Monday, March 12, 2012

Why "Auntie Mame" Matters

I remember the first time I saw Rosalind Russell give that dynamic, memorable performance as Auntie Mame.  The 1958 Warner Brothers comedy aired on KHJ TV/Channel 9, an independent station in Los Angeles.  I think it was the Sunday "Million Dollar Movie" one night those many years ago when I was a youngster.  Sundays were a family night for TV in our South Central L.A. household back then.  Watching my mother react to Auntie Mame was as much fun as the movie itself.  Mom hit high notes of laughter watching it.  She laughed like my little sister and I did watching Saturday morning cartoons.  Then, during a heartwarming scene with Mame and little Patrick, Mom had sentimental tears running down her cheeks.  I probably don't have to tell you that Auntie Mame is one of my favorite feel-good classic comedies today.  Like mother, like son.  In  this film history piece of mine, it's my opinion that this fabulous Rosalind Russell character is far more substantial that simply being "madcap."  She's a loving family member who opens her arms wide to embrace diversity.
This really occurred to me during the George W. Bush administration.  I needed a mental pick-me-up one day and rented the DVD.  Rosalind Russell's Auntie Mame seemed fresh, vital and relevant in that age of a changed America with its culture wars here and post-9/11 military wars overseas.  Look at the first time we meet Auntie Mame.  She's throwing a festive cocktail party at her New York City penthouse.  Notice the ethnic, geographical and sexual diversity of her guests.
Asian Indians, Arabs, Russians, lesbians, nudists.  Had Mame Dennis tossed a Manhattan soirĂ©e like that in 2004, half those folks would've been profiled by Homeland Security.
Mame's late brother was a starchy conservative Chicago stockbroker.  Apparently, he was a single parent who didn't spend much quality time parenting.  His little son, Patrick, will now live with his liberal, lively and unmarried aunt who takes an interest in all sorts of things and all sorts of people.  Especially Patrick.  Giving Mame moral support in her new responsibilities as Patrick's guardian is her best friend, noted actress Vera Charles.  Vera loves the stage.  Vera loves cocktails.  Vera loves her best friend.  Vera loves when her best friend has cocktail parties.  There's always a room for Auntie Vera to "sleep it off."
This was a movie friendship that really tickled my mother.  She loved that delicious, wickedly sophisticated banter between those two longtime bosom buddies.  Mom had a friend she traded snappy lines like that with in her life.  My Auntie Jean was Mom's roommate in nursing college.  Auntie Jean was Mom's best friend.  Mom would get on the phone with her and laugh so hard that she'd cry.  Jean Garcia and my mother graduated from nursing school together.  Both became registered nurses.  Both married and had first-born sons.  Both divorced and became single working mothers.  One year, Auntie Jean sent Mom a big schmaltzy Christmas card with a traditional drawing of the Virgin Mother and Child on it.  Inside, under card's printed wishes, Auntie Jean wrote "Pray for man..."  Under that she wrote in parentheses "turn card over."  On the back of card, she wrote "...a man for you and a man for me."  Peels of laughter from Mom.  I loved Auntie Jean.  In Auntie Mame, we see great chemistry between Coral Browne as Vera and Roz Russell as Mame.  It's as if those two were born to play those roles.
When I hear Auntie Mame constantly described as "madcap," it seems to imply that she's a slightly and lovable lady who lives for solely for upscale fun, fun, fun.  There is depth to her.  She supports the fine arts and new voices in the arts.  Her nemesis, Dwight Babcock of the Knickerbocker Bank, is the kind of person who'd work to have funding withdrawn from the arts if they didn't conform to a certain conservative agenda.  Mame is well-read.  She's not a ditz.  When she stands up to Dwight and calls him "Mr. Babbit" instead of "Mr. Babcock," that's very revealing.  It's a reference to the Sinclair Lewis novel, Babbitt, about a shallow, materialistic and conservative Midwesterner.  Dwight doesn't even get the pointed cultural jab.
Does Dwight Babcock treat a minority with respect?  No way.  He's rude to the Japanese butler, Ito.  To Mame, Ito isn't just the help.  Ito's a dear friend of the family.  Later, Mame will deal with two of Mr. Babcock's friends -- an anti-Semitic couple of boneheads called The Upsons.
Again we hear and see Mame's intelligence and how she takes action to shoot down bigotry and intolerance.  Grown up Patrick is dating vacuous Gloria Upson, their daughter.  Mame, now a wealthy widow, sees what The Upsons' greedy intentions -- in cahoots with Dwight Babcock -- really are.  Patrick doesn't.  The conservative Knickerbocker Bank wants to marry into Mame's money.  When aunt and nephew have a short spat, she apologizes by telling Patrick she loves him so much she'd join the DAR to prove it.  That's Daughters of the American Revolution.  In 1939, famed African-American opera singer Marian Anderson wanted to sing in Washington, DC's Constitution Hall.  The DAR wouldn't allow it because of a "whites only" rule for performers.  This made national headlines.  In defiance of the DAR's segregation, Anderson sang her recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with a huge President Lincoln seated behind her. An estimated 75,000 showed up to hear her.  Millions listened to her live on the radio.  Marian Anderson had the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.  (A clip of Anderson's historical performance can be found on YouTube.)  Yes, Auntie Mame embraces diversity and stands up for Civil Rights.  She takes action in a stylishly subversive way.
She's a great parental figure.  Patrick's dad didn't spend much time with him but Patrick becomes the most important thing in Auntie Mame's world.  She can lose her money in the Depression.  Just as long as she doesn't lose Patrick.  She's really clueless in the workplace but she's willing to take on any kind of ordinary job to take care of her little nephew.
The Christmastime scenes when she's flat broke and out of work show that the affection she has is mutual.  Patrick loves her, Ito and Nora (her domestic staffers) love her.  To Mame, this is Chosen Family.  Did any maid in The Help get a Christmas gift from her employer?  No.  Nora and Ito get gifts from Mame.
Mame's good karma comes back on her.  A wealthy hunk o' Southern prime beef falls in love with her.  She falls for him too.  We know that she'd have fallen for Beau even if he wasn't wealthy.  She does, however, have to leap over an obstacle course of his assorted Southern friends and relatives on her way to the altar.  Auntie Mame is a character we either wish we had in our lives or wish we were.  Wouldn't it be terrific to "Live! Live! Live!" the way she joyously orders repressed Agnes Gooch to do?  "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"  What a great line.  What a great performance.  Betty Comden & Adolph Green (The Band Wagon, On The Town, Singin' in the Rain) adapted the Broadway hit, based on a best-selling novel of the same name, into a screenplay.
Russell expertly and easily glides from giving you screwball comedy laughs one moment and then touching your heart the next.  Rosalind Russell was a film star since the 1930s.
She hit her stride with a high comic turn as the catty Sylvia Fowler in 1939's The Women.  Then she became the ultimate independent career girl who was often "the best man for the job" in 1940s comedies like His Girl Friday, My Sister Eileen, She Wouldn't Say Yes and Take a Letter, Darling. She also did Oscar-nominated dramatic work in a film version of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra.  She racked up a previous Best Actress Oscar nomination for My Sister Eileen then went on to have a stage hit when she reprised that role on Broadway.  My Sister Eileen  became the hit Broadway musical Wonderful Town.  When Russell was reprising her hit Broadway role as Auntie Mame for the big screen, she was about 50.  That is one energetic, charismatic acting job.  She seems to be in motion even when she's standing still.  How many good actresses of 50...or even 40...are getting witty, wonderful lead roles in Hollywood comedies like that today?  Auntie Mame was a box office hit that garnered six Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.  Peggy Cass scored a nomination for repeating her Broadway role as drab Agnes Gooch, a young stenographer desperately in need of a fashion makeover.  And a life.
Hollywood used to have more respect for comedies.  Not so much now.  The Academy doesn't seem to realize that comedy is hard work.  That's why so many of us cheered when Melissa McCarthy scored an Oscar nomination for her sweetly bawdy work as one of the Bridesmaids.  After 1958's Auntie Mame, it would be well into the 1970s before another comedy would earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.  That would be 1977's The Goodbye Girl with Marsha Mason and Quinn Cummings as the precocious daughter to the unemployed actress.
Auntie Mame is tasty eye-candy.  The art direction, set designs and cinematography are rich.  As for the costumes, all those young contestants on fashion designer reality show competitions should really pay attention to this champagne comedy and take notes on everything Orry-Kelly created for Rosalind Russell to wear.
 Young actresses should study her strong performance and see the depth she gives to this screwball comedy character.  It's masterful.  Longtime fans of this film should watch it again and notice that Auntie Mame is not just madcap.  She champions diversity, equality, family love and the fine arts.  She helps poor children.  Cheers, Auntie Mame!

2 comments:

  1. I have loved Auntie Mame since I was a little girl. She enthralled me (knowing that she was based on a real person) and being so free, loving, and embracing adventure so easily. Enjoyed reading your post and I think I'll pull the DVD off the shelf and watch it this weekend!

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  2. I love her haircut so much I just printed off the last picture and took it to my haircutter. "Make me look like this: Classy!" Would that I could be as beautiful as the great Rosalind Russell, and you aren't kidding about the fashion statement she made in this film. Park Avenue all the way!

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