Tag Archives: vintage hollywood

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!

The Hollywood Canteen

Servicemen gather outside the Hollywood Canteen at 1451 Cahuenga blvd. in Hollywood.

 

On this Memorial Day, I would like to pay tribute to an integral part of Hollywood history that relates to the holiday. On October 3, 1942, the Hollywood Canteen opened its doors at 1451 Cahuenga blvd. in Hollywood, with a purpose to provide music, entertainment and food to active service members, completely free of charge. Staffed by volunteer Hollywood celebrities and open to all serving members of the Allied forces–men and women, black and white, from all the allied countries–it was a venture to preserve Allied morale and a method for members of the entertainment industry to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way.

The idea for the canteen came from actor John Garfield, who was inspired to recreate the successful Stage Door Canteen in New York for service members on the West Coast. Unable to serve in the army himself because of a heart problem, he wanted to do something to aid the efforts overseas and sought partnership with fellow actor Bette Davis, who helped set the wheels in motion. Working long hours to get the canteen up and running, Garfield and Davis managed to get the canteen built in less than 1 month, complete with elaborate chandeliers and a giant dance floor.

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Bette Davis installs a chandelier.

Per the rules of the “Hollywood Victory Committee,” established after Pearl Harbor in order to allow actors to volunteer for the war effort without having trouble with the Screen Actors Guild, Davis and Garfield were able to procure volunteers who not only would keep the canteen running smoothly, but would also provide unmatched amusement and entertainment for the patrons of the canteen. Among the frequent volunteers were Rita Hayworth, Deanna Durbin, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, and countless other Hollywood luminaries. Upon the visit of the millionth service member in 1943, the lucky sergeant Carl Bell was brought into the canteen by Marlene Dietrich where he received a kiss from Betty Grable. It was unlike anything most of these servicemen and women had ever seen.

Though the Hollywood Canteen seemed to be a fantasy land in which soldiers could escape from the harsh realities of wartime, its walls were not immune to the difficult social problems of the time. Upon seeing that tables were not segregated at the canteen, many white soldiers opted to leave in lieu of sitting and chatting with fellow service members of African-American descent. Bette Davis, known for her refusal to entertain for segregated audiences, took to the microphone when this happened to explain the policy of the Hollywood Canteen. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did, and should have the same treatment,” she said.

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Bette Davis signs autographs outside the Hollywood Canteen.

In addition, it was at the Hollywood Canteen that a pregnant Gene Tierney was signing autographs when she was approached by a fan who had recently been quarantined for German measles. Tierney contracted the disease, and her daughter was born with severe problems including blindness, deafness, and intellectual disability. Tierney suffered from serious mental anguish and guilt for the rest of her life because of her decision to go to the Hollywood Canteen that night.

In 1944, the canteen was such a famous institution that Warner Bros. decided to make a movie about it. Based loosely on the experiences of Sgt. Bell, it tells the story of two servicemen on leave who spend several nights at the Hollywood Canteen–one of whom becomes the millionth G.I. served and wins a date with Joan Leslie. The movie features so many stars that, according to Variety, “There isn’t a marquee big enough to hold all the names in this one, so how can it miss?” The movie was a smash success, and received 3 Academy Award nominations. 40% of ticket sales went to the real Hollywood Canteen.

The Andrews Sisters in Hollywood Canteen (1944)

The canteen continued even after the war was over, finally closing for good on Thanksgiving Day, 1945. Today, in keeping with corporate lack of appreciation for history, the building has become a parking garage for the building next door. But the legend of the Hollywood Canteen lives on, a true testament to the power of Hollywood to maintain morale and keep spirits up in the most difficult times.

Many of these photos were found over on Karen Noske’s wonderful blog Movie Star Makeover. Go visit it if you have the chance, K is a friend of mine and does a magnificent job with her site.

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Polly of the Circus (1932)

Upon my return from Los Angeles early this morning, I was thrilled to find my Warner Archive titles waiting for me in the mail, thus allowing me to begin my new collaboration with the Warner Archive sooner than I had anticipated. I had initially projected that “Treasures From the Warner Archive” would begin in June, but I don’t see any reason for waiting any longer than necessary. So without further ado, this is the first installment in this series. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a delightful pre-Code, featuring a young Clark Gable and Marion Davies in one of her best roles–it’s a balancing act of love, passion and virtue in Polly of the Circus.

The film begins with a debate about a circus billboard in a small, conservative town as Polly (Marion Davies), the featured act in the circus, is pictured on a billboard wearing only her leotard. This offends the local townspeople and the police insist on her legs being covered, which leads to elaborate drapings over her legs on every billboard in town. Polly objects to this, and takes up her objections with the minister (Clark Gable), who ignores her and the drapings remain. At the opening night of the circus, Polly is heckled by an audience member about the billboards, which causes her to lose her focus and fall 50 feet from the trapeze.

She is gravely injured, and the minister, Mr. Hartley, takes her in to heal her. During her convalescence, Polly and Mr. Hartley fall deeply in love and eventually marry. His uncle, also a minister, objects to her marrying a circus girl, as does the church, and Mr. Hartley is stuck between the woman he loves and the ministry he has spent his whole life training for. He is left with limited options, as divorcing Polly would be a sure way to be excommunicated from the church. Polly, seeing his pain, does the only thing she thinks she can–she leaves him and rejoins the circus. Severely depressed, facing the stunt that left her injured before, she says to her friend “If I’m supposed to make it, I’ll make it.” Just then, Mr. Hartley appears below her, calling to her excitedly. He has chosen to live openly with her. She smiles broadly. “I’ll make it!” she cries, as she pulls off the stunt with perfection. She joins Mr. Hartley at the bottom of the trapeze, as the movie ends.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

I have seen a great many Marion Davies movies, and Polly of the Circus stands as one of my personal favorites. Not only is it a close examination on the timeless issue of it means to be torn between two serious life choices, but it is also a deft and clever pre-Code, with delightfully suggestive dialogue and witty double-entendres. One of my favorite lines of the movie is one in which Mr. Hartley and Polly are getting to know each other, discussing what it means for Mr. Hartley to be a minister. Polly says “Well I suppose even a minister has his moments. But of course your wife would have to sleep in the woodshed…during Lent.”

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Mr. Hartley laughs heartily at this, showing the audience that we all know exactly what she means. It is a movie that doesn’t overpower the audience, but one that leaves a rich aftertaste when the movie is finished.

Polly of the Circus is the first of two movies that Marion Davies did with Clark Gable, and this one is considered the better of the two. In 1934, Cosmopolitan Pictures (the production company with which Marion was affiliated) moved from MGM to Warner Bros., and Marion made 4 movies there before she retired in 1937. Her second-to-last film at Warner Bros. was one entitled Cain and Mabel, one for which Cosmopolitan boss William Randolph Hearst had high hopes. It was a multi-million dollar production, and again teamed Marion Davies and Clark Gable (on loan from MGM), two stars that were almost guaranteed to bring the studio a profit. However, Hearst overestimated the potential of the production, and Cain and Mabel failed to make a profit. It was a terrible blow to the studio, and its failure at the box office is tragic because, in retrospect, it is indeed a fun movie to watch. The Warner Archive has also made Cain and Mabel available on demand, and that is one that I will be reviewing in the future. Stay tuned!

But as much as I love Cain and Mabel, it is Polly of the Circus that is closer to my heart. A beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a circus is a winning combination, and the movie delivers. I am so glad that the Warner Archive has made it available, and that I could talk about it here.

If you would like to order Polly of the Circus, here is the link to its page on the Warner Archive. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment in this series, when I will talk about Barbara Stanwyck in The Woman in Red.

See you next time!