Oh Lord, Auntie Mame.
There were two reasons why I watched the 1958 film Auntie Mame.
First off, as I’ve mentioned before, TCM has been doing their 31 Days of Oscar this month. They’ve been showing a lot of films — both good and bad — that were nominated for best picture. Since it’s long been my goal to see and review every single film that has ever nominated for best picture, I have made it a point to DVR and watch every best picture nominee that has shown up on TCM this month. Auntie Mame was nominated for best picture of 1958 and was broadcast on TCM this month so I really had no choice but to watch it.
My other reason for wanting to see Auntie Mame was because, when I was 19, I was cast in a community theater production of Mame. (Mame, of course, is the musical version of Auntie Mame.) Though everyone who saw the auditions agreed that I should have played the role of Gloria Upson, I was cast in the ensemble. (Gloria was played by the daughter of a friend of the director. Typical community theater politics.) As a member of the ensemble, I didn’t get any lines but I still had fun. In the opening party scene, I dressed up like a flapper and I got to show off my legs. And then in another scene, I was an artist’s model and I got show off my cleavage. (If you don’t use being in the ensemble as an excuse to show off what you’ve got, you’re doing community theater wrong.) Towards the end of the play, I appeared as one of Gloria’s friends and whenever she delivered her lines, I would make sure to have the most over-the-top reactions possible. She may have stolen the part but I stole the scene. It was a lot of fun.
But, even while I was having fun, I have to admit that I didn’t care much for Mame. It was an extremely long and kind of annoying show and there’s only so many times you can listen to someone sing We Need A Little Christmas before you’re tempted to rip out the hair of the actress who stole the role of Gloria Upson from you.
So, when I recently sat down and watched Auntie Mame, I was genuinely curious to see if the story itself worked better without everyone breaking out into song. After all, Auntie Mame was the number one box office hit of 1958, it was nominated for best picture, and it was apparently so beloved that it inspired a musical! There had to be something good about it, right!?
Auntie Mame tells the story of Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell, attempting to be manic and just coming across as hyper) who is rich and quirky and irrepressibly irresponsible. When her brother dies, Mame suddenly finds herself entrusted with raising his son, Patrick (played, as a child, by the charmless Jan Hadzlik and, as an adult, by the stiff Roger Smith). Mame is a wild nonconformist (which I suppose is easy to be when you’ve got as much money as she does) and she tries to teach Patrick to always think for himself. However, once Patrick grows up and decides that he wants to marry snobby Gloria Upson, Mame decides maybe Patrick shouldn’t think for himself and goes out of her way to prevent the wedding.
Auntie Mame is an episodic film that follows Mame as she goes through a series of oppressively zany adventures. When the Great Depression hits, she’s forced to work as an actress, a saleswoman, and a telephone operator and she’s not very good at any of them. She does eventually meet and marry the wealthy Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker). As you can probably guess from the man’s name, he’s supposed to be from the south. (And yet Tucker plays the role with a western accent…) He loves Mame but then he ends up falling off a mountain. So much for Beau.
(In the production of Mame that I appeared in, Beau was played by this 50 year-old guy who simply would not stop hitting on me and every other girl in the cast and who was always “accidentally” entering the dressing room while we were all changing. Whenever Mame mentioned Beau’s death, all of us ensemble girls would cheer backstage.)
Anyway, as a film, Auntie Mame doesn’t hold up extremely well. I can understand, to an extent, why it was so popular when it was first released. It was an elaborate adaptation of a Broadway play and, in 1958, I’m sure that its theme of nonconformity probably seemed somewhat daring. When you watch it today, though, the whole film seems almost oppressively heavy-handed and simplistic. It’s easy to embrace Mame’s philosophy when everyone else in the film is essentially a sitcom creation.
As I mentioned previously, Auntie Mame was nominated for best picture. However, it lost to the musical Gigi.