Hello again readers, it is a rare occasion when I make two posts in a single day, but in addition to being Memorial Day (necessitating my post about the Hollywood Canteen this morning), today is the last day of the CMBA Fabulous Films of the 50s Blogathon and I am signed up to cover one of my favorite films of all time. Far be it for me to pass up a chance to talk about Auntie Mame, so I am writing my second post of the day and I can’t wait.

Auntie Mame is a unique piece of art. More than just a film, it is a beautiful character study, a celebration of eccentricity and love of life. Mame Dennis is a true bon vivant, a woman who is so in love with life that it sometimes causes her trouble. She is also sublimely affectionate, maternal, and caring, traits that are seemingly the antithesis of what Mame Dennis stands for, but ones that strangely fit her character. Though Mame does get married, romantic love does not drive the plot. Instead, it centers around loving life, celebrating all that it has to offer.

The original novel of Auntie Mame was written by Patrick Dennis in 1955, and was based on the eccentricities of his much beloved aunt, Marion Tanner. Tanner was known around New York for her red brick house at 72 Bank Street, which often served as a haven for radicals, struggling artists, and other Bohemian personalities. Much like Auntie Mame and her home at 3 Beekman Place, Marion Tanner welcomed strangers into her home for parties and a safe haven, a practice that very much worried her nephew. When he wrote Auntie Mame, she delighted in the comparison, and often brought it up in conversation with guests at her endless parties.

Rosalind Russell, the stage and film star who would ultimately become Auntie Mame’s first and most highly respected interpreter, had her own connection to the character. Shortly before its publication, Russell was sent a copy of the book by the author. When she picked it up to read, she could hardly believe what she was reading. “It’s the Duchess,” she said to her husband, “Someone has written the Duchess.” “The Duchess” was the name that the Russell family had given to Rosalind’s older sister Clara. A stylish, larger-than-life character who knew and loved everyone of importance, Clara gave off an air of royalty that spurred the nickname. For Russell, this character was simply a fictionalized version of the sister she knew and loved so well. The book took on a further significance for Russell in that Clara had died too young of a stroke not long before, and the story brought back a flood of memories that were hard to shake. After the book was published and she was asked to do Auntie Mame on Broadway, she immediately agreed, basing her interpretation on the character traits of her sister.

Rosalind Russell as a child (bottom right) with her siblings. Clara is at the top with the large bow.

The show ran for 639 performances from October 31, 1956 to June 28, 1958. Rosalind Russell and Peggy Cass were nominated for Tony Awards, and Peggy Cass won for her portrayal of frumpy assistant Agnes Gooch. Warner Bros. latched onto the idea of a film, with Russell and Cass reprising their roles, and the film was released in December of 1958. Several other cast members of the original Broadway show appeared in the film, including Jan Handzlik, the boy who played Patrick.

The plot of the movie is not particularly important–it is a character-driven narrative that puts emphasis on celebrating individuality. A young boy, Patrick, is sent to live with his eccentric aunt after his father dies, leaving him an orphan. He arrives at the door of 3 Beekman Place, to find his Auntie Mame giving a wild party–having forgotten that her nephew was supposed to arrive that day. But she welcomes him with open arms, and immediately takes him under her wing as her surrogate son. Complicating matters is Mr. Babcock, the representative from the Knickerbocker Bank that Patrick’s father assigned to make sure “that crazy sister of mine doesn’t do anything too goddamned eccentric.” Mame and Mr. Babcock don’t agree on how to raise Patrick, but ultimately Mr. Babcock has the upper hand and sends Patrick to elite, snobbish private schools, turning him into one of the snobs that Mame detests. At school he falls in love with Gloria Upson, an empty-headed, vapid, country club girl that he intends on marrying. Mame objects to Patrick marrying a girl with “braces on her brains,” but instead of telling him that outright, she hosts a family dinner for the girl’s conservative parents in which she lets her eccentricity out in full force. The girl and her parents are deeply offended, and leave in a huff. Patrick sees that they are unwilling to accept how he was raised, and he reverts back to being the loving nephew of his loving Auntie Mame.

The movie is quite long, covering the period from the 1920s through the end of the Depression as well as Mame’s marriage to her husband Mr. Burnside and her eventual widowhood, but the charming and delightful characters make the time rush by. Rosalind Russell is undoubtedly the star of the show, but there are great performances by many members of the supporting cast. Peggy Cass repeats her Tony-winning performance and gives a hilarious interpretation of Agnes Gooch, the assistant who ends up pregnant out of wedlock (or is she?), and the actors who play Gloria’s conservative parents are fantastic. Adding to the show-stealing performances is the marvelous Joanna Barnes, who has a gift for playing rather unlikable characters to perfection. Here is one of my favorite scenes from the movie.

Director Morton Da Costa was known for being a master of the “in” shot, a method of focusing in on the character at the end of a scene by spotlighting the face while fading the rest of the scenery to black. The technique undoubtedly comes from Da Costa’s years in the theatre scene, as the effect is very theatrical and unusual for film. This was used very nicely in many scenes in Auntie Mame, as well as in another Da Costa triumph, The Music Man, four years later.

Shirley Jones in The Music Man (1962). At the end of the video, watch for Da Costa’s signature “in” shot.

Auntie Mame received wide critical acclaim upon its release. Rosalind Russell and Peggy Cass were both nominated for Oscars, and Rosalind Russell won a Golden Globe for her performance. The film was additionally nominated for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing at the Oscars.

The film’s opening theme.

As for Marion Tanner, the basis for Auntie Mame, she saw the film’s release and lived a very long and full life for a long time afterward. Sadly, she and her nephew had a falling out due to worries about her carefree lifestyle, and they spoke rarely in her later years. She died in 1985 at the age of 94, and never lost her enthusiasm for life. “I do believe in people, you know,” she liked to say.

Thanks for reading!


14 responses to “CMBA FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 50’s BLOGATHON: Auntie Mame (1958)

  1. I love absolutely everything about this movie, especially Rosalind Russell. (She has the best accessories of anyone in film, doesn’t she?) I was really intrigued to learn more of the background info, especially her modelling the character on her sister.

    Thanks for giving us such a wonderful review. I’ve gotta see this again soon!

  2. You’re very welcome! I absolutely love everything about this movie too. It really is one of my all-time favorites. And boy, does she ever have great accessories! Thanks for reading!

  3. Enjoyed your lovely and affectionate post and really liked all the background info to the film – amazing that two real-life people could fit the Auntie Mame character! I think Russell should have won the Oscar for her performance. Her Mame is indelible, she sets the archetype for the character. Thanks for such an informative post.

  4. What a lovely comment! I find it interesting too, that there were basically 2 Auntie Mames–the one Patrick Dennis wrote after his aunt, and the one Rosalind Russell created after her sister. I agree that she should have won the Oscar. She seemed like she was enjoying herself so much playing that role!

  5. Susan Reynolds

    This was my introduction to the wonderful Rosalind Russell, and she just about blew the tubes out of my television! Thanks for this reminder of Roz and the scrumptious women who were Mame.

  6. Marvelous post! I love that you call out Joanna Barnes; she’s just “ghastly!” Thank you for reminding me that I really like this movie.

  7. I love this film, and Roz is the superlative Mame. I like that you brought up this: “Director Morton Da Costa was known for being a master of the “in” shot, a method of focusing in on the character at the end of a scene by spotlighting the face while fading the rest of the scenery to black.” This is one feature of Da Costa’s treatment of this film, and indeed, MUSIC MAN, that I really love because it pointedly, in a loving tribute and showy fashion reflects the theatrical roots of both shows. At the end of MUSIC MAN, we even have a curtain call of sorts. Great post, thanks.

  8. I love his “in” shots too. Gorgeous, and definitely from his years in the theatre. Thanks for your nice words!

  9. She is! I also love her in THE PARENT TRAP. She plays those unlikable characters so well–and that probably means that in real life she’s a terrific person! I think it takes a likable person to play an unlikable character (not to mention a great actor!) 🙂

  10. Wonderful! I love that there was a personal connection there for Russell in the role… there’s something totally special and vibrant about her performance that makes so much sense now. And that baby Roz photo is TOO. CUTE. Great spotlight on a great story!

  11. Mame is one of my favorite films — as was the book by Patrick Dennis. Russell is perfection in the role of Mame — madcap, witty, charming, touching — all of the things that someone needed to be when performing the role of Mame Dennis.
    Thanks for the photo of her and her siblings and the background on her connection to the character of Mame.

  12. Mine too! She seemed to be made for that role. And isn’t that a beautiful photo?

    By the way, I love that your name is Amanda Bonner–Katharine Hepburn’s character’s name in ADAM’S RIB!

  13. Marty Freedman

    Thanks Lara – I love this film. I especially like when Mame passes the foxes. Marty

  14. I can’t imagine anyone not LOVING “Auntie Mame,” I certainly do. God knows how many times I’ve watched it (talk about a “sparkling comedy’). And it is Roz Russell’s defining role. Learned much from your piece that I didn’t know, Lara, and enjoyed every word.

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