AUNTIE MAME sparkled her way to giggles and glory in 1958, charming moviegoers out of $24,300,000, the year’s third biggest haul. Her wit-driven adventures seduced peers out of six Oscar nominations, including the last of four racked up by its class-act star, Rosalind Russell. Susan Hayward’s stops-pulled guilt-trip in I Want To Live! made off with the golden goodie after four bids of her own, but who wouldn’t rather spend time with Russell’s spicy, life-loving relative than Hayward’s surly, life-squandering criminal? As ‘Mame Dennis’ would proclaim, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” *
Young ‘Patrick Dennis’ (Jan Handzlik, 12), orphaned in 1928, is placed under the flapping wing of his aunt, a freewheeling, progressive-thinking, hard-partying Manhattanite with a circus-load of eccentric friends. Though banker/estate trustee ‘Babcock’ (Fred Clark) is aghast by Mame’s lifestyle, she takes seriously the “education” (via edification) of her nephew. Over the next decade and then some, the boy grows (into Roger Smith, 26) and his madcap but devoted auntie weathers the Crash of ’29 (flailing at odd jobs), globe-trotting marraige to Georgia oil man ‘Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside’ (Forrest Tucker—was there oil in Georgia? never mind), and assorted frolics with characters like her hapless secretary ‘Agnes Gooch’ (Peggy Cass) and grownup Patrick’s V-for-Vapid choice of a fiancée, WASP perma-snob ‘Gloria Upson’ (Joanna Barnes).
Mame’s claim to fame started three years earlier, when in 1955 Edward Everett Tanner III—a.k.a. ‘Patrick Dennis’— published “Auntie Mame: An irreverent escapade”, which rapidly became a huge bestseller, 2,000,000 copies sold, spending 112 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list. As Dennis, he wrote 11 more books, a couple of them best-sellers, and put out four more under the pseudonym Virginia Rowans. A year after the book came out, a play version debuted. Russell starred, 639 performances worth, along with Cass, Handzlik and Yuki Shimoda, who plays ‘Ito’, Mame’s gleefully zealous Japanese houseboy. No doubt the p.c. pukes will take issue with Ito, though we orangutans wonder if might just be possible that Mr. Shimoda possessed a sense of humor…
Morton DaCosta, who’d steered the play, directed & produced the film, with the screenplay written by Betty Comden & Adolph Greene. I recall really enjoying this as a child, and was gratified once-upon-a-rewatch to find that for the most part it holds up quite well, filled with social zingers, double entendres and servings of catnip. A few of the supporting roles suffer: young Handslik is on par with most child actors of the era, Smith is a bit stiff and Shimoda is tasking. But an exasperated Fred Clark was always a pleasure, and it’s nice to see Forrest Tucker get a good comic role (he deserved a stronger career). As the insufferable ‘Claude & Doris Upson’, Willard Waterman and Lee Patrick are a hoot, and Joanna Barnes is priceless as their “top drawer” spawn. Peggy Cass does poor Agnes Gooch to a tee, with just enough pathos to leaven the physical shtick.
They all operate as satellites to the star, who is “simply marvelous, darling”. Roz was 50, reveling in the role of a lifetime. I can’t think of any other actress who could’ve played this better (today it would probably go to Meryl Streep, who actually did a sort of Mame with Florence Foster Jenkins). Current critical parsing tend to favor Russell’s superlative job in His Girl Friday, spitballing verbal rings rings around Cary Grant and a clutch of snarky newsmen, but her elegant, exuberant, esoteric Auntie Mame is just as smart, even funnier, and more endearing. Broad and intimate, cagey and open, motherly and a vamp, all-together Iconic, this is the role she’ll always be best remembered by, hostess without peer, proudly wounded survivor, subversive camp delight. Top drawer.
As with her whims and fancies, Mame’s dig’s decor changes throughout the story, so the palette goes into 1920s Modern, a French style called Syrie Maugham period named for writer Somerset Maugham’s wife, Chinese, English, Danish Modern and East Indian. Malcolm C. Bert arranged that art direction, Orry-Kelly the array of flashy costumes. It kick-starts with kaleidoscope titles by Wayne Fitzgerald (not as famous as Saul Bass, but prolific as heck, with a whopping 454 credits). Besides the Oscar bid for Russell, nominations went up for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Cass), Cinematography, Art Direction and Film Editing.
Lengthy at 143 minutes, and the age timeline for the nephew is out to lunch, but time isn’t the essence here, just fun, with a big heart, all the way. Among the guest list: Coral Browne, Patric Knowles, Robin Hughes, Connie Gilchrist, Pippa Scott, Carol Veazie and Henry Brandon. Margaret Dumont and Dub Taylor have uncredited bit parts.
* The grosses gave Jack L. Warner a Cheshire Cat grin, seeing the $2,240,000 the studio invested ka-ching back 12-fold may have convinced him to bet on Russell again four years later, with a bigger budget, in Gypsy. It was also a hit, although Russell really overplays her stage mama role in that one. Stick with Auntie. This movie was remade in 1974, disastrously, as a musical with Lucille Ball. Stick with Roz.
As boy Patrick, Jan Handzlik had his only film role: he did a Twilight Zone episode, then dropped out of acting and became a highly respected attorney. The older Patrick, Roger Smith, was just starting 6 seasons and 160 episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, and ended up marrying Ann-Margret, so it seems Mame’s live-it-up instructions had legs.