Honoring a pair of Hollywood legends and their notorious box-office bombs.
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
No one loves to see those at the top plunge straight to the bottom, especially when they come from Hollywood. The many power players in front of and behind the camera are used to holding onto their place in the upper echelons of the movie world so firmly, that they sometimes can’t tell when their judgment begins to get clouded. The more power a star or a producer attains, the bigger their ambition becomes and the more they believe they can do virtually anything with both. This results not only in careers which take a sometimes-fatal blow, but a collection of films which, for better or worse, last forever.
But with time comes hindsight and the possibility of new life to the missteps made by those who perhaps prefer to believe those moments never happened. Unfortunately modern audiences make such a wish almost impossible and will happily revisit such “efforts” out of curiosity and even genuine affection for the people behind them. In this edition of The Archivist, we do just that with two classic bombs, 1978’s The Swarm from director Irwin Allen and 1974’s Mame starring Lucille Ball. Both films made by proven Hollywood masters who give it all they’ve got, yet still should have known better.
If tall a skyscraper on fire and a capsized ship weren’t enough, Allen decided to tackle another form of everyday life with the ability to wreak deadly havoc on humanity with 1978’s The Swarm. Michael Caine plays Brad Crane, a world-renowned “bee expert” who is trying to warn as many people as possible, whether they be military or civilian, of the large amounts of killer bees heading their way with the power to kill anything or anyone in their path. As time slips away and more and more swarms of bees descend upon a small Texas town, it seems that all of society is doomed.
The Swarm can claim a spot as one of the films which almost single handedly managed to bring down one of the most impressive filmmaking careers of all time. Always a visionary and a showman, Allen pioneered the 70s disaster movie into a bona fide genre with hits like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno boasting stars and thrills, which also actually happened to be good films. All that was lost with The Swarm however, which was laughed off the screen by critics and audiences alike and signaled the beginning of the end of the producer/director’s reign. Looking back at the film now, not much has changed.
The stars are still there and are as fun to watch as ever with Katherine Ross, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Olivia de Havilland, Patty Duke, Lee Grant and Fred McMurray (in what was sadly his final film role) looking game. I can see how the concept of killer bees might’ve sounded thrilling in a pitch meeting, but Allen is so wowed by the premise, he films every action sequence as if it’s far scarier than it actually is. While the sight of bees covering a character’s body may look genuinely ick-ish, it’s hardly terrifying. Meanwhile, when the bees aren’t in the scene, The Swarm completely becomes a dialogue-heavy snoozefest as a bunch of halfhearted subplots are temporarily visited before being dropped altogether. Don’t get me wrong; Allen was a revolutionary in terms of creating films where story and spectacle could coexist beautifully. However, aside from a sequence where de Havilland introduces the “scream moan” after seeing a bunch of dead bodies from a classroom window, The Swarm remains worth forgetting.
In 1974’s Mame, Ball stars as Mame Dennis, a wealthy New York socialite whose life is forever changed when her orphaned nephew Patrick (Kirby Furlong) is sent to live with her following his father’s death. As Patrick quickly enters his aunt’s world, he bears witness to her wild shenanigans and endless parade of colorful friends, including the boozy Vera Charles (Beatrice Arthur). As the years pass and the pair experience wealth, poverty, and a return back to wealth, Patrick learns many lessons from Mame, including the importance of claiming who you are and proudly announcing it to the world.
After the 1958 film (based on the play, which was adapted from the novel), was turned into a successful broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury, Ball felt the property would be an ideal vehicle for her and the perfect antidote to the 70s renegade cinema which she believed to be unwholesome. It was a good idea, except for the fact that Mame had a large assortment of musical numbers, almost all of which featured the title character. Ball tries her hardest, but with the exception of “We Need a Little Christmas,” and the classic “Bosom Buddies” (and even those are being graded on a curve) the star flounders with every note she attempts. A singing voice double was offered, but she refused and being Ball, no one was going to tell her otherwise. Someone should have risked their job and said something anyway. It’s genuinely sad seeing the legend try and make it through every number as the infamous soft focus on her closeups actually take away from her natural beauty in favor of trying to make her come off a decade younger.
The thing is, musical travesty aside, Lucy is a blast as Mame. Her finely-tuned comedy timing is just right for the movie’s many jokes, which she nails, giving a masterclass in delivery alone. The comedy pro even draws laughs simply with a roll of the eyes or a raise of the brow. Her commitment to the material and her consummate professionalism makes you believe in Lucy as Mame, eventually, somehow winning you over.
The Swarm and Mame are both available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Archive.