Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lisa Draski and Bill Treadway Star in the Debut of "She Said, He Said"

I’m sure it’s obvious, but my blog has been a total labor of love. I am positively bursting with passion for cinema, and I have treasured every second of my work on Lisa's Film Archive. Film and writing are like oxygen to me, and I’ve truly loved sharing my writing on here. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, too. Thank you for visiting and reading, and please keep coming back. You’re fabulous, all of you!

That being said, I’m proud to introduce a new component to my blogging. I’m really excited to embark upon a collaborative journey with the remarkable Bill Treadway. I came across his blog,
Bill UP Close, through another friend’s blog, and I was enthralled with his writing. It’s passionate, insightful, and intelligent. So, I had to leave a comment. This initiated a wonderful back and forth comment-fest on our blogs, which eventually turned into e-mail correspondence. We hit it off instantly and became fast friends, and after a few e-mails, Bill asked me if I would like to regularly collaborate with him. Like Bill, I was just thrilled anyone was even reading my stuff. To be asked to collaborate was an honor that I eagerly accepted.

Bill is a tremendous writer. You’ll be able to tell that from this post and from the wealth of great work on his blog, which I hope you’ll check out. I think our writing styles complement each other very well. In short, we’re a great critical match, so this teaming feels very natural. We call this project “She Said, He Said.” Well, I call it that. He reverses the order. Basically, we pick a film or topic and write away. We have very similar tastes, but there are plenty of differences, too. Will we agree? Will we disagree? You’ll have to read to find out! Heck, I don’t even think we’ll always know entirely if we agree, disagree, or fall somewhere in the middle until we’re finished writing. That’s what makes it so fun and what will keep it fresh and entertaining.

This will be a regular weekly feature. For the first one, we’re posting it on both of our blogs. In the future, we’ll alternate, but we’ll keep you updated on the when and where.

The subject of our first collaborative post is the 1974 musical Mame, starring Lucille Ball.

Without further ado, I now present to you the premiere of “She Said, He Said”! Enjoy!

She Said: Lisa Draski

I Love Lucy, But Love Shouldn't Be This Painful

The cinematic abomination that is the 1974 musical Mame, starring Lucille Ball, first came to my attention when I was perusing the extra features on the original, genius, non-musical film version from 1958 entitled Auntie Mame and starring a luminous Rosalind Russell in the title role. It was my misfortune to accidentally stumble upon Mame. The story of Mame Dennis has had four incarnations: first a non-musical Broadway play starring Rosalind Russell, a film with Russell reprising her role, drop the “Auntie” for a Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury, and finally the toxic waste dump that is Mame with Lucille Ball. Auntie Mame is one of my favorite films of all time, and Rosalind Russell is exquisite. It’s one of the best performances ever. Period. So, my outrage and horror at Lucy’s version is rooted in my deep love for the original (it should have been the only). Seeing it defiled in such a monumental way broke my heart.

That fateful trailer that led me to Mame is laughable. It starts out, “Warner Brothers is proud to present Lucille Ball, the most versatile actress of all time, the Lucy that is warm, funny, and glamorous, and the Lucy that is loving, passionate, and spirited.” She is later called “America’s most unique actress.” Uh, maybe I missed the memo on that, but since when is Lucille Ball the most versatile and unique actress of all time? Is this a trailer to promote a film, or is it nominating Lucille Ball for sainthood? What’s with all the superlatives? Did she write it herself? Mame is described as “the multi-million dollar production that took two years to capture on film.” Just keep that in mind for later. So, this trailer made the film look just abominable. Naturally, I had to see it. Even with all of my loyalties to Roz and the original, I still approached Mame with an open mind. Go ahead, try and knock my socks off. The resulting cinematic experience was simultaneously the most hilarious and appalling in my life.

Mame is a catastrophe on an epic scale. It’s like a car crash, a train wreck, the Hindenburg, the Titanic, and Chernobyl all rolled into one. But I admit that it’s impossible to turn away. I was in tears almost the whole time because it’s so hysterically awful. It’s an unintentional laugh-riot. The actual jokes clunk to the ground with the weight of an anvil. Hilarity and good times aside, there’s no excuse for the agonizingly miserable quality of the film. Mame could be a clinic on everything that’s wrong with filmmaking. There’s so much wrong with it that I don’t even know where to start. I could write forever, but I have to choose my battles. Besides, I don’t want to cause nightmares.

Okay, let’s start with Lucille Ball. She’s a comedic pioneer, and I Love Lucy is the best and most influential sitcom in television history. The Lucy in Mame is not the Lucy you love and remember. I don’t know who this pod-person imposter is, but it’s not our beloved Lucy. Her acting in Mame is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what happened to her! I still have the utmost respect for everything she did before this, which is what makes her terrible performance in Mame that much more painful. She used to be talented. She’s better than this. “How far the mighty have fallen” is an understatement here. It’s a shame that this is one of her last works, because the taint is strong. She is so grossly miscast, and it’s not just because she’s in early 60s. Okay, I guess age has something to do with it. Rosalind Russell was 50 and still radiant. Lucy doesn’t have any fire or passion, and she looks like a corpse. I wonder if she’s drinking embalming fluid in all of her drinks throughout the film. It’s that bad. All the filters and lighting and Vaseline in the world don’t help. Seriously, every trick in the book is used to make her look younger. Her face glows so brightly that she could provide light for a small city. Sorry, Lucy, we’re not fooled.

Every single thing about her performance is wrong. She doesn’t get one gesture, facial expression, line delivery, or syllable right. And her singing? Forget about it. I don’t think she hits one proper note in the whole movie. Imagine really tone-deaf nails on a chalkboard, and those nails have emphysema from smoking two packs a day for forty years. That gives you an idea of what she sounds like. It’s the most dreadful singing I’ve ever heard in a major movie musical. One line of a song goes, “Dance to a new rhythm”, but when Lucy coughs it out, it sounds like, “Desso a new rhythm.” From what I can gather, it’s a combination of terrible singing and a pathetic attempt at a New York accent.

When Mame is upset, Lucy’s one move is to cover her mouth with her hand, or if she’s really daring, maybe cradle her face with her fingers. That’s it. The rest of the time, she can’t make a simple move without flailing her arms all over the place. Every gesture is too big. The story takes place pre-Depression in the roaring 20s, and Mame Dennis is, to quote IMDB’s plot summary, “a fun-loving, wealthy eccentric with a flair for life and a razor sharp wit.” Rosalind Russell? Yes. Lucy? NO. Mame’s brother dies and she becomes the guardian of her young nephew Patrick. So, she teaches him how to live life to the fullest, and he teaches her about love and responsibility. Aww. It’s actually very sweet, though…when Rosalind Russell does it.

So, in the middle of this impossibly grand party, Mame first meets Patrick. When she realizes who he is, Ball slaps her hand against her forehand, palm facing out, and just holds it there. I think this was Guillermo del Toro’s inspiration for the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. After a really awkward pause (the film is chock full of them), she exclaims, “Oh my god, I’m your Auntie Mame!” The way she says it is so hoarse and almost angry that to more accurately capture her tone, the line could be substituted with, “Holy shit! I’m your goddamn Auntie Mame!” and delivered by Vinnie the chain-smoking bookie. There is no chemistry between Ball and Kirby Furlong, who plays young Patrick. The believability factor is zero. It’s non-existent. I don’t buy it for one second. There’s no love or compassion or any emotion whatsoever, and that’s the foundation of the story. It’s essentially a non-incestuous love story between aunt and nephew.

Also, Mame is supposed to be this brilliant ball of life that everyone flocks to and wants to be around constantly. I couldn’t conceive how anyone would want to spend more then 10 seconds with Lucille Ball’s Mame. She’s vile, cold, and really sort of mean. There’s no fun about her, none of that spirit that’s supposed to define the character. No one could possibly adore her. Rosalind Russell makes that effortless. She’s magnetic. It’s easy to understand why people would be drawn to her. Ball has one good moment of acting in the entire film, one glorious moment of subtlety that made me remember she was actually talented. It occurs when she’s talking to the snobby, bigoted parents of grown-up Patrick’s girlfriend. She only says one thing to a racist remark, “Gotcha.” But there’s something real there, and it’s heightened by the movement of her finger, a slight nod of the head, and a wink. It’s practically a revelation. Sadly, though, that’s it. That’s her only good acting. The rest isn’t even passable or decent. It’s simply miserable.

I need to take a break from Lucille Ball, because she’s just a fraction of what’s wrong with Mame. The material they’re working with is garbage. I know it was a successful Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury, but the songs are pitiful, both music and lyrics. They’re just some of the worst songs ever written. I don’t know how they flew on Broadway, but my bet is that Angela Lansbury rocked it as Mame. But when you have a horrible cast singing them, it’s like torture. The script by Paul Zindel is atrocious, which makes sense, seeing as he’s the writer responsible for the 1985 TV version of Alice in Wonderland or, as I call it, “Where All Good Stars Go to Die.” The directing is clunky, the cinematography is garish, the costumes belong on drag queens, and the editing is awkward. And the acting is appalling all around. Poor Bea Arthur, who played the role of Mame’s best friend Vera on Broadway, probably got suckered into the film because her husband Gene Saks directed it. I feel equally sorry for Robert Preston. The freaking Music Man trapped in Mame. It’s a crime.

Arthur and Preston do all they can, but like I said, the material is crud. They’re the best parts of the movie, but they’re working with less than nothing. And all of their scenes require them to play off of Lucille Ball, which is like acting opposite a blurry, heavily filtered black hole. Jane Connell is Patrick’s nanny and Mame’s assistant/secretary (I don’t really know what she is, actually) Agnes Gooch. In Auntie Mame, Peggy Cass made her charmingly awkward, but Connell makes her maybe the most annoying character in any film ever. I want to strangle her every time she’s on the screen. And her singing is excruciating. Her voice is very warbly and operatic. It’s so over the top and shrill that I’m surprised she didn’t shatter the very expensive sets. Doria Cook as Patrick’s snobby girlfriend Gloria sounds like she’s doing a really bad Katharine Hepburn impression. Bruce Davison as grown-up Patrick isn’t bad, but Kirby Furlong is just about the worst child actor ever. I know I’m making lots of grand declarations, but they’re true! Patrick sings a song to Mame, and while Furlong is doing it, he sings his line off-key, stops and stares blankly, takes a visible breath, and then starts the next line. Sigh.

Toward the end of the film, Mame invites Gloria and her snooty parents over with the intention of scaring them away, because she knows Patrick is too good for her. Mame seeks her revenge. How? With SONG. This is one of the most bizarre sequences I’ve ever seen. They’re all standing around eating hors d’oeuvres, and all of a sudden, cut to Bea Arthur in the doorway decked out in funereal black, surrounded by six men in tuxedos, belting out, “It’s a time for…making merry!” They continue their ditty, and we cut back to the group. You can still hear the musical number in the background. Who travels around with six man-slaves and a full orchestra accompaniment? So, Arthur as Vera and these random men come to the room where everyone is gathered, and they finish up the number all dramatically, and no one even really reacts. This is Mame’s big plan? Frighten them off with a choreographed song and dance routine? I know that would have me shaking in my boots. But this incident is barely even acknowledged! After they stop singing, there’s just silence…deafening silence. It’s all so bizarre! Well played, Mame. There’s more singing that comes after this that’s meant to disconcert the guests, and it’s even more outrageous and weird, but I wouldn’t want to ruin the ending for you in case you actually want to suffer through the film.

Oh, but this next sequence I’m about to describe is a slice of cinematic shame that would make Edison or the Lumière Brothers weep if they saw what film had come to since their pioneering days. All their work led up to this. Mame travels down to the South with Beau (Robert Preston) to meet his family. There’s a fox hunt, and she pretends that she’s good at riding horses to fit in. Well, she accidentally ends up catching the fox. She literally gets off of the horse, calls the fox to her, and then cuddles it. This prompts the most extravagant musical number in the entire film. The song is simply called “Mame.” It takes place on the lavish plantation set with about two hundred extras wearing either black or red riding outfits. The song itself is so unmelodic and repetitive. It’s like a cult chant that starts off as a whisper and turns into a fanatic roar. It’s terrifying. Basically, there’s a line, followed by a drawn out “Maaaa-aaaaame.” That’s the whole song. But on the word “Mame,” everyone does this creepy little bow. It’s like a Hitler rally! All of the extras and even Robert Preston leading the song look like automatons. They’re like the robotic presidents in Disneyworld that scared me so much as a little girl…only way scarier.

The song is pretty stereotypically offensive toward the South, too. It incorporates every cliché imaginable – mint juleps, Georgia peaches, bougainvillea trees, you name it. Beau starts up the song by declaring that Mame has “done more for the South than anybody since Robert E. Lee.” Another line of the song: “You made us feel alive again, you’ve given us the drive again, to make the South revive again…Mame.” What?! For cuddling a fox? This song is ridiculous because it’s so unmotivated and unwarranted. She cuddled a freaking fox. The number goes on and on forever, and at the end, there’s a shot of little Patrick, standing still with a totally blank expression on his face. Then, like a light switch flipping on, his face explodes with giddiness and a beaming smile, and he runs toward Mame. It’s like his mom was standing off to the side telling him, “Nothing, nothing, nothing…okay, now smile! Go!” This horrendous number is immediately followed by a brief shot containing this stock footage of the New York skyline by the water that’s all discolored and looks like it was taken circa 1900. Did I mention all this happened because she cuddled a fox?!

I know I’ve been pretty long-winded, but I’m very passionate in my hatred of this film. Okay, I don’t really hate it. I sort of have affection for its awfulness. But that doesn’t make it any less awful. I’ve had some great times and laughs watching it. I don’t hate it, but I do think it’s possibly the worst film of all time, at least on this high-profile of a scale. Remember the description of Mame as “the multi-million dollar production that took two years to capture on film”? That’s just sad. All that money, all that time, and look at the result. It’s the most lifeless celebration of life imaginable. I love the use of the word “capture.” That sounds about right. It’s like a monster or wild beast that they had to trap and capture and wrestle with to get the film done. They captured it, all right, but they still lost big time. The monster that is Mame won. It’s definitely the worst film I’ve ever seen. Not even the entertainment factor can redeem it. Mame is the worst musical ever made and maybe even the worst film ever made. I stick by that. It’s a total abuse of the power and magic of cinema. In fact, Mame raped cinema. To quote the words of Gloria in one of the best scenes in the brilliant, original Auntie Mame, “Well, it was just ghastly.” It certainly was. And thanks to the wonders of technology, Mame will continue to be ghastly forever. Yikes. I think I need a hug.


He Said: Bill Treadway

The 1970's were not the best of times for the movie musical. Actors were cast regardless of whether they could sing or not. Simple little tales were given such overblown, lavish treatment that you often couldn't get caught up in the story no matter how hard you tried. Classic music scores were butchered and terrible new originals caused many ears to bleed. The rare good musical such as Darling Lili and Scrooge (both 1970) looked awfully lonely in the sea of Cantcarryatune. Man of La Mancha (1972), Lost Horizon (1973), Song of Norway (1970), A Little Night Music (1978) and Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love (1975) still make me recoil in horror today. Now we arrive at Mame, the 1974 film adaptation of the popular Broadway musical. Itself an adaptation of a much beloved 1958 comedy titled Auntie Mame, which was an adaptation of a Broadway stage play, which in turn was based on Patrick Dennis’ true life novel. (Got all that? Whew!) The story, without spoiling too much for those unfamiliar, starts when young Patrick, newly orphaned is sent to live with his aunt Mame. Mame happens to be a bit eccentric by conventional standards, but she turns out to be the best parent figure a young boy could possibly have.

I first encountered Mame during a widescreen telecast on American Movie Classics (before it turned to crap) in June 1999. I had just gotten access to cable and had seen one godawful musical after another. Considering the near-unanimously bad reviews for this film, my expectations were really low going in. To my surprise, I didn’t run screaming from the room in terror. Perhaps it was to my advantage that I didn't see the 1958 film before hand. Without the other film looming overhead, I was able to take the movie for what it was: nothing great, but a pleasant and enjoyable movie. Perhaps the reason why Mame never rose to the heights it should have was that some of the key talent were people for whom musicals were foreign territory. Replacing original director George Cukor was Gene Saks, who had directed the stage version but was inexperienced when it came to movie musicals. Screenwriter Paul Zindel was renowned for angsty teenage drama (The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds), not musical comedy. For the title role, Warner Bros. refused to let Angela Lansbury recreate her award-winning role with the pathetic excuse that no one in America knew who Lansbury was. I guess 30 years of movie roles dating back to National Velvet and the 1971 Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks didn't count. (And they wonder why most people think movie execs are idiots...). Instead, after intense lobbying to Warners (and an alleged $5 million payoff), comedy legend Lucille Ball got the role.

The Ball of 1954 would have been a home run in this role, but by 1974, she simply wasn't the same. Yet she gives it a good try anyway. Her voice was seared by years of cigarette smoking and she had a considerable limp from an accident. Granted, a cigarette scarred voice isn't the ideal one for a musical, but at least I didn’t want to plug up my ears with wax as when Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd butchered Cole Porter in At Long Last Love. Those expecting the madcap antics of Lucy Ricardo are bound to be disappointed. Lucy gives a restrained performance here and it isn't half bad. She throws in a few madcap gems (the disastrous turn in the play, the “Bosom Buddies” sequence) but it’s mostly a low key performance. Her dancing is the weakest element of her work here. She doesn’t do a whole lot due to the aforementioned limp and what is on screen isn’t all that hot. At least she tried, though.

The relationship between Mame and young Patrick is the backbone of the story and if handled incorrectly, would seem flat and lifeless on-screen. It isn’t as dynamic as it appeared in 1958, but it worked well enough here. I totally bought into Mame’s skittish behavior at the beginning- it seemed reasonable to me that if you suddenly had a kid you barely know show up, you’d act a little strange at first too. It may have worked better had a more seasoned child actor been cast as Patrick. Kirby Furlong is OK, nothing more. (Maybe if they had cast one of the male Wonka kids...). As for the songs, while not among composer Jerry Herman’s best work (Hello, Dolly! remains for me his best song score), they're still tuneful and entertaining. There are three major highlights. It's easy to see why "We Need a Little Christmas" became a holiday perennial. Who could resist the refrain "We need a little Christmas, right this very minute"? Then there's the showstopper "Mame", wonderfully sung by Robert Preston, who drops into this movie like a plum from heaven and gives it a much needed shot in the arm after a sluggish start. The one new song for the film is my favorite: "Loving You" gives us another Preston showcase and it's such a lovely tune that I'm still humming the words as I write this.

After a promising start, Mame begins to fall apart in the second half. As per the original story, Preston’s character dies. Since he was the most dynamic element of the picture beforehand, it stings to lose this dynamo. Maybe major chunks were cut out to get the film down to a reasonable running time because it feels disjointed. For example, the film cuts from the disastrous final dinner between Mame and Patrick’s future in-laws to what’s apparently many years later because Patrick is now married, NOT to the woman he was engaged to before and he has a child. What’s worse, we don’t even get any real idea who the new wife is other than a perfunctory meeting during the dinner. (She’s Mame’s maid. I had to read it on Wikipedia to find out who she is. Bad.)

Then there’s the irritating subplot involving the pregnant Miss Gooch (Jane Connell) that falls completely flat. We get not one but two poor vocals from Connell. People actually thought Lucy couldn’t sing? Connell sounds like a frog in a blender that’s been turned on. I know she played the role on stage, but apparently Saks forgot to tell her that while singing from the top of her lungs may work on stage, film is a more intimate medium. Her performance isn’t very good either. Then again, we just don’t care about this character, even when thrown in a sympathetic light. Originally, Connell wasn’t supposed to play this role. Madeline Kahn had filmed several scenes until Ball had her ousted, likely for upstaging her. In hindsight, it was a mistake but it worked out well. It freed Kahn up to take the role that would get her an Oscar nomination: Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles.

Luckily, there are two pleasant surprises in the second half. First is Bruce Davison as the adult Patrick. Davison has always been a much underrated actor and he plays the part of a hapless young man who is somewhat embarrassed by his eccentric aunt very well. He’s even given a musical number of his own - “The Letter” and delivers the vocals quite nicely. Who would have thought that Senator Kelly could actually sing? He has a nice, pleasant tone to his voice that made me wish he had more to sing in this picture. Then, there is Bea Arthur, who was married to director Saks at the time. This is one time where nepotism definitely pays off. She originated the part of Mame’s best friend Vera Charles in the stage version and unlike Connell, had a good idea of what not to do when recreating a role on film. She’s sharp, funny and snarky - exactly what we want for Vera Charles. Too bad she didn’t get more to do.

After a long layoff on home video and TV, Warner Bros. finally released the film on DVD. In the original 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen format, Mame looks OK, if unspectacular. The colors are much brighter than before and a lot of debris has been removed (although quite a bit still remains, alas). The digital format may be a hindrance at times. Cinematographer Philip L. Lathrop (The Pink Panther) had to use every trick in the book to make Lucy look younger than her 63 years for the earlier scenes, so every scene of hers is softer than the rest. That makes for some interesting contrasts in the image. Her scenes are often grainy and soft while the rest is sharp as a tack. Is this some kind of unintentional subtext?

Warners wanted to give the DVD a 5.1 Surround mix, but had to abandon plans and merely restore the original mono sound mix. The reason is this: Lucy’s vocals were pieced together from multiple takes and the extra channels would have exposed it big time. In mono, it sounds seamless, so we’re stuck with mono. It does sound good, though.

Two unintentionally hilarious extras are offered here. We get the original theatrical trailer, which if hooked to a lie detector, would cause it to ring off the charts. The eight minute making of featurette practically genuflects to Lucy as if she’s in the same company as Mother Teresa and the Virgin Mary. Yeah, sure.

Mame is a mixed bag, but it entertained me and that’s more than I can say for many 70s musicals. There are serious flaws, but it’s fun nevertheless. Just be prepared to groan whenever Jane Connell appears on screen.

Rating: *** (out of 5 stars)


lucysbeau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lucysbeau said...

this is late, but i meant to tell you that the day you posted this i had Auntie Mame in the mail from netflix! thought it was a cool coincidence. i really enjoyed it.

i have resisted seeing the other Mame version with Lucille Ball mostly because i am a huge fanatic. i have seen nearly everything she has been in, pre and post I Love Lucy. i've heard such horrible things about it that i don't think i can bear to watch it. maybe someday i will, just so i can have an opinion of my own. for now though, i remain blissfully ignorant.