Young Patrick (Kirby Furlong) has been left orphaned, but his rich, late father has made allowances for his care as he will be left in the charge of his Aunt Mame (Lucille Ball), with strict instructions to ensure the boy has a conservative and religious education. This might be difficult, as Patrick realises when he turns up at his aunt's mansion house with his nanny Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell) to find that he is not expected until tomorrow and there is a wild party being held there tonight. Mame is a little bemused by the child, not knowing how he will fit into her fun-loving lifestyle, but after a while she gets to like the idea of someone to look after...
Lucille Ball's last film was something she called the worst mistake of her professional career, a work that was soundly trashed by the critics and not much liked by audiences either. And yet, for those who are fans of the star from her I Love Lucy sitcom days, they find a lot to like about her in this, and will forgive her anything in spite of Ball being absolutely correct in her assessment of it. There are those who thought the movie would have been far better with the first choice, Angela Lansbury, in the title role, but on the evidence of this not even she would have saved what quickly emerges as a ghastly disaster of epic crassness.
And that's just Lucille's singing. All those cigarettes she smoked had not done her voice any good, so what you get is a musical with most of the songs rasped in a tone deaf fashion by the leading lady. The trilling is so bad that it is difficult to believe anybody thought it was a good idea to keep it, but the power of Ball was such that it looks as if nobody was prepared to argue with her as she had made up her mind that this was an ideal role for her - not an opinion she held by the end of the shoot. Coupled with graceless hoofing the production numbers come across as looking as if no one in Hollywood had any idea of how to stage a musical any more by this decade.
Not helping is the fact that although Mame is supposed to come across as loveable force of nature, in these hands she is in possession of a monstrous ego that does not so much prick pomposity as replace it with a cloying self-satisfaction and delusion that the character is winning you over with her rebellious streak and outrageous personality, which she is not. The examples of wackiness that the script comes up with include sending Patrick to a school where the teachers are nudists, and engaging in that most delightful source of laughter, a fox hunt, where you half expect Mame to get down on all fours and track the creature herself: you can envisage her savaging it between her jaws. Actually what she does is pet it.
Some of this might have entertained if the songs had been much good, but there's very little to distinguish them. One ditty, Bosom Buddies, has Ball and Bea Arthur as her best friend, actress Vera, trading insults that is supposed to be adorably witty, but is more insufferably bitchy and ends up appropriately with them both marching into a toilet. When Robert Preston shows up, it's almost a relief as you think, at last, someone who can sing, but he doesn't last long in an effort to tug the heartstrings as misguided as the rest of this. Some do enjoy Mame as an instance of high camp, the kind that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? played for horror presumably, but as it all builds up to a case of inverted snobbery so over the top that it sticks in the craw, the whole enterprise suffering from a sour feeling throughout. If it's not the worst musical of all time, then it's close to being the worst of the seventies. If I had to see one more person descending a sweeping staircase... Music by Jerry Herman (also dismayed at how this turned out).