Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Auntie Mame (1958) * * *

Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell ) is an unconventional individualist socialite from the roaring 1920's. When her brother dies, she is forced to raise her 10 year-old nephew Patrick (Jan Handzlik). However, Patrick's father has designated social-climbing executor Dwight Babcock (Fred Clark) to his will to protect the boy from from the perspectives of Mame, who quickly introduces him to her free-spirited, flamboyant and eccentric lifestyle. Patrick and Mame fall in love with each other, and she spends the rest of the movie trying to rescue him from the stuffy, conventional people he's used to. Together they journey through Patrick's childhood and the great depression, and experience many adventures.

Determined to "open doors" for her nephew, Mame exposes to him everything from bootleg gin to oddball characters--all the while doing battle with her nephew's ultra-conservative trustee, who is equally determined that the boy's life remain free of "certain influences." He is raised in a world filled with acceptance and Mame's unconventional literati friends. Nothing is too bohemian. This unfolds in colorful episodic segments that allow us to watch Patrick grow as Mame oversees his unusual upbringing while she juggles a few spouses and an extended household. Most of the film is a succession of virtual skits, strung together in a loose chronological order that extends from the Prohibition era until the present. Anachronisms abound. But for all its exaggerations and inconsistencies, this picture of a tireless party-giver is a highly entertaining. And because of the gags that gush from it, it is constantly amusing.

Patrick Dennis: Libido, inferiority complex, stinko, blotto, free love, bathtub gin, monkey glands, Karl Marx... is he one of the Marx Brothers?
(Patrick reads a list of words he doesn't understand)
Patrick Dennis: ...Neurotic, heterosexual...
Mame Dennis: Oh, my my my my, what an eager little mind.
(takes the list)
Mame Dennis: You won't need some of these words for months and months.
Auntie Mame: Run along to Ito and tell him to bring me a light breakfast--black coffee and a side car. Oh, oh. And a cold towel for your Auntie Vera.
Patrick Dennis: Is she in the guest room again?
Auntie Mame: Since Sunday, dear. Now run along to Ito and hurry my tray, darling. Your Auntie needs fuel.

There are parties in Auntie Mame's duplex, the tryout of her one play in New Haven, and the foxhunt on the South Carolina estate where Mame snags herself wealthy husband Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker). Tucker was one of the most well endowed actors in Hollywood, second only to Milton Berle. Many viewers watch this film mainly to see his impressive "crotch shots" in the South Carolina scenes. As the Southern gentleman who becomes Mame's knight in shining honor, Tucker is extremely charming in this, possibly his best film role. Unfortunately, he falls off the Matterhorn on their honeymoon.

The lavish d├ęcor of Mame's apartment is changed almost as frequently as her flashy costumes, and all of them are dazzling. Russell as the fluid and spirited sybarite who gives her orphaned nephew an abundance of attention and love, succeeds in creating a woman who is as comically engrossing as a clown and yet possesses tenderness that every now and then she suddenly reveals. It is this tenderness in Miss Russell that makes Auntie Mame endearing. Closest to reality are nephew Patrick (Roger Smith), who is quite appealing, Mr. Burnside, broadly humorous as the rich Southerner whom Mame weds, and Dwight Babcock as the banker who tries to make a prig of the boy.

Auntie Mame: What an honor it is to have you in our little home... though I wonder if it does make the best first impression on a sensitive young mind to see you drinking during business hours.
Dwight Babcock: I dropped by the Bixby School. And what do I find? I find he isn't even registered there, he never has been. So I've been hunting through every low, crockpot school in this town, and I finally found him in the lowest of them all.
Auntie Mame: Mr. Page is a progressive educator...
Dwight Babcock: There they were, a schoolroom full of them: boys, girls, teachers, romping around stark naked, bare as the day they were born.
Auntie Mame: I assure you that the children under Mr. Page's care were engaged in normal, healthful, broadening procedures.
Dwight Babcock: Broadening? You show them what you were doing when I broke into that place. Go ahead, show them.
Patrick Dennis: We just playing Fish Family.
Dwight Babcock: Fish Family.
Patrick Dennis: It's a sort of constructive play.
Dwight Babcock: Now, listen to this.
Auntie Mame: Show me now darling, show me.
Patrick Dennis: Well, we do it right after yogurt time. Mrs. Page and all the girls crouch down on the floor under the sun lamps. And they pretend to be lady fishes, depositing their eggs in the sand. Then Mr. Page and all the boys do what gentlemen fish do.
Auntie Mame: What could be more wholesome or natural?

Farcical and funny among the others are Agnes Gooch (Peggy Cass) as a frumpy myopic secretary who makes a mistake of a delicate biological nature, Vera Charles (Coral Browne) as an acid-tongued actress who drinks, and Doris Upson (Lee Patrick) and Claude Upson (Willard Waterman) as a Connecticut couple who raise provincialism and bias to a high level. Ito (Yuki Shimoda) as a houseboy, Norah Muldoon (Connie Gilchrist) as a maid, and Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes) as a finishing-school's end product and Patrick's unbearable shallow fiance, perform lively caricatures. AUNTIE MAME is an unrestrained wild and innocent spoof, but it has a heart and it is in the right place.

Patrick Dennis' 1955 humorous, bittersweet novel was a runaway bestseller--and it was soon followed by the 1956 stage version starring Rosalind Russell, who created the title role she was born to play as the madcap Mame. The stage play as adapted by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee from the novel was more like a movie script in its pile-up of pictorial business and its multitude of scenes. The invitation to expansion was hand-engraved in the play. Everything is expanded, especially Miss Russell, who lets herself go with even more gushiness and grandeur of gesture than she did on the stage. She is bright and brassy, but never goes too far over the top. Rosalind Russell delivers a knockout performance--easily her finest comedy performance since THE WOMEN (1939). From Mame's efforts to be a salesgirl at Macy's during the Christmas season, to her gentle put-down of an anti-semite, Russell is glorious as Mame--big-hearted, big-humored, and wonderfully off-center.

Do not confuse AUNTIE MAME with the lackluster musical version starring Lucille Ball, simply entitled MAME (1974). The Lucille Ball version, in which she looks as if she was filmed through Vaseline-covered cheesecloth is quite bad, going for cheap laughs. But there is nothing cheap about AUNTIE MAME. Production values are rich, the score is memorable, and everything about the show is a tremendous amount of fun. The infamous "production code" was still somewhat in force when AUNTIE MAME was filmed, and consequently several of the play's most famous lines had to be re-written--but this scarcely gets in the way of Russell and the others.

The cast also includes: Patric Knowles (Lindsay Woolsey), Pippa Scott (Pegeen Ryan), Robin Hughes (Brian O'Bannion), Brook Byron (Sally Cato MacDougall), Carol Veazie (Mrs. Burnside), Henry Brandon (Acacius Page), Cris Alexander (Mr. Loomis), Olive Blakeney (Dowager), Lela Bliss (Party Guest), Peter Bourne (Party Guest), John Caler (College boy), Evelyn Ceder Woman in White), Royden E. Clark (Stable Boy), Booth Colman (Alan a Party Guest), Max Cutler (Gangster), Jack Daly (Workman), Mark Dana (Reginald), Paul Davis (Stage Manager), Margaret Dumont (Noblewoman in Play), Saundra Edwards (Party Guest), Robert Gates (Actor as "Lord Dudley"), Gregory Gaye (Vladimir Klinkoff), Rand Harper (Pianist), Michael Harris (Party Guest), Sam Harris (Mr. Jackson), Charles Heard (Dr. Feuchtwanger), Butch Hengen (Emory MacDougall), Gloria Holden (Guest at garden party), Dick Hudkins (Stable Boy), Terry Kelman (Michael Dennis), Fred Kelsey (Front Row Audience at Play), Doye O'Dell (Cousin Jeff), Barbara Pepper (Mrs. Krantz), Richard Reeves (Mr. Krantz), Gladys Roach (Mrs. Klinkoff), Hazel Shermet (Macy's customer), Smokey (Mame's Horse), Dub Taylor (County Veterinarian), and Ruth Warren (Mrs. Jennings). Bronislau Kaper composed the original music. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the screenplay derived from the novel by Patrick Dennis. Morton DaCosta directed.

This classic film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Rosalind Russell), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Peggy Cass), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White or Color (Malcolm Bert, George James Hopkins), Best Cinematography, Color, Best Film Editing and Best Picture. It was also nominated for three Golden Globes and won two. The DVD offers a visually stunning print of the film in its original ratio, and the sound is quite good as well. The few extras are nothing to speak of, but it hardly matters because this is a movie you can turn to if you need a good laugh, especially one with a slightly satirical edge from start to finish.

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