Lucille Ball, they say, was terribly miscast in the title role of the movie MAME. It’s been uttered so many times you’d think it was a universal truth. “Lucy was too old.” “Lucy couldn’t sing.” “Angela Lansbury played it better on Broadway.” I could recite the list of reasons why they say she shouldn’t have done it the way she did it in my sleep.
If you take away the distracting, and ridiculous, soft-focus shots they used to film her close-ups, which the movie could well have done without, and if the singing numbers had been dubbed, what would you have? The lady’s acting in the role of irrepressible, unconventional “Mame Dennis” can hardly be faulted. She nails every scene, and not as a “Lucy Ricardo” type, either. If I hadn’t grown up on “I Love Lucy” reruns, I never even would have guessed this part was played by the same actress.
Take the scene where she’s fired from the department store. She’s tried on the roller skates to demonstrate them for her handsome customer, “Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside.” She gets fired from the job. She can’t get out of the skates because she’s knotted the laces.
What does Mame do? Well, first let’s look at what she ought to do, what anyone else in her position back then would have done. After all, it’s a scene set in 1929, she’s broke, the world is a different, stuffier place, and to be a lady accidentally on skates out in public in a store is supposed to be mightily embarrassing. Yet watch the scene. The character holds herself up high, as if being stuck in those skates is an honor, not a disaster. She makes it look deliberate, a matter of pride, yet it’s all subtly done.
I imitated her stance for years, after seeing this movie as a child, whenever I got myself into a bit of a jam. If life gives you lemons, stand tall, even if you’re five foot one, like me, and make some lemonade, folks. Wherever you are, Lucy, thank you so much for that scene!
I only wish that Lucy had tried to make a remake of AUNTIE MAME, the non-musical movie version of the same basic story that was made in the 1950’s and starred Rosalind Russell. Yes, Lucy in the musical was a mistake, but if she had starred in AUNTIE MAME, sans the unnecessary gauzy close-ups and songs, I think she’d have been remembered well for it, and rather than going down in motion picture history as something of a bad joke, it would be remembered as a good movie.
And let me add this: I hate it that Lucy took abuse for this movie! Her version was the very first one I saw of this story, so Lucy was “my Mame.” The joy and love and fun of this movie gave me a whole new perspective – and even got me through several godawful years at a terrible, abusive school. Wherever you are, I say, BRAVA, Lucy! Just wish I could have told you in person.