Auntie Mame (1958)
Auntie Mame (1958)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 23 min.

Release Date: December 27th, 1958 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Morton DaCosta Actors: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, Patric Knowles, Peggy Cass, Jan Handzlik, Joanna Barnes, Pippa Scott

 


 

C

onservative Chicago businessman Edwin Dennis’ last will and testament bequeaths all his worldly possessions to his young son, Patrick (Jan Handzlik), who is to be brought up by Edwin’s eccentric sister Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell) in New York. Of course, his considerable wealth is supposed to ensure that the off-the-wall relative doesn’t impart too much of her nuttiness while the child is under her supervision. But much to the chagrin of current caretaker Norah Muldoon (Connie Gilchrist) and trustee Dwight Babcock (Fred Clark), Patrick won’t be able to stave off the wild woman’s remarkable influence. “I’m your Auntie Mame!” she bellows in a somewhat startling manner.

“Do you like to weave, dear?” From a dragon-faced door decoration that emanates smoke to a cackling Asian butler to lavish house soirees brimming with distinguished guests (13 cocktail parties in 2 weeks, reminds the maid) to perpetually soused best friend and actress Vera Charles (Coral Browne), Mame’s bohemian household is something of a constant carnival, not unlike the class she sends Patrick off to, which Babcock decries as a “combination nudist camp/opium den.” Eventually, thanks to Mame’s generally unbecoming childrearing tactics, the trustee enrolls Pat in a Christian boarding school, just as the stock market crash of 1929 ravishes the country. Even Mame’s efforts at honest work on the stage, as a switchboard operator, and as a salesgirl fail miserably, threatening to derail her chances at reacquiring meaningful custody of her sweet, encouraging boy.

Although the characters are highly whimsical and terribly unrealistic, the script is delightfully witty and fast-paced (moving so quickly, in fact, that months fly by, making it difficult to sort out the exact amount of passing time). And it’s also pleasantly sentimental, primarily with Mame’s unsinkable vivaciousness and chirpiness in the face of financial adversity. Of course, the Great Depression isn’t much of a conflict, since Mame is able to keep her palatial apartment and her servants; plus, a prominent plot point involves the procurement of a wealthy gentleman to solve all her problems, here taking the form of southern oilman Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker).

As Mame struggles to win approval from Beauregard’s relatives and fend off sabotage from a competing suitor (or suitress), the film maintains its lighthearted approach to familial complications, routinely engaging in slapstick shenanigans and favoring sprightly, exotic vacationing to any hint of sensible strife. Curiously enough, even minor (or major) speed-bumps in her life are presented with capriciousness and insincerity. And they’re oftentimes brushed aside for further misadventures with new roles, seemingly abandoning the relationship between aunt and nephew in favor of maturer flings. But it’s Mame and Patrick’s interactions that are most important to the picture’s significance (and lend to the most touching moment, when a line from a play is repeated, after several years have transformed little Patrick into a young adult).

Strangely, the story keeps shifting around from place to place and event to event, appearing as if the plot is made up on the spot; the film feels comprised of an improvisational, unorthodox series of vignettes (as curious as the stagelike spotlights that signal bizarre fades into the next sequence). This aligns with Mame’s character, who starts as quite the entertaining persona, before her irreverent, energetic, party-going days come to a halt to contend with a grown-up Patrick (Roger Smith) and his college-girl love interest. Virtually everyone is an over-the-top caricature, like a procession of variations on “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Fortunately, despite a momentary respite from the frivolities, Mame’s final mission is to ensure that the meeting between merry, avant-garde adventurism and disagreeable conservatism is a tremendous clash, with a hint of the tumultuous revelations from “Dinner at Eight.” Though the runtime is far too long and the gags are never laugh-out-loud funny, Russell is simply perfect as the kooky mentor keen on disrupting normalcy and injecting carefree spontaneity into every situation; were it not for her agreeable portrayal and comic timing, “Auntie Mame” would be entirely forgettable.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10