Gene Saks and Mame

by Steven LaVigne

Ads in the New York Times at the time boldly advertised that “Mame is Broadway’s Best Musical.” Life Magazine had featured a high-kicking Angela Lansbury on its cover and wrote about the show that made her a Broadway star. When she left the show, Janis Paige, Jane Morgan and Ann Miller each stepped in to play one of the most coveted roles ever written for an actress.

The Novel

It’s intriguing that many popular fictional women were created by gay men. Armistead Maupin gave us Anna Madrigal; Truman Capote created Holly Golightly; Christopher Isherwood was a good friend of Jean Ross, the model for Sally Bowles; Thornton Wilder brought Dolly Levi to life. Mame is based on an aunt of Patrick Dennis, the nom de plume of Edward Everett Tanner (although the real woman wasn’t nearly as pleasant as her fictional counterpart).

Mame Dennis made her first appearance on the pages of Patrick Dennis’ 1955 bestseller, Auntie Mame: An Irrelevant Escapade. Two years later, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s stage version opened. Rosalind Russell played the title role, followed by Greer Garson, Beatrice Lillie (who then took it to London) and Sylvia Sidney. Russell received an Oscar nomination for her appearance in the 1958 film version with Lawrence and Lee’s script brilliantly revised by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ in the Rain).

The Stage Musical

Co-author Jerome Lawrence and composer/lyricist Jerry Herman were gay. They teamed with Robert E. Lee for the musical which premiered in May 1966. It was written for Mary Martin, who turned it down. Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Eve Arden (who’d toured in the play), Kitty Carlisle, Barbara Cook, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Phyllis Diller, Lena Horne, Elaine Stritch (who toured as Vera opposite Janet Blair) and Nanette Fabray were all offered the role, but wisely, Herman held out for Lansbury who’d starred in Stephen Sondheim’s first flop, Anyone Can Whistle. Lansbury was 41 when she won the first of her five Tonys. Mame played 1,508 performances.

Mame at the Movies

Warner Bros. owned the film rights, but to ensure that she got the part, Lucille Ball sweetened the pot with $5 million. George Cukor, known as a “woman’s director,” and renowned for such films as Adam’s Rib, The Philadelphia Story, David Copperfield, The Women, Gaslight and A Star is Born (1954) was hired to direct. After Lucy broke her leg skiing, filming was postponed. Cukor had to give up the project in favor of directing Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier in Love Among the Ruins and then headed to Russia for the all-star fiasco, The Blue Bird (1976).

Gene Saks was brought to Hollywood to replace Cukor. His popular comedies, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Cactus Flower made him a bankable director. For some reason, rather than Lawrence and Lee or Comden and Green, playwright Paul Zindel was hired to write the script. This was a strange choice, because much of it doesn’t make sense and the script is so bad it makes Mame a painful movie to watch. There’s no heart and many of the incidents from the original that were so charming and delightful just aren’t funny because the humor has been written out of them.

When I saw the movie in the theater, (I didn’t even know about the film until I saw the ad on the back of a magazine), I couldn’t understand, for example, why they kept removing furniture from Mame’s townhouse, when, in the original, her apartment is constantly being redecorated.

The story follows Patrick Dennis (Kirby Furlong) and his nanny, Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell) who arrive in New York following his father’s death. When they first meet Mame, she’s hosting a cocktail party, and they’re quickly swept into her antics. Ignoring the demands of Dwight Babcock, a bank trustee (John McGiver), Mame enrolls Patrick in a nudist school, visits nightclubs and burlesque theaters with him and determines to open new windows for him.

When he finds out, a disapproving Babcock quickly whisks Patrick off to boarding school as Mame eeks out a living during the Depression. This includes appearing in a “modern operetta” starring her best friend, Vera Charles (Beatrice Arthur) and selling roller skates at Macy’s, where she meets Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Robert Preston), an oil man from Georgia who falls in love with her. (Realizing this is essentially a thankless role, Preston doesn’t even try to do a Southern accent).

Following a huge production number where dancers swirl around Lucy as she stands still, Mame marries Beau, but because he’s an inept photographer, he’s killed when he falls off the Matterhorn. As Patrick ages (Bruce Davison, hot after his role as a creepy guy in Willard), Mame saves him from marrying into a family of bigots and gently maneuvers him toward a happier life.

The Cast

Mame can easily be described as one of the worst movie musicals ever made. As I watched it on YouTube in preparation for writing this article, I realized that, Lucy’s voice was so damaged from smoking that it actually hurts your throat to listen to her singing. Because she’s too old for the role (she was 62, playing a character at least 25 years younger), Lucy is miscast. She can’t sing (her vocals were pieced together from assorted different takes) and she was shot constantly through soft focus. While Herman pulled a song out of his trunk, “Loving You,” to give Robert Preston something to do besides lead the title song, it sounds hollow because there’s no chemistry between Ball and Preston.

Madeline Kahn chosen to play frumpy Agnes Gooch, but Lucy had her fired after she first saw the actress who’d played Trixie Delight. Jane Connell, who’d created the role onstage was cast in the role instead. (Kahn accepted the role of Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles, a much better choice).

Beatrice Arthur, married at the time to director Saks and recreating the role for which she’d won a Tony, enjoyed working with Lucy, but she knew the movie wouldn’t be a success. It failed to make back its $12 million budget. Several musical numbers were either trimmed or cut altogether. not only are Theodora Van Runkle’s costumes uncomfortable, they’re often hideous. During the “Bosom Buddies” scene, Arthur is severely dressed in black while Lucy wears white. The two women resemble a pair of bickering  grandmothers, rather than these lively musical characters.


I could offer excuses, but why? Musicals were going out of style in the early 1970s. Lost Horizon, At Long Last Love and The Rocky Horror Picture Show were all box-office failures. (Rocky Horror only became successful when it started playing midnight screenings). Like A Chorus Line, Guys & Dolls and other films to be discussed in this series, anyone who hasn’t seen the stage version would question what made this show worthwhile.

This film is no indication that “Mame is Broadway’s Best Musical.” In truth, it only won performance Tonys, because the Best Musical Tony that year went to Man of La Mancha.

There was talk of a TV remake for years. Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher and Whoopi  Goldberg at one time or another were considered for the title role. I thought that either the late Raquel Welch or Ann Margret would be good choices (they weren’t even recognized as candidates).  Glenn Close turned it down in favor of South Pacific. Jane Connell once tried to rent the film at a Manhattan video store and was told to get the Rosalind Russell version instead. I agree with that video store employee. Instead of seeing this lifeless turkey, if you haven’t seen the 1958 version starring Rosalind Russell, what are you waiting for? Like Mame herself, it’s ageless!