Even though she played Auntie Mame on stage, a part originally performed by Rosalind Russell, and had won a Tony award for her performance in the Broadway production in 1966, Angela Lansbury was passed over for the role of Mame. Jerry Herman went to Warner Brothers executives and begged them to reconsider, explaining the reasons why he considered Lucille Ball to be wrong for the part. Lansbury admitted in a 2009 interview with The Wall Street Journal that she never forgave Warner Bros. for passing her over.
Angela Lansbury recalled her time when she was playing Mame on Broadway and was visited by Lucille Ball who told her she was amazing in the part, deserved all the honors she was receiving and was a cert for the film version. Lansbury was very touched by this until she noticed Ball in the wings during her performance, taking notes. It was then that she realized that she was never going to play the part in the film.
Jerry Herman disliked this film so much (and was also unhappy with the film of his prior musical Hello, Dolly! (1969) that no film of his musicals can be made again without his direct involvement and approval. After the successful CBS-TV remake of Gypsy (1993), plans were announced for a made-for-TV remake. At alternate times Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher, and even Whoopi Goldberg were discussed as potential stars. As of 2016, it has yet to materialize.
Madeline Kahn was originally cast as Agnes Gooch but was replaced right after shooting began. She was later told that when she reported for work on the set, star Lucille Ball took one look at her, realized that Kahn's curvaceous body could never be made to look like the frumpy, somewhat shapeless Agnes Gooch, and had her fired. Some sources claim that Kahn got herself fired on purpose so she could star in Blazing Saddles (1974) and still get paid, which by her contract wouldn't have happened if she'd merely quit.
It was originally planned to have Lucille Ball's singing voice dubbed if her vocals were not good enough to use in the film. Alternate vocals were rumored to have been recorded by Lisa Kirk, but at any rate Ball intervened and her vocals (a point of contention for many critics) were ultimately used.
This film was originally intended to be released in late 1973 so that it would be close to the Oscar nomination season. However, when Warner Brothers executives screened the final results they admitted that its Oscar prospects were highly unlikely, and pushed the release back to the spring of 1974.
Rumors abounded for years that Lucille Ball was chosen for the role over Angela Lansbury because Ball provided most of the financing herself, supposedly in hopes of restarting her film career. Although these rumors continue to this day, they have never been confirmed and no proof was ever produced.
Production was suspended for nearly a year after Lucille Ball broke her leg in a skiing accident. This delay meant original director George Cukor was forced to withdraw. Gene Saks was offered the directing gig, since he had directed the Broadway production.
Many years later, Jane Connell went into a Manhattan video rental store and asked if they had a copy of "Mame". The clerk told her "You don't want to watch that movie - it's terrible - you want to watch Auntie Mame (1958) instead".
Jerry Herman worked with Lucille Ball to improve her singing, but she could barely sustain even for one sentence without becoming winded. Even simple phrases like "Open a new window" had to be pieced together from multiple takes. Audio engineers tried to use whatever methods of processing existed at the time to make her vocals sound passable.
The lyric "We'll always be dear companions, My crony, My mate. We'll always be harmonizing, Orphan Annie and Sandy, like Amos and Andy!" was cut from the "Bosom Buddies" number, though it is left intact on the original soundtrack album.
Much of the criticism of the film was directed at the fact that Lucille Ball was continually shot in soft focus. Critic Rex Reed famously said it looked like they had rubbed chicken fat on the camera lens to shoot her.
The original Broadway production of "Mame" opened at the Winter Garden Theater on May 24, 1966, ran for 1508 performances and was nominated for the 1966 Tony Awards for the Best Musical and Best Score. Bea Arthur recreated her stage role for this film version for which she had won the 1966 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Warner Brothers had planned to release the film with a 5.1 stereo soundtrack but found they were unable to do so. Lucille Ball's singing voice was comprised of multiple different takes, all spliced together. To remaster them would only reveal what a hodge-podge the original recording was.
Bea Arthur has confessed that she had reservations about making this film, but agreed to do so in order to work with her husband, director Gene Saks. In a 2008 interview, she called the film "a disaster."
In later years, Bea Arthur admitted that she was wrong to take part in the film as it was a "tremendous embarrassment". Although she enjoyed working with Lucille Ball, she had to concede that the older actress was "terribly miscast".
During the line "If you'll follow your Auntie Mame" in the "Open A New Window" montage, you can see the grandfather clock in the background with the door open. It was being used as a secret mini-bar for the gag where Mame teaches Patrick how to make a martini, but this bit was deleted from the general release. Furthermore, she is setting aside a silver serving tray as she begins the line, and you can see this as well, though the drink itself is not evident. Another bit cut from the same song is a portion of the tango in which Mame and the ladies all lean back dramatically, supported by the gentlemen dancers, but most of that can actually be viewed in the film's trailer.
The first image seen of Lucille Ball, the b/w portrait seen in the den preceding the main titles, is a shot taken during the "Open A New Window" segment at the burlesque theatre, which takes place later in the movie. She's in the same dress, hat and fox wrap, and even has her hands in a bag of popcorn.
The name of Robert Preston's character, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, is taken from four Civil War Generals, three Confederate - Pierre Goustave Toutant Beauregard, Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, and George Pickett - and one Union, Ambrose Burnside.
Patrick is actually visible in the background during the early portions of the "Mame" number. He is halfway up a tree behind the chorus during the first verse. Then during the second verse he runs behind the chorus to observe Beau and Mame's promenade. These easy to miss appearances are most obvious in the letterboxed version.
In later interviews, Lucille Ball would say that making this movie "was about as much fun as watching your house burn down." Reportedly she found the costumes uncomfortable, and the hats and wigs induced headaches.
Lucille Ball's involvement in this film began in an interesting way. She felt that Rosalind Russell had clearly gotten some of her "inspiration" for her performance in the non-musical Auntie Mame (1958) from Miss Ball's character on the TV series, I Love Lucy (1951). She then put up $5,000,000 on the agreement that she would be considered for the lead.
Another bit of the "Open A New Window" sequence filmed but cut depicted Mame and Patrick on a tandem bicycle in costumes that were not used anywhere else in the film, but are often seen in publicity shots, including here on IMDb. Similarly, Mame and Patrick were to be seen playing her glass piano, and this is another widely circulated publicity shot, despite being cut.
During the fox hunt, most of the female riders are shown in brown and tan riding gear. A few of these outfitted ladies are visible in the background during the "Mame" number, but all the female dancers, many more than were initially depicted in the hunt, are costumed in black and white.
The lyric sung by Robert Preston, "Loving you is rain and winter wind" was changed to "Loving you is Rome and New Orleans" and overdubbed, but the original lyric remained on the original soundtrack album.
Several of the musicals numbers from the Broadway production are severely trimmed or changed in the film version, especially "Bosom Buddies" as sung by Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur and "Gooch's Song" as sung by Jane Connell. "That's How Young I Feel" was cut altogether.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In the original musical, Patrick marries the second of the two women he falls in love with. For the movie, these characters were combined into one. This above statement is just not true. In both the stage play and the stage musical Patrick falls in love and gets engaged to Gloria Upson who is crashing bore from a bigoted family. Mame disapproves and introduces him to Pegeen Ryan (a decorator or housekeeper, depending upon the version), ostensibly in an effort to break up Patrick and Gloria. We then see them nine years later, married and with little Peter.