Auntie Mame, 1958, Warner Bros. Starring Rosalind Russell, Patric Knowles, Forrest Tucker. Directed by Morton DaCosta. Technicolor, 143 minutes.
Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell) is a flamboyant, worldly woman living a full life in 1929 Manhattan. She suddenly finds herself guardian of her nephew, Patrick (Jan Handzlik), the son of Mame’s conservative, disapproving brother, who dies suddenly after appointing Patrick to her care in his will. Mame embraces the boy with both her arms and her heart, and the adventure begins.
Despite strict directions regarding Patrick’s education, Mame enrolls him in a progresive school in which the students attend class sans clothing and enact such scenarios as fish mating. This is met with strong disapproval by the man in charge of Patrick’s finances, who insists the boy attend a traditional boarding school to avoid Mame’s influence.
A heartbroken Mame soon encounters other difficulties. The stock market has crashed and her fortune has disappeared. She goes back to work at a department store, and there meets Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker). Beau’s fortune is in oil and hasn’t been affected by the Depression, and Mame’s interest in him is genuine. Soon the two are married.
In the meantime, Patrick is growing up, and Mame fears the influence of his boarding school may change the little boy she taught to make martinis and expand his vocabulary.
Mame Dennis is the role for which Russell ultimately became most closely associated with, and her performance justified it. She portrayed a strong woman who is at the same time vulnerable and endearing. Interestingly, Russell’s only son was in boarding school during much of the time the play Auntie Mame (on which the film is based) was on Broadway and into the production of the movie. Russell herself was far more conservative than her character, but that didn’t harm her ability to play the exuberant and vibrant character with such flair.
It was hoped by a struggling Warner Bros. studio that Auntie Mame would lift them out of their dire financial straits, and the film delivered. While closely following the play’s script, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green added enough special touches to keep the film from being strictly a play on screen. Still, the transitions read very much like those on stage; that is perhaps the greatest fault of the movie.
While it would seem natural for the actress who shaped a character on stage to automatically be considered for the film, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, at one point Warner Bros. considered Eve Arden for the role, but they didn’t go too far in their consideration. Russell still had enough box office draw to star in the studio’s hottest commodity.
Auntie Mame was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Russell, but won none. It was also the top grossing film of 1958.
This is a fun film, and thank goodness it was filmed in Technicolor, as black-and-white would have done it no justice. Mame’s splashy persona had to be highlighted with all the color available, and indeed it was. Nothing less for the woman who proclaimed, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”