Her adoring chorus claims she “charms the husks right offa the corn.” I don’t know about the charm, but there’s enough raw corn in this newest version of Auntie Mame to fatten a winter’s worth of King Ranch cattle. This musical is as oversentimentalized, gushy, and out-of-date as the Lawrence Welk Show. Its countless tittering references to unwed mothers, triple martinis, naughty words (like “bastard”), and the naked backside of a corpulent schoolboy—in this day of cocaine sniffers, living-in-sinners, and streakers—don’t quite make it any more.
Neither does Lucille Ball, the star of Mame and its reason for being. To think that at 63 she can wow the world as a dramatic actress and a singer is pretty fuzzy thinking, even for Lucy. She’s fine, if you like that sort of thing, as the wailing scatter-brain on the eternal “I Love Lucy” TV series, but she doesn’t share the sort of eccentric elan that Rosalind Russell brought to the role of Mame in the 1957 film. Like her contemporary male counterpart, John Wayne, Lucy is switching gears too late to make it over the hill in style.
She doesn’t look bad for a woman in her sixties, but the role calls for someone twenty years her junior. Theodora van Runkle’s $300,000 outfitting job manages to trim that many years off her figure, but the attempts to do the same for her face with astigmatic soft-focus closeups are pathetically obvious and enough to give you a headache.
Also, though Mame is chiefly a comedy, there are several serious scenes, and Lucy’s attempts at, for instance, believable sobs fall flat, even with her face in her hands. And the biggest puzzle of all is why on earth Lucy chose to try her screen comeback in a singing role, when her voice strains like a tonsillectomy convalescent’s, and projects no farther than the end of her nose.
Maybe choreographer Onna White knew when she was licked, because the dance routines are as uninspired as my seventh grade ballet recital. In the flapper scene, everybody simply flaps in place.
Agnes Gooch, the faithful governess, played by Jane Connell, is a welcome relief, because she can actually sing. In fact, she sings so well that her two numbers almost throw this Ted Mack Amateur Hour of a musical out of whack. Vera, Mame’s basso-voiced lush of a friend, played in high histrionic style by Beatrice Arthur (Maude on TV), is refreshing, too, because she’s the only one who can see a flaw or two in Mame. After all, it’s pretty hard to fault a woman who, although she’s never ridden a horse before, sails over hedges sidesaddle and then pulls a St. Francis of Assisi with the fox, who curls up in her arms like a kitty cat.
The best character of all is Robert Preston (the Music Man) as Beauregard Burnside, Mame’s drawling, honeysuckle suitor. At 56, he’s still dashing and handsome enough to charm more than the husks off any girl. The only thing that makes me wonder about him is his ability to fall for a woman too dumb to fill out a cash receipt.
Ms. Ball may make a killing with her film of Auntie Mame, by providing, in her words, “a little decent wholesome entertainment for a change” to a nostalgic audience yearning for pre-R movie days. But I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say “I don’t love this Lucy.”