MAME Fact #6: Who Charmed the Husk Right Off of the Corn? Lucy...

MAME Fact #6: Who Charmed the Husk Right Off of the Corn? Lucy...
Mame Movie Banner.jpg

From the outside looking in, the film rights to the musical version of Mame seemed worth their weight in gold. That’s why the movie’s co-producers, Warner Bros. and ABC, had to cut a check for $3 million to procure them. For that astonishing sum, the studios would need to hedge their bets: they insisted that the title role be played by a "name". It didn’t matter in the slightest that Angela Lansbury had already won the Tony Award for creating the role in New York. Lansbury still wasn’t a “somebody” to the studio hoi polloi. Hiring her would put too much in jeopardy. Lansbury’s response to the proceedings remains rather glib-- “I was quite simply never asked.” In their search for surefire box-office mojo, the brass set their sights on Lucille Ball. After all, she was a living legend and arguably the most popular female entertainer of the past century. And she had done a musical before, right?

Well, in a matter of speaking, yes. But that’s not to say the musical in which she appeared could ever be considered a success. No, far from it. The show was called Wildcat. It was directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd and it opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon) in December of 1960. (Music: Cy Coleman; Book: N. Richard Nash; Lyrics: Carolyn Leigh). In it, Lucy played a plucky oil prospector with diamonds in her eyes. Howard Taubman didn’t have very kind things to say about the darling doyenne in his review for the New York Times. “Everybody wanted to love Lucille Ball, but her show didn’t make it easy.” He went on to say, “[Wildcat] had as much spirit and excitement as a tame, old tabby.” When things weren't working onstage, Lucy reached into her old bag of tricks. If she flubbed a line, she'd stop the show and draw attention to it just to land some laughs. She called her kids up on the stage when they were in the audience for a smattering of applause. As the show trudged on, she demanded the authors deliver more gags; she knew the audience wanted to see Lucy be "Lucy". Her star power barely shone bright enough keep the show afloat after those disappointing notices. Playing through the spring of the following year, the show managed to clock in 171 performances. Ultimately, it wasn’t the lackluster reviews that shuttered that tuner – it was Miss Ball herself.

   Paula Stewart and Lucille Ball in  "Wildcat"

  Paula Stewart and Lucille Ball in "Wildcat"

On the evening of April 23, 1961 while performing the number “Tippy-Tippy Toes” at the top of the Act Two, Lucille Ball collapsed. She had been fighting a viral infection for several weeks; her body had finally succumbed. At first, a ripple of laughter surged through the crowd – audiences had been trained to delight in the actress’ histrionics for well over a decade. The sniggering went on until it became clear that this wasn’t part of the act. Lucy's understudy was sent on to finish the remainder of that performance... and all performances thereafter. Doctors put Lucy on sabbatical. Announcements were made of the star's intentions to return, but she didn't feel able. In an effort to save the show, Ginger Rogers, Gwen Verdon, and Mitzi Gaynor were all sought. They all declined. Everyone knew the show only worked because it had Lucy. Wildcat closed shortly after the incident.

Another issue that consistently plagued Lucy during her run in Wildcat was her limited vocal ability. Certainly, her lifelong habit of smoking cigarettes didn't help-- in the wings at Wildcat, they had to keep a tank of oxygen, she would get so winded (and at only 49-years old, no less). According to theatre historian Ethan Mordden, there came a point in the run when Lucy was no longer able to sing the entire score. Two numbers were dropped in order to make the role slightly more manageable. Author Boze Hadleigh adds that, "Lucille's loud, untrained singing put such a strain on her vocal chords that she developed nodes; their removal left her voice deeper and gravelly, as evidenced in her later TV work." Naturally, this particular problem was destined to follow Lucy into the role of ‘Mame’. But the movie would be easier because she wouldn’t have to sing it live, right?

Well, not according to the show's composer Jerry Herman. He claims his experience on the film was harrowing. As he recalls, while recording the vocal track for the song, “Open a New Window”, Lucy was unable to find the half-tone at the end of the phrase, “Open a new window, open a new door.” Herman spent an entire day trying to coach her. The day after that perplexing session, he walked over to the piano, played one note, and told her to sing the word, “Door.” Herman clipped that solitary note onto an existing track. According to him, the entire soundtrack had to be pieced together in that fashion.

Meanwhile, tempers on the set (like Lucy's hair dye down the drain), ran red. Charles Higham of the New York Times captured the essence perfectly in 1973 when he published this fascinatingly bleak report:

Wearing a red Santa Claus cap, [Ball] mouths the words to her pre-recorded, throaty singing of ‘Need a Little Christmas Now.’ And right in the middle of a take, the cap falls off. Un-Mameishly, the star stalks off angrily for a grim consultation with her milliner. In a little while, she is back again, still fuming. Lighting up a cigarette, she grins starkly and clutches my arm. ‘I don’t inhale,’ she whispers, almost inaudibly. ‘I daren’t. Last night my esophagus gave out. It’s always giving out. I turned blue. That’s the way I’m going to die, with my esophagus going. I’m going to stifle, and I know it.’

A few minutes later, still voiceless, she is croaking instructions to everyone. Grim, concentrated, she reminds one that making a musical is very much like riveting or mixing cement. Like a lady wrestler, she charges into each scene, nostrils flaring, ready to tackle anyone who crosses her. Then, as soon as the cameras turn, she sparkles like a young girl, kicks up a still shapely leg, charmingly crinkles her clown’s face, and—this time—hangs on to her cap. She finishes the scene in a Santa Claus mask, arms flung wide, her mouth bigger than Martha Raye’s, wanting to scream but instead grinning from ear to ear until Gene Saks calls ‘Cut!’ Then, frowning deeply, she collapses into a chair.

Trying to piece together a serviceable edit of the film pushed back its intended release date from Christmas 1973 to Easter 1974. That decision only gave credence to the already mounting negative word of mouth. By the time the film finally premiered, Lucy’s ‘Mame’ was DOA. Nevertheless, the critics circled for carrion. Here’s a sample of their scathing snipes:

[Director Gene] Saks accommodates the elderly star’s wrinkles by shooting her through her close-ups in soft focus— so gauzy you think you’re in a hospital.
— Frank Rich, New York Times
She is too thin in the waist, too stringy in the legs, too basso in the voice, and too creaky in the joints.
— The New Republic
The sound is somewhere between a bark and a croak… and it doesn’t quite match the movement of the lips. Did Lucille Ball sync her own singing in Mame or did Dick Cavett dub for her? After more than 40 years in movies and television, did she discover in herself an unfulfilled ambition to be a flaming drag queen?
— The New Yorker
Who charmed the husks right off the corn?’ No Virginia, it’s not Mame— it’s Lucille Ball.
— David Galligan, Drama-Logue

Ever the consummate professional, Lucy painted her face and hit the road for a mammoth press tour to promote the film. During a rather arduous leg on the East Coast, Lucy was interviewed by Gene Siskel (who would eventually, along with Roger Ebert, go on to thumbs-up-thumbs-down fame). Siskel was writing for the Chicago Tribune at the time. When he entered the star’s private suite, he found Lucy in tears.

"Why do the newspapers have to send people just so they can take ugly pictures of me?” she asked him. “So, I look my age. What’s wrong with that? These stories make me feel wrong and old. I would think these journalists would like to keep the entertainment business alive, but with this kind of stuff, they’re killing it!"

She had a point. By 1974, the movie musical was long past its prime. But, what I would like to proffer is that what happened with Mame was not entirely Lucy’s fault. Even Angela Lansbury couldn’t have saved it; that type of lavish cinematic entertainment was dead. And, no, I don't think Mame put it in its coffin… but it certainly did help to hammer a few nails.