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CMBA FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 50’s BLOGATHON: Auntie Mame (1958)

 

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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!

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The Dueling Divas of “The Women” (1939)

Some of the most entertaining duels ever depicted onscreen are concentrated in one single film. The Women (1939), directed by George Cukor and starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, and Paulette Goddard, is one of the most well-loved comedies of all time, and much of the acclaim it has received is due to the unique relationships the characters have with each other, and the complex web of competition that occurs among nearly every character with nearly every other.

The Women presents an unprecedented experiment with regard to casting a film, and in regard to the relationships between the characters. Based on the Broadway hit by Clare Boothe Luce, the tagline reads “The Women: It’s all about the men!” Indeed, the women in the film talk so much about their husbands, it may take a while for the viewer to recognize that something is missing. The husbands, when they are heard from, are always either spoken to over the phone or send their communication through letters. True to the Broadway show, the MGM casting department went to great lengths to ensure that every member of the cast was female. From the extras to the photographs to even the animals, there is not one male in the cast of 130 that makes up The Women.

Though a completely feminine picture, and very progressive in its treatment of divorce and extramarital affairs, The Women is still very much a movie made under the code. All divorces are eventually dissolved, and the “wayward” women are punished. Nonetheless, the code strangely holds this film together, leading to a tight finish and no problem unresolved. When the movie was remade in 2008, the filmmakers made an effort to make it more politically correct, liberated, and feminist, which ruined the story and led the film to be universally panned by critics. There is truly nothing like this original version of The Women, a hilarious story of friendship, competition, and gossip among society women.

There is a tightly woven network of duels in this movie, and the plot comes together through exploration of who is dueling with whom! I will list all the main characters here, and then delve into the duels.

  • Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) wife of Stephen Haines
  • Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), wife of Howard Fowler, cousin of Mary Haines
  • Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), perfume counter saleswoman, mistress of Stephen Haines and Buck Winston
  • Edith Potter, wife of Phelps Potter
  • Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), mistress of Howard Fowler
  • Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine), wife of John Day
  • The Countess de Lave (Mary Boland), married multiple times, currently involved with Buck Winston
  • Little Mary (Virginia Weidler), Mary and Stephen’s daughter

MARY HAINES vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

While having her nails done, Mary’s cousin Sylvia Fowler learns of the infidelity of Mary’s husband. The mistress is a perfume counter saleswoman named Crystal Allen, and Sylvia immediately takes action by telling Mary to get her nails done with the same woman, so she can hear the story for herself. Mary does that, and upon learning the story, she decides to largely ignore it. Sylvia, however, will do nothing of the kind. Due to her meddling, Mary and Crystal square off when they meet at the fashion show in the middle of the film. Pay special attention to the racy and clever dialogue.

It finally becomes clear that Mary is going to need to get a divorce from Stephen, as Crystal will not give him up.

PEGGY DAY vs. SYLVIA FOWLER

The sweet and shy Peggy Day finally gets fed up with Sylvia’s meddling in Mary Haines’ business, and after a scene at the gym with Edith and Sylvia in which the women gossip about the situation, Peggy complains to Edith that Sylvia is a “dreadful woman” and vows to tell her so. Edith convinces her not to, because it’s just Sylvia’s bad luck that Sylvia ” wasn’t born deaf and dumb.” The clash between Peggy and Sylvia continues through the rest of the movie, though Peggy’s shy demeanor prevents her from making it into an issue.

Peggy’s personality is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, she is very shy and unassuming, but on the other hand, she resents her husband for not letting her spend her own money. Eventually this becomes too much, and she ends up in Reno with Mary.

MIRIAM AARONS vs. SYLVIA FOWLER

On the train to Reno for her divorce, Mary Haines meets two women going to Reno for the same reason. One of them is the Countess de Lave, an exuberant multiple-time divorcee who nonetheless claims to believe in love by proclaiming “L’amour!” after nearly every sentence. She is intent on marrying Buck Winston, a singing cowboy and radio star with a popular show. The other woman is Miriam Aarons, a former chorus girl going to Reno for her first divorce.

Meanwhile, Sylvia finally gets a taste of her own medicine when she finds out about her own husband’s infidelity. She surprises Mary and Peggy with her own arrival to Reno. Shortly before Sylvia’s arrival, Miriam shared a secret with the Countess–she has been having an affair with Howard Fowler. Miriam does not know Sylvia, and it is a major surprise when Sylvia arrives and they are introduced.

Sylvia gets an article in the mail that shows with whom Howard has been having an affair, recognizes the name of Miriam Aarons. An all-out catfight ensues.

LITTLE MARY vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

While in Reno, Mary finds out that Stephen has married Crystal. Little Mary, Mary’s daughter, does not like Crystal, but is civil to her because Mary has told her to be kind to Crystal. Crystal clearly is not the mothering type, and barely tolerates Little Mary. There is a confrontation between them where Crystal is on the phone in the bathtub with a mysterious man, and Little Mary becomes suspicious and eventually tells her mother.

SYLVIA FOWLER vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

Sylvia and Crystal, who have become chummy, meet minutes after Crystal’s confrontation with Little Mary in the bathtub. Sylvia answers the phone when it rings, and it turns out to be the cowboy radio star Buck Winston. Crystal has been having an affair with the fiancé of the Countess de Lave.

By now, Little Mary has told her mother about the mysterious man, and with this newly found information about Crystal’s affair, Mary decides to take the initiative in getting Stephen back. She dresses for a party occurring that evening that Stephen and all the rest of the ladies are attending, and begins her recapture of her husband.

At the party, Mary tricks Sylvia into spilling the beans that Crystal is having an affair with Buck Winston, and thereby sets the ball rolling toward the end.

THE COUNTESS DE LAVE vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

Also at the party, Buck Winston publicly declares his love for Crystal Allen. The Countess is humiliated, and Crystal goes for the jugular, implying that she is only after his money. The Countess reveals that all his money is gone, and that SHE is the sponsor of his popular radio show. Crystal is defeated, and her final line of the movie is:

“Well girls, I guess it’s back to the perfume counter for me. And by the way, there’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society…outside of a kennel. So long, ladies!”

The movie ends with Mary running back to Stephen with arms outstretched.

Director George Cukor is magnificent in channeling all these feuds into fun and creative scenes. Though there is some serious dueling in the film, the sharpness of the script and slapstick humor keeps the audience entertained and keeps the film from getting too mean.

The Women remains one of the best films of that marvelous year of 1939, and one of the best comedies of all time, thanks to the brilliant performances by the actresses involved and the unparalleled directing of George Cukor.

Today is the final day of the Dueling Divas Blogathon! Be sure to check out all the entries here. Thanks for reading and a special thanks to those who contributed their hard work to this year’s blogathon. I can’t wait for next year!

Dueling Divas 2012