Everyone’s favorite relation is, or rather, should be ‘Auntie Mame’- the devil-may-care madcap imbued with a grandly amused sense of self that bucked both the sexual politics of her generation and the straight-jacketed dogmatism of being an irrepressibly strong-minded female in a man’s world. Patrick Dennis’ novelization of the exploits of his Aunt Marion Tanner is a celebration of a life lived fully and a legacy that has since extended into the realms of ‘live theater’ and movie-land folklore. As eulogized by Hollywood, Mame Dennis oft acquires a homoerotic subtext; her broad-mindedness tipping the scales of acceptable drag queen haute couture, furthermore conjured in ‘gay’ parties populated by progressive thinkers extolling the virtues of nudism, free love and bathtub gin; Marxist/Leninist supporters, bootleggers and the occasionally coded lesbian, lurking in the background to add a counterintuitive splash of drabness to all these otherwise colorful characters who populate Mame’s world. However, as penned by Patrick Dennis (whose real name was Edward Everett ‘Pat’ Tanner III), Mame is a delicious coquette, puncturing the balloons of hypocrisy, one snooty buffoon at a time. She is, I think, the sort of champion every young boy of an impressionable age would be thoroughly blessed to have as his fairy godmother; slightly pixelated, well-heeled, unencumbered by the narrow-minded agenda put forth by the ‘thought police’ of her time, and, imbued with a sparkling agility to see within the heart of her young charge; the child’s POV vindicated and embraced. Better still from a child’s perspective; Mame Dennis takes guff from no one.
The exploits in the novel span the years roughly between 1928 and 1952; an expanse in which the fictionalized ‘aunt’ with gusto to spare promises to “open doors” for young Patrick Dennis that he has never even dreamed existed. After his book became a publishing phenomenon, Patrick Dennis would repeatedly deny any similarities shared between Mame Dennis and his Aunt Marion as purely superficial. “I write in the first person,” Dennis stressed, “…but it’s all fictional.” Well – not exactly. Like the ‘fictional’ Mame, Dennis’ Aunt Marion was also born in Buffalo on March 6, 1889. She led a rather unusual life in Greenwich Village; indiscriminately married and divorced and running through both hers and her husband’s moneys with an alarming disregard for saving anything for a rainy day. Also true to life: she had a brother, Edward (Pat’s father), staunchly straight-laced; a buttoned-down businessman who absolutely abhorred Marion’s more gregarious lifestyle as the party-going bon vivant/patron of the arts. And just like Mame, Marion worked briefly for Macy’s, in between having her flings with a career on the wicked stage (opposite a very young Judith Anderson – a.k.a. Vera Charles). Depending on one’s point of view these eccentricities were either embellished in print or told from the heart; Dennis’ book reveling in Mame’s unorthodoxy best left for his own imagination to fill in the gaps. Her bohemianism did not go unnoticed, however, and to a child of Dennis’ years it must have seemed terrifically splendid.
It also stood to reason a book this memorable would have some sort of creative afterlife; and so it did: first, as Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s immaculate stagecraft, playing at the Broadhurst Theatre from October 31, 1956, to June 28, 1958. On stage, Mame was embodied by the incomparable Rosalind Russell in a performance only to be described as sublimely ‘out there’; Russell’s penchant for rapid fire delivery of some of the wittiest dialogue, running the gamut with a sort of high-octane mania and finesse; ‘Auntie Mame’ sold out in advance with Russell inhabiting the zany dame’s skin for fifteen months before departing for Hollywood to reprise the part in Warner Bros. big and splashy celluloid extravaganza – truly, a banquet for which most ‘poor suckers’ had been starving to see; her replacement on the stage, Greer Garson, adding tempo and ‘class’, later, to be replaced by Beatrice Lillie’s uber-tart and enterprising grand dame. Meanwhile, the road company productions courted some of the most legendary talents of their time; among them, Sylvia Sidney, Eve Arden and Constance Bennett. Yet, it is for Russell’s participation in director, Morton DaCosta’s 1958 Technirama spectacle that the legacy and legend of Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame ensures; Russell’s name synonymous with the character and vice versa. And in reviewing Auntie Mame these many decades later, it becomes immediately clear why both the picture and the performance have taken on a life of their own.
In her stunning array of Orry-Kelly fashions, flitting in and out of New York’s glitterati – an eclectic community where one is apt to hear great symphonic works arranged with airplane motors and real live sheep on the stage – or even when benignly depriving her caustic arch nemesis, banker Dwight Babcock (Fred Clark) of his precious male initiative to see the impressionable Patrick transformed into a pint-sized stuffy eastern seaboard snob before his sixteenth birthday, later to be hurriedly married off to Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes) – or as Mame puts it – the Arian from Darien - Roz Russell’s frenetic magnetism is saturated with a light and luscious, even gingerly svelte maternal gesture of sage wisdom; a sort of nutty but nice altruism penetrating through the comedy. Russell is not given nearly enough credit for the ‘subtler nuances’ in this barn-burning bravura. Her most unpretentiousness is revealed during the picture’s opening act when, after Mame’s savings have been eaten away by the Great Depression she suffers several crises of conscience. The first occurs after Dwight Babcock discovers Mame’s deception in not enrolling Patrick in Bixby Academy (having placed him in the more broad-minded experimental school overseen by Marxist/nudist, Acacias Page, played by Henry Brandon), and, has Patrick removed from her care, sent far away to St. Bonifice. The scene where Mame begs Babcock to reconsider what this separation from the child she has since invested her wholeheartedness of being as Patrick’s surrogate is heartrending; Mame, who only several scenes earlier, regarded Babcock with not entirely unfounded haughty disdain, now brought to heel for mercy where none shall be given.
The second moment to prove Russell’s understatement on par and noteworthy as her bombastic temperament seen elsewhere and throughout, is revealed after Mame, newly ensconced as a bit player in Vera Charles’ (Coral Browne) latest theatrical venture, ‘Midsummer Madness’, is fired by her ‘best friend’ for attempting to make ‘something more’ of the part in front of a live audience; the upstaging inverted as catastrophe when Mame’s noisy charm bracelet creates a distractingly humorous diversion. Paroled from Bixby for the Thanksgiving holidays, Patrick (played as a boy by Jan Handzlik) arrives backstage to find the woman he admires most of all for her spunk, on the brink of abject despair. In coming to her passionate defense, Patrick stirs Mame to reconsider her failure as slight, offering his arm as an escort and referring to her as ‘Lady Iris’ – the noble woman from the play. In reply, Russell, momentarily recomposing her emotions, responds, “Charmed, Lord Dudley”. However, as the two begin their proud walk off together, Mame suffers again; this time, a moment of undulated gratitude as she embraces the ‘little man’ with the big heart, unable to hide her tears this second time. Herein, Rosalind Russell reveals the character’s fragility. Even madcaps possess a streak of elemental sadness. And Mame has suffered through some terrible setbacks. But it is Russell’s interpolation of sorrow and defiant pride that so infectiously wither the sham of melodrama, replaced by a moment of sheer and remarkable poignancy; her effectiveness as she pivots from outward self-sacrifice to inner strength, then back again, falling prey, though never quite the victim of the sentimentality evoked in Bronislau Kaper’s magnificent underscore.
The end of Auntie Mame’s first act is capped off by the traditionally maudlin Christmastime pastiche; Mame, at her lowest ebb, unceremoniously dismissed from her temporary position as a Macy’s toy clerk after badly bungling her sales slips. Remember…she’s a wiz at C.O.D.! Russell departs with a buoyant shriek, informing her last customer of the day to get the rest of his shopping done at Gimbels. But afterward, we meet Russell’s denizen walking solitarily down a crowded snowy Manhattan street, desperate to hitch a cab back to her Beekman Place penthouse, only to realize she is virtually destitute; even unable to pay for the modest fare to carry her home. Once arrived on foot, Patrick’s nanny cum Mame’s housekeeper, Nora Muldoon (Connie Gilchrist) and Mame’s ever-devoted houseboy, Ito (Yuki Shimoda) reveal they have paid off all outstanding debts for the household with their moneys saved up, as Norma puts it, “for a rainy day” to save face (also, to secure a better line of credit with the butcher in days yet to follow). Their philanthropy is met with restrained emotions, even a bit of sublime comedy as Mame, suffering through more tears of appreciation, whimpers defiantly, “Hell, we don’t even have any Kleenex!” The somberness of the scene is diffused when Mame’s last customer unexpectedly appears on her doorstep; introducing himself as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker); a handsome southerner with oodles of cash and a genuine yen for Mame’s brand of home cookin’.
The rest of Auntie Mame represents a restoration of Mame’s faith in humanity as she becomes inveigled in a crazy quilt of improbably absurd and occasionally episodic chance meetings. Think of her as the Forrest Gump of her day, albeit with more brains, money and sly ‘class-will-out’ to disseminate as she plots an inspirational sweet revenge on Dwight, meant to ensure Patrick’s future will not be as bleak as his puberty under Babcock’s moralizing restraints. It is to director, Morton DaCosta’s credit the rest of Auntie Mame never devolves into a claptrap of oddities; the various incidents introducing us to a cavalcade of delightfully arrogant, clever and fun-loving, oft manipulative misfits; each tamed in their own agenda and led to the trough by the ultimate puppet master – Mame Dennis. Mame’s retreat to Beauregard’s family home in the ole south begins the second act of Mame’s extraordinary resurrection; a stately plantation complete with a demonstrative, sneeze-happy matriarch (Carol Veazie) and fiery belle, Sally Cato McDougall (Brook Byron), so described by her much younger brother as ‘the meanest damn filly in the entire south”. It would certainly appear so, as Sally Cato goads Mame into a traditional foxhunt astride a killer stallion; presumably, to have Mame thrown. But his ploy backfires when Mame manages not only to hang on to her mount but take the fox, as well as the hounds on a rip-roaring jaunt across the open fields onto the unlikeliest of victories. Beauregard proposes. The timeline advances to cover Mame’s worldly travels on her new hubby’s coin; lengthy excursions told in the economy of a montage with occasionally all too obvious painted backdrops to bridge the gap as Patrick (now college-bound and played by Roger Smith) encounters his own parlor spider in Gloria Upson, the addlepated Radcliffe princess whose parents, Claude (Willard Waterman) and Doris (Lee Patrick) are Dwight’s best friends – ‘really top drawer’. In Mame’s absence, Dwight has almost managed to convince Patrick his future prospects are all wrapped up in Gloria.
Alas, Beauregard dies unexpectedly while scaling the Swiss Matterhorn; Mame, retreating to Beekman Place, prostrating with grief, but wooed to reconsider what her life has meant to those who love her best. Patrick emboldens Mame to write her memoirs, later to be guaranteed publication by her former lover, Lindsay Woolsey (Patric Knowles). To sweeten the deal, Patrick calls upon an ole college buddy, Brian O'Bannion (David Hughes) – an editor of sorts with an affected Irish brogue – to work closely to achieve the desired results. He also employs a full-time secretary, Agnes Gooch (the hilariously inept Peggy Cass) to transcribe their notes. Alas, O’Bannion proves an oily sponge, plying his craft as a dime store lothario to secure his full-time live-in position at Beekman Place; cushy digs for this out-of-work gigolo. Patrick is most unimpressed by this turn of events. Moreover, he sincerely worries how it will look to Gloria, her parents and ‘Uncle Dwight’. Narrowly abandoning his aunt for this ‘new life’, Patrick is brought to his senses when Mame agrees to attend the Upsons at their mountebank home in Connecticut. But the Upson’s anti-Semitic reaction gives Mame a rather splendidly insidious idea. With Mame chipping in, the Upsons are planning to buy up and give the parcel of land adjacent their home to Patrick and Gloria as a wedding present; a way to keep very close ties on Patrick’s future – not to include Mame outside of her monetary contribution. Mame, however, has different plans.
As the Upsons attend Mame for a cozy engagement party, Mame gives the frumpy Agnes a complete makeover; ordering O’Bannion to take her to the soiree he had planned to attend with Mame as his dinner guest. Although O’Bannion resists at first, he is swept away by the unexpectedness of Agnes’s charms. As the time for the party nears, Agnes learns she is pregnant with O’Bannion’s child. After having spent some months away from Beekman Place, Patrick returns with Gloria, her parents and Dwight; everyone discovering Mame has given the penthouse a complete makeover with decidedly avant-garde accoutrements. The installer, Pegeen Ryan (Pippa Scott) is a beautiful no-nonsense gal, very much Patrick’s speed. Mame tempts the Upsons and Dwight with hors d'oeuvre made of pickled rattlesnake and octopus, revealing to all she has bought the property next to the Upson’s to establish a retreat for orphaned and refugee Jewish children; decidedly not what the Upsons want to hear. Asked to explain herself, Mame gives ‘Uncle Dwight’ an earful. After standing by and watching Patrick slowly devolve into exactly the sort of uppity trust fund baby she sincerely hoped he would never become, Mame has decided to take matters into her own hands. She explains to Dwight that while each of them may indeed have had altruistic motives for taking Patrick’s life in hand, the boy is now of age and of the mindset to be ‘hungry’ for something neither of them would perhaps consider as ‘the best’ for him. It is not up to Dwight or Mame to choose for Patrick, but for Patrick to pursue the future on his own terms.
Realizing the merit of this argument, Patrick reiterates his gratitude by invoking ‘Lady Iris’; she, reciprocating with “Charmed, Lord Dudley.” Time again passes. We learn Patrick and Pegeen fell in love, were married and since had a child, Michael (Terry Kelman) age seven – exactly primed as Patrick was when he first came to live with Mame. Recently returned from her travels in India, Mame encourages Michael to coax his parents’ permission to make the return journey with her before the start of the Fall school semester; having pumped the boy full of life’s gospel according to ‘Auntie Mame’ – “You know what your trouble is…you don’t live, live, live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Momentarily shocked by their son’s outburst, Patrick and Pegeen realize the one constant never in doubt is this extraordinary woman who has left her magical imprint on all their lives; the self-professed pied piper of all their daydreams. Unable to see the logic in denying Michael his incredible adventures with his great aunt, Patrick and Pegeen step aside as Mame begins to work her lunacy on the next generation, promising to “open doors never dreamed of” in Michael’s future. We can sincerely believe it as the screen slowly fades to black and Bronislau Kaper’s lush orchestrations fill the theater.
Auntie Mame is a truly magical experience; a rich and vibrant ‘family film’ that never treats the kids as idiots or talks down to the adults. The one constant is Rosalind Russell’s screwball maven of seemingly harmless mischief. In the musicalized version eventually to follow this film on Broadway, then again – on film, title foreshortened simply to ‘Mame’ – Jerry Herman’s score and Angela Lansbury’s galvanized turn as the wondrous grand dame conspired to create another smash hit from this well-trodden material; alas, trodden in the mud by a big and bloated movie version in 1974, starring Lucille Ball. The problem with this latter incarnation is decidedly Ball herself, or rather, the two-fold negative ripple effect she manifests. Once bearing witness to Rosalind Russell’s Mame Dennis in the movies (or Angela Lansbury’s musical recreation on the stage), no substitute will suffice; much less one who cannot sing and plays the part as a sort of usurper of youthful naiveté, exposing her underage charge to seedy nightclubs, spurious gangsters and tassel-wearing strippers; Mame’s glamorous parties distilled to dens of iniquity meant to contribute to the delinquency of a minor. We can fully appreciate why this latter movie’s Dwight Babcock (John McGiver) would want to usher away any impressionable mind from this Mame’s influences. Ball’s Mame does not see the world through the eyes of a child as Russell’s Mame did, but rather insidiously tries to prematurely will Patrick into the adult world, thus depriving him of his youth.
By contrast, Roz Russell’s Mame is maternal; something Ball’s re-incarnation is not, Russell offering us spirited warmth in tandem with Mame Dennis’ self-distracting lunacy. Russell puts it best when Mame, asked by Lindsay Woolsey why his proposals of marriage remain unanswered, triumphantly declares, “How could I be a wife? I’m much too busy being a mother!” It is, of course, meant as a joke, flying in the face of that bowdlerized ‘woman’s place’ in conservative America excised from the Betty Crocker handbook for the ideal ‘little women’, as both wife and mother; the ‘happy homemaker distinctly at odds with the more laissez faire fond remembrances of the 1920’s to which Mame is decidedly more at home as an ardent creature of habitual hedonism run amok. By placing the proverbial cart before the horse, Mame has, in fact, turned another ensconced precept of Eisenhower’s Americana on its end; reconnoitered and marginally reinstated when she takes Beauregard Picket Burnside to husband and to bed. Still, the couple remains childless, perhaps because Mame has waited too long to have her biological clock rewound. Whatever the case, after Beauregard’s untimely passing, Mame reverts to form, preferring lovers to husbands and parties to the patriarchy; scrutinizing and micromanaging the particulars of the only ‘man’ in her life – Patrick – to have remained a loyal constant.
The others in the cast are all subservient to Russell’s towering presence. Yet, perhaps even more remarkable, many of the supporting player do manage to hold their own; Coral Browne’s caustic ‘first lady of the American theater’ – Vera Charles, as example; a ribald riff on the self-appointed and status-stricken demigods of the stage, played with askew enchantment. Peggy Cass is a riotous Agnes Gooch; a Coke-bottle frump, inept to the point of being a social disaster until remade by Mame’s mirthful meddling. And then there is Lee Patrick’s idiotically amiable Doris Upson; a role otherwise merely grating and dull, yet under Patrick’s command, emanating a modicum of empathy as the antithesis of Mame herself. In hindsight, all of the women in Auntie Mame are memorable; this show a real showcase for its female stars, curiously at a time when meaty roles for women had all but vanished and the much celebrated ‘woman’s picture’ was something of a thing of the past. The men in Auntie Mame are less easily defined, or rather, more clearly drawn from stereotype. Poor Fred Clark, once again cast as the easily befuddled and stiff-britches baddie. Yet, even Clark stands in relief to the other men in this piece; Patric Knowles and Roger Smith milquetoast and nondescript as cardboard cutouts get, while Willard Waterman’s Claude Upson is as rather heavy-handed boor meant strictly for comic relief. This leaves the heavy lifting to Jan Handzlik’s boyhood incarnation of Patrick Dennis (quite effective on all accounts) and Robin Hughes spoilt sponge, O’Bannion (less successful on all accounts).
We should pause a moment here in praise of Morton DaCosta’s invested theatricality, retaining a certain fidelity to the stage while expanding upon the requirements of a big and splashy 1950’s movie; the fable retold in Technirama and Technicolor, periodically isolating actors in frame with a camera iris effect that adds visual punch to the transitional periods in the narrative timeline. Auntie Mame is really more of a ‘show’ than a movie; DaCosta’s direction creating a visual feast that never underplays its artifice for art, ably assisted by cinematographer extraordinaire, Harry Stradling Sr. whose list of masterpieces in color include My Fair Lady (1964), Funny Girl (1968) and Hello Dolly! (1969). In some ways Auntie Mame has the look and vibrancy of a big-budgeted Hollywood musical without the essential ingredient – the music – herein, seeming quite nonessential because of Roz Russell’s animated performance. Finally, there is Bronislau Kaper’s enthusiastically ‘ole school’ underscore to reconsider; full of the necessary pizzazz to keep all of the balls in Mame Dennis’ juggling act in play. From the bombastic overture, married to a kaleidoscopic main title sequence, right down to the unusually poignant ‘love theme’ – ironically written for Mame and Patrick – not Mame and any one of her lovers or husbands – Kaper’s underscore achieves a sort of fizzy flight into fancy with periodic respites that become more gentle and heartfelt by direct comparison. In tandem, Kaper captures Mame’s joie de vivre, yet also her bountiful heart; a commodity that most ironically lacks in the musical version; perhaps, jettisoned to favor the Broadway’s show-stopping razzamatazz. In the final analysis, there is only one Auntie Mame. And Lady, thy name is Roz Russell.
For some time now there have been rumors the Warner Archive (WAC) is endeavoring to bring Auntie Mame to Blu-ray. We would sincerely champion the effort. Frankly, it’s about time. Warner Home Video’s DVD is not bad. But Technirama was made for hi-def; a superior anamorphic system of photography and projection utilizing two curved prisms as image-squeezing adapters for their 3-strip cameras already converted to VistaVision, now producing a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with room left for an optical soundtrack when printed directly to 35mm 8-perf film. For now, we remain enamored with the DVD, one of the best looking standard def transfers on the market, filled with eye-popping colors, accurately rendered contrast, and, a light smattering of grain looking very indigenous to its source. The visuals are very clean. It all looks impressive on smaller monitors. So I have no doubt that when WAC finally gets around to remastering and releasing Auntie Mame to Blu-ray the results will astound beyond compare. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is as good as standard def can deliver. But again, it’s high time we get an uncompressed DTS of Bronislau Kaper’s score. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer. Disappointing. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)