame contains several songs which require a solid belt, and it also contains the most famous Jerry Herman ballad of all time.  Herman himself coached Lucy on her vocals, but to little avail.  They tried to salvage the score by pasting different takes of Ball's songs together, resulting in a disjointed and confusing soundtrack.

This is the cover for the original soundtrack recording of Mame. We have only two names on this cover:  Lucy, and the character she played.  Composer Jerry Herman threatened a lawsuit, and the studio scrambled to artificially stamp every copy with his name.  Subsequent release of this record on CD corrected that oversight.
Lucy had no luck getting rid of Bea Arthur, but Madeline Kahn was another matter. 
In 1973, Madeline Kahn's career was on the rise.  Her film debut in What's Up, Doc? had attracted major attention;  as she had Paper Moon already in the can, Mame was to be her third film; she was to play mousy Agnes Gooch. She clashed with Lucille Ball right away, and the rumors swirled that Lucy did not want anyone in her movie funnier than she. I'm not sure I completely agree with that assessment, since Ball had Vivian Vance at her side for years, and Viv got plenty of laughs. Instead, it may be that Lucy, already unsure of herself in this high-profile musical, could see that Kahn was going to swipe the film. It seems when superstars are feeling the most vulnerable, they act out the most. She orchestrated Madeline's dismissal;  the studio was forced to pay Kahn her full salary.  There are those who suspect Madeline manipulated the whole thing; realizing right away that the movie was going down the toilet, she forced her own firing, freeing her up for Blazing Saddles, which solidified her standing as a leading comic actress. Kahn received back-to-back Oscar nominations for Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles. Ball never made another film.
Original Gooch Jane Connell was hired to replace Madeline Kahn, despite the fact that, at age 49, she did not look young enough to give birth, which was the major plot point involving her role. 
I have great respect for Jane Connell, who spent her life on stage, in supporting roles (I wrote a little obit for her here).  But her work in Mame the movie does not quite click.
It's a shame that Mame is so unwatchable, as its film adaptation has one of the closest resemblances to the original stage play I've ever seen.  Screenwriter Zindel preserves the original structure, with only a few tweaks.  Only one song was deleted, "That's How Young I Feel;"  it was rightfully removed, as the whole point of the song showcased the age difference between Mame and the younger generation.  The producers were trying to hide Lucy's age, not celebrate it, so that number had to go (the fact that it's a big dance number also tagged it for the chopping block). 
True to form, Lucy contested the casting of Robert Preston as her husband Beau.  She felt this Broadway legend was too short, and even presented him with special shoes with lifts.  Bizarrely, Ball wanted
Rory Calhoun for the part.
One of the more notorious aspects of Mame the movie is the director's attempts to hide Ball's age by shooting her close-ups with a soft-focus lens. 
A major mistake was made by trying
to hide Lucy's age. She was always a
glamorous star, and someone said she
would have made a fine Mame, 15
years earlier.

The results are pretty jarring, and when critic Rex Reed snarked that they must have smeared grease on the lens to remove Lucy's wrinkles, the legend took hold and is still repeated today. 

To her credit, Lucille Ball apparently worked very hard to make the movie work. 
This sequence relied on Lucy's proven gift for physical comedy.  Unfortunately, Mame did not provide many such opportunities.
Even composer Jerry Herman, who hates the movie, reports that Ball was privately distraught that her singing did not satisfy (the fact that she worked so diligently to snag the part reflects that Hollywood egotism which is such a part of superstars: she knew the role had major singing and dancing requirements, and she also knew she was not qualified, but she still wanted it). 
With the possible exception of the title tune to Hello, Dolly, Mame contains Jerry Herman's most famous song.  "If He Walked Into My Life" is a soaring ballad full of love and regret.  It has been recorded many times, with Edie Gorme winning a Grammy for her rendition in 1967.  Lucy murders the song.

Mame cries out for one of those TV remakes.
Streisand had the rights for a while, and there
was talk of a Goldie Hawn/Cher pairing a
while back. I saw Christine Baranski do it
well a while ago. Herman has said he'd love
Catherine Zeta-Jones to play it.

There are several really horrendous clips out there of the various songs in Mame which were botched;  this is not one of them.  This week's Dance Party features what is probably the only song in the movie which is not cringe-worthy, perhaps because it does not require Lucy to belt or to balladize.  Instead, it's a comic number right up her alley;  it's one of the few moments in which Mame is allowed to camp a bit.  And that, ultimately, is what sank the movie. 
Where's that boy with the bugle? He
should have sounded Taps.

Ball's vocals could have been dubbed (Lisa Kirk, who dubbed Roz Russell in Gypsy, was reportedly considered), and her dancing was minimized (she was often lifted and carried by chorus boys).  And the few moments in which she was required to supply actual acting ability, I think she came through.  But just about everybody recognized this undeniable fact:  the role of Mame Dennis required an elegant sophisticate, and Lucille Ball was a clown.  There really was no hope.