Dec 22, 2017

On Blu-ray: Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame (1958)

Auntie Mame (1958) is an outrageously charming film. It insists on your love. Against all odds it even charmed my Taylor Swift-loving skeptical tween. As she sat there howling at Rosalind Russell attempting and failing to master the complexities of a telephone switchboard I felt the awe of a true classic. Now this utterly adorable film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

While the story of Auntie Mame began as a pair of novels written by Patrick Dennis, the film is more closely based on the stage production, which was inspired by the writer’s first book about his frisky heroine. It was a career rejuvenating success for Russell, as would be the film. When she took Mame to the big screen, her stage costars Yuki Shimodo (as her high-spirited butler) and Peggy Cass (as the hapless secretary Agnes Gooch) would come with her.

The most famous line to come from Auntie Mame is Russell’s in-character proclamation that “life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” That is in essence the heart of this film, in which the alternately wealthy and near destitute, but always vibrantly adventurous Mame navigates her way through life. As the story begins, she is united with her newly-orphaned nephew Patrick. While she has no intention of giving up her wildly eccentric lifestyle, one of the most endearing aspects of her character is that she immediately showers her new charge with love and dedicates herself to his happiness and well-being.

As Patrick grows up and Mame finds herself in varying degrees of prosperity, the pair encounters a cast of characters with an eccentric energy much like Preston Sturges’ regular ensemble. The interaction between these players is in essence a clash between living with abandon and pursuing so-called respectability.

On one side there is Mame’s best gal pal the actress Vera Charles (Coral Browne) who wakes up most mornings with a hangover in her bestie's spare bedroom, Ms. Gooch who goes from drinking Dr. Pepper to black out drunkenness and unplanned pregnancy, and the always game Ito who doesn’t bat an eye at any of it. On the other there is everyone’s favorite excuse for smashing the patriarchy, the authoritative Fred Clark as Dwight Babcock, executor of Patrick’s fortune and education, the young boy’s vapid upper class girlfriend Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes), and her hideously anti-Semitic parents Doris and Claude Upson (Lee Patrick and Willard Waterman). These broadly-drawn characters are perfectly cast support to Russell, who seems to be living her role. Altogether, it is a wildly entertaining ensemble; there is never a threat of boredom.

As delightful as the cast is the look of Auntie Mame. Russell and Browne in particular have such drool-worthy costumes that I can’t believe this production is not known as a fashion film. The sets are also a lot of fun, as Mame goes through several different phases which she reflects in her interior decoration. I particularly love a cocktail party scene where she tortures her guests by lowering and raising her Avant garde couches with a series of pulleys.

There is so much to recommend this vibrant, colorful film with true substance and love at its core. It is a treat to finally be able to enjoy it on Blu-ray.

The bright colors and elaborate sets of Auntie Mame look sharp and clean on the Blu-ray. Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film, a trailer for the Lucille Ball-starring musical version of the story Mame (1974), which shows how drab and horrifying it is in comparison. There is also a music-only audio track which highlights Bronislaw Kaper’s score, which I found curious since the music is the one element of the film that I don’t find at all memorable.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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