Monday, February 6, 2017

everyone's favorite auntie

   Auntie Mame. [videorecording (DVD)]. Warner Bros. Pictures presents; screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; directed by Morton DaCosta. From the novel, Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis, as adapted for the stage by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Originally released as a motion picture in 1958.
   Director of photography, Harry Stradling, Sr.; art director, Malcolm Bert; film editor, William Ziegler; set decorator, George James Hopkins; costumes designed by Orry-Kelly; music by Bronislau Kaper. Performers: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, Patric Knowles, Peggy Cass, Jan Handzlik, Joanna Barnes, Pippa Scott, Lee Patrick, Willard Waterman, Robin Hughes, Connie Gilchrist, Yuki Shimoda, Brook Byron, Carol Veazie.
   Summary: In 1928, a 10-year-old boy goes to New York to live with his eccentric, sophisticated Auntie Mame, a lady who throws a party for any occasion, or non-occasion. He grows up and brings home his fiancée and her parents, and Mame finds them uninteresting and snobbish.


style ****
substance ****


A recent viewing, my first ever, of Auntie Mame provided me with one of those magical moments in a cinema buff’s life. This is a movie that’s a complete joy start to finish, and moreover strikes an emotional chord in a very personal way. And how well it’s aged!

By 1958 American culture and society was simmering with a liberal gestalt that would boil over in the Sixties, and the time was ripe for a (relatively) no-holds-barred cinematic treatment of the play that was a recent smash hit on Broadway. The attitudes in the film version of Auntie Mame are actually more Thirties (i.e. pre-Code-ish) than Fifties, and the script and situations get away with a lot of risqué/un-pc material, at least by the standards of the era. Then again, while the Fifties were more repressed than our own times, they were also less pc.


So much of the dialogue still sparkles today, especially when combined with the flawless delivery and timing. Indeed the zingers come so fast and frequent that they reveal themselves only upon repeated viewings. Maybe it has something to do with the story being set mostly in the Twenties and Thirties: those eras, like fine wine, become mellower and better as they age, certainly more so than, say, the Sixties and Seventies, which haven’t aged very gracefully. Continuing the thought, it occurs to me that Auntie Mame is basically a pre-Code movie made in 1958, i.e. all the stylistic trappings of 1950s films but with story line, snappy dialogue and worldly wise-characters that are pure early Thirties.


And true to the film's pre-Code, proletarian spirit, Mame’s character is socially, and, by implication, politically liberal. This is conveyed primarily through her zesty one-liners and verbal comebacks, which she delivers with considerable aplomb. But, curiously, for all the progressive overlay, politics per se doesn’t figure a whit in Auntie Mame. And while it's undeniable that Mame Dennis is more style than substance (and as a result wealth becomes her a lot better than poverty), when the style is this warm-hearted and honest in its, well, stylishness, how can we complain?

Indeed, the sheer force of Mame's personality is such that it obscures her positive, substantive qualities: generosity, tolerance, open-mindedness, sense of adventure, and perhaps most of all, impatience with pretense, snobbery and prejudice.


The above commentary notwithstanding, somehow I always think of Auntie Mame as a musical without musical numbers, probably due to its high gloss look (especially Orry-Kelly’s splendiferous costumes) and Bronislau Kaper’s by turns frothy and sentimental score. And while the film has a widescreen, plush look so typical of the era, suggesting MGM or Fox, it was actually produced, and only rightly so, by Warners, the most pre-Code-ish studio of them all.

A few quibbles: yes, Auntie Mame is overlong, by about fifteen minutes, and for me the first half of the film bubbles with a tastier bouquet than the second. But more important, what happened to World War II? Auntie Mame starts in 1928 then quickly progresses to the crash in 1929, after which the chronology gets murky. Anyhow we jump to 1946 and it’s as though the war didn’t exist, a fussy observation perhaps but I found the disconnect distracting. My only other mild reservation is that for all its flourishes Auntie Mame is at heart very talky, and very stagey, gloriously so, but in the end little more than a filmed play. Or, if you like, a series of (mostly wonderful) set pieces, all dominated by the larger-than-life character of Mame herself.


Another minor, and purely packaging, criticism: the DVD print is beautiful to look at – all those sets and costumes are totally scrumptious – but the disk is skimpy on bonus features. You’d think a film as important as Auntie Mame merits the deluxe edition treatment with commentary, featurette, interviews, etc. Maybe Criterion can be persuaded to release it in the future.

It would be an understatement to say this is Rosalind Russell’s signature role. I’ll invoke the tired cliché: this was the character – and what a character! – she was born to play. She projects with incomparable panache all of Mame’s exuberantly flamboyant glory. However – the supporting performances are wonderful too. I’m especially partial to Joanna Barnes's empty-headed socialite, and even more so, Coral Browne’s alcoholic diva, who’s just as over-the-top as Mame herself and matches her quip for quip. The only misfire among the secondary players is Peggy Cass as Miss Gooch, both the character and the performance.


In sum, Auntie Mame is an always welcome dose of joie-de-vivre and feel good energy. In those times when I'm feeling down or have a world-is-too-much feeling, I play the DVD, or conjure up the memory, and revel in the film’s generous, warm-hearted glory. And for a time, the world is a happy place again.

Further reading:
Les Fabian Brathwaite, Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — Auntie Mame
Richard Tyler Jordan, But darling, I'm your Auntie Mame! : the amazing history of the world's favorite aunt, Kensington Books, c2004.
Eric Meyers, Uncle Mame : the life of Patrick Dennis, St. Martin’s, 2000.