Review: Auntie Mame (1958)

Auntie Mame

Auntie Mame

Rating



Director

Morton DaCosta

Screenplay

Betty Comden, Adolph Green (Novel: Patrick Dennis)

Length

2h 23m

Starring

Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, Patric Knowles, Peggy Cass, Jan Handzlik, Joanna Barnes, Pippa Scott, Lee Patrick

MPAA Rating

Approved

Buy/Rent Movie

Soundtrack

Poster

Source Material

Review

As important as film is as an artistic medium, its origins are rooted in the concept of popular entertainment. Sometimes, a film manages to fit into both categories, and Auntie Mame is a prime example of form and function unifying in a delightfully rich and complex comedic package.

Based on a novel by Edward Everett Tanner III under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame follows the spirited life of Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell), a wealthy New York City socialite, who takes in her orphaned nephew (Roger Smith as the older and Jan Handzlik as the younger) and attempts to teach him the value of living life to the fullest. She’s blocked at nearly every turn by the buttoned-up banker (Fred Clark) in charge of the youngster’s inheritance. As the two butt heads, banker Babcock gets the better of the situation and Patrick is shipped off to a private school while Mame goes on an global vacation with her new husband Beauregard Burnside (Forrest Tucker).

Russell is an effervescent, vivacious figure filling the screen with her bountiful grace, class, and comedic gifts. Russell originated the role on Broadway in the book’s first adaptation. When it was adapted to the big screen, Russell reprised her role to great acclaim. Three other actors carried over from the stage, including Yuki Shimoda in a minor role, Handzlik as the young Patrick, and Peggy Cass as the self-conscious secretary Agnes Gooch. Russell and Cass were both nominated at the Tonys and the Oscars. Cass picked up the Tony, but neither won the Oscar even though Russell was absolutely deserving.

Also nominated for Best Picture, Auntie Mame is a lively adaptation that demands the audience ignore the outlandish and celebrate the broad diversity of life itself. The film takes a firm stand against anti-Semitism, but the lessons presented could be easily applied to acceptance based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Unlike the stage musical adaptation, this film manages to minimize the role Mame’s husband plays in the film’s events. Sometimes, it’s difficult to look back at films made more than a half century earlier and not pick out the problematic viewpoints that go with them. While it’s important to explore films within the framework of the times in which they exist, Auntie Mame thankfully manages to minimize those thorny issues even at a time when veiled and obvious racism were an unfortunate part of cinematic identity.

As the film and its characters pass from one event to the next, the Oscar-nominated Art Direction presents the audience with a unique series of interior designs that are as impressive in hindsight as they were in the 1950s. That Orry-Kelly couldn’t nab a Costume Design nomination is a shame considering the thematically detailed designs he clothed Russell’s elegant frame in. Alongside art directors Malcolm Bert and George James Hopkins, the film’s cinematographer, Harry Stradling, and film editor, William Ziegler, were also nominated for Academy Awards. That the film managed to lose every single one of its nominations remains a glaring omission in Oscar history even if most of its losses were to the gorgeous, but inferior Gigi.

Auntie Mame is a deliriously engaging film and Russell is simply superb. It’s the kind of film that deserves a more devoted following, but which has diminished in its influence in some part due to the unbridled success and more broad familiarity of audiences with the musical adaptation titled simply Mame. At least Auntie Mame as a film adaptation of the book and play is far more celebrated than the abysmal cinematic adaptation of the stage musical starring Lucille Ball.

Review Written

October 12, 2021

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