Auntie Mame (1958)

Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” says the eponymous Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell) on more than one occasion in this delightful film about an eccentric woman who is obliged to look after her orphaned nephew. Mame Dennis, indeed, is not one of the ‘poor suckers’ she so derides; this is a woman who lives life to the full (and a little beyond), grabbing happiness with both hands and not giving a damn, mostly, for what the world thinks.

Auntie Mame begins with a billionaire, a Mr Dennis (who is never shown) making out his will, and leaving his son Patrick (Jan Handzlik) to be brought up by his sister, Mame. Then, just to make sure that Mame does not make Patrick as nutty as she is, Mr Dennis makes a Mr Babcock (Fred Clark), who represents Mr Dennis’s bank, Patrick’s trustee. Mr Dennis believes that these elements of his will—Mame bringing up Patrick, Mr Babcock being trustee—will never come about, since he, Mr Dennis, is hale and hearty and in no danger of dying.

But Mr Dennis does die, and Patrick ends up being escorted to Mame Dennis’s home by a maid-and-general companion, Norah Muldoon (Connie Gilchrist). The two of them are wide-eyed, and Norah distinctly disapproving, of what strikes her as outlandish décor, and when the front door is opened by a houseboy named Ito (Yuki Shimoda), who informs them that “Madam having affair now”, Norah is inclined to take Patrick and run right back out.

The affair, as it turns out, is a great big party. Mame’s flat is full of very interesting and very odd people, all busy enjoying themselves. Even though Prohibition is in force, liquor is flowing (Mame is the local bootlegger’s favourite customer) and there seem to be a dozen baffling conversations (baffling for the innocent Patrick and Norah) going on at the same time.

Mame, all exotic and somewhat madly intimidating, first mistakes Norah for domestic help and Patrick for her son, and is about to send them about doing some work. When Ito sets her straight and she learns who Patrick really is, though, Mame shows that there’s more to her than the colourful flibbertigibbet image she superficially portrays. She is affectionate, she is welcoming, she takes the boy to her bosom.

… and, over the years that follow, Auntie Mame does pretty much all she can to ensure Patrick’s happiness and the broadening of his horizons. Beginning with admitting him in a school run by a friend who believes in the Greek gymnasium system, with children and teachers imbibing knowledge without clothing coming in the way. An apoplectic Mr Babcock, whom Mame had given to understand that Patrick would be admitted in a school (conservative, orthodox, fuddy-duddy) of Mr Babcock’s choice, is furious.

Mr Babcock hauls Patrick away to be admitted to a school named St Boniface, where Patrick is given a rather more staid and boring (as per Mame) education. Soon, the Great Depression hits, and Mame loses all her wealth. To make ends meet, she must find an alternative career. When a friend, Vera Charles (Coral Browne), who’s a famous theatre star, manages to get Mame a small walk-on part in a production, Mame throws herself into it, with unforeseen (and disastrous) results.

Similar disaster awaits Mame’s attempts at other careers. As a telephone operator, she is a failure. As a sales assistant at Macy’s, she only ever learns how to make sales COD, as a result of which, when someone wants to pay cash up front, Mame is in a fix.

But this unfortunate circumstance works out to Mame’s advantage: a man who comes to Macy’s during the Christmas rush and inadvertently exposes Mame’s ignorance of anything other than COD, ends up changing Mame’s life.

Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker) is from solid Southern stock, with big plantations down South, and he is smitten with Mame from the moment he sees her. Enough, in fact, to dig up the telephone directory and go looking for every single Miss Dennis in it—until he finds her.

Very soon, Mame and Beau are an item, and so much in love that she, along with Patrick, is invited to come to their plantation and meet all of Beau’s friends and neighbours…

… including Beau’s disapproving mother, and Sally Cato MacDougall (Brook Byron), who has had her eye on Beau and has decided to wreck Mame’s chances of becoming Mrs Burnside. But Sally Cato hasn’t reckoned with the indomitable Mame, who will let nothing come in the way of her doing what she wants to do, even if it means risking her own neck.

And, this, mind you, is just the start.

Auntie Mame is based on a novel written by Patrick Dennis (a pseudonym; his real name was Edward Everett Tanner, and coincidentally enough, he was born 100 years ago, in 1921). Rosalind Russell fell in love with Dennis’s story about a madcap woman, and took the lead role onstage in the theatre production of Auntie Mame, a role she reprised in this film version. A musical version of the story was released in 1974, starring Lucille Ball as Mame Dennis, but it bombed at the box office.

What I liked about this film:

Rosalind Russell as Mame.  Mame Dennis is a ‘character’ in every sense of the word: nothing less than a force of nature. She’s wild, she has no inhibitions (or seemingly none), but it’s not as if she’s utterly unprincipled or selfish. There is about Mame a sincere warmth that makes her not just take in, but be completely devoted to, the nephew she’s saddled with; a warmth that makes her also take in a secretary who’s going to be an unwed mother; a warmth that makes her even somewhat naïve, gullible enough to be deceived by the surface charm of the wily Sally Cato.

Mame’s gullibility may seem at odds with the initial impression she conveys, of being an utter hedonist; but this readiness to accept people at face value is all part of Mame’s charm. She is guileless, and easily beguiled. And her affection for her ‘little love’ Patrick is wonderful: deep, genuine, sweet. Patrick’s obvious adoration of Mame is testimony to just how loving and sincere she is.

Mame is many things: very eccentric, impulsive, a complete daredevil at times. Warm, loving, with an endearing appreciation of democracy, equality, and humanism. She’s mad, but in a way that made me, at least, want to emulate her. And Rosalind Russell plays her perfectly.

And no, there was almost nothing I didn’t like about this film, except possibly a wee bit near the end. More on that in the comparisons section, next.  

Comparisons, comparisons:

So how does the screen adaptation of Auntie Mame compare with Patrick Dennis’s novel?

Pretty well. For much of the story, about two-thirds of it, the film follows the novel quite faithfully. The first notable deviation (though it really doesn’t affect the story too much) occurs when Mame marries Beau, and (in the film) is married to him for many years, until Patrick grows up. From then on, there are several deviations; the story of the adult Patrick (played by Roger Smith) in the film is very different from that of the same character in the novel.

And the reason for that, I think, is the difference in medium. A lot of what happens in the literary Patrick’s life is the sort of thing that would be censored onscreen, or would prove to be just too long and cumbersome to translate crisply to screen. He falls in love with a most objectionable girl (a gold-digger, to boot), who seems to be best friends with the local prostitute; there is an unmarried pregnancy (and, unlike in the film, nothing to conveniently redeem it and wipe the ‘taint’ from the woman). Auntie Mame tries to matchmake for Patrick, introducing him to three beautiful and highly accomplished sisters, all extremely eligible. There is a long section devoted to Auntie Mame’s efforts to foster some British refugee children, brought over to the US during World War II.

None of this occurs as is in the film. The three beautiful prospective brides, as well as the refugee children, are completely excised from the film, as is the awful first girlfriend, Bubbles. Instead, Patrick plunges headlong into a romance with the very snobbish but stupid Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes), and the final half-hour of the film is devoted to Auntie Mame’s careful (or careless?) dismantling of that relationship.

Basically, the more shocking (and possibly deemed unsavoury?) aspects of the novel are removed from the film. Sex, pregnancy without marriage, crude and rude refugee Cockneys: all are left out of the mix. A fairly prolonged and detailed tirade against the obnoxious anti-Semitism of the Upson family is also snipped away, pretty much hook, line and sinker.

This last detail was what I didn’t like, because it makes a small but important difference to Mame’s character. Mame Dennis, as the crusader for human rights, as the woman who stands up against bigotry and blind prejudice, comes through very powerfully in that particular scene in the book; removing it from the film is an injustice to Mame, I think.

But, despite that, and in spite of the many other departures from the novel, a film worth watching. Funny, and touching too.

12 thoughts on “Auntie Mame (1958)

  1. One of my favourite films of all time! I have not read the novel although I think I should now. She does take a stand against the antisemitism of the Uptons at their house (they’re trying to stop an orphanage for Jewish refugee children being built in their town and I think Mame buys the land and donates it to the orphanage or something? it’s been a while since I watched it) but no tirade. Sad that it was toned down like that, but that’s the 50s for you.

    I do wish there was a musical version of it too, that would have been great.

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    • Yes, there is a brief stand against anti-Semitism (also when the Upsons crib about a Jew buying the plot of land they have their eye on, the first time Mame meets them), but it’s nothing compared to what’s in the book. That final half-hour of the film is not part of the book; in the book, Patrick’s meeting Pegeen is a completely different story, long after Mame has gotten rid of Gloria Upson – and she gets rid of the Upsons by laying bare their prejudices. It’s a very hard-hitting (and long) scene, and Mame is at her best. That scene, versus the vastly watered down version in the film, was to me one of the biggest differences in the characterisation of Mame from novel to reel.

      There is a musical version too, starring Lucillle Ball, but I haven’t seen it:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mame_(film)

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  2. Ohhh… how I loved this movie! :) In fact, S and I were just talking about it the other day, Rosalind Russell being a prime favourite at Chez Warriers. We watched it a long time ago… time to revisit, I think.

    And of course, the film was sanitized.50s Hollywood didn’t want any ‘ugliness’ in its films. :(

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      • Literature is much less accommodating of ‘people’s feelings’ than cinema is, isn’t it?

        And thank heavens for that! I’m getting a bit tired of people taking offence at the drop of a hat. If we can’t read literature from an earlier age, and contextualize the setting/characters, instead asking for books to be banned or bowdlerized, I have no idea where we will end up, as a society.

        As it is, films, at least in India, are already going that route, what with the whitewashing, even rewriting, of history, not to mention the deifying of so-called ‘heroes’.

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        • Yes. Thank heavens indeed!

          You know, whenever I hear of anybody clamouring to get a book or a film banned, I want to ask them: “Who’s forcing you to watch it (or read it?”

          I mean, come on. If you’re so easily offended, don’t be sadistic and go looking for punishment. In this day and age, with reviews and whatnot everywhere, it’s highly unlikely that you’d end up reading a book or watching a film you knew nothing about. It wouldn’t come as a surprise, is what I mean. Then why not just avoid stuff you know is probably contrary to your beliefs?

          But of course we live in a world where tolerance is at an all-time low. :-(

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  3. Great review and pictures! Somehow I happened to read the stage play version of Auntie Mame long before I saw the film or read the novel, and the film follows the play script almost exactly. When I read the novel I loved all the extra incidents and details, but understood how they had to compress and shorten it to make it fit the stage or screen. Patrick Dennis also wrote a sequel “Around the World with Auntie Make ” detailing a trip she took with Patrick when he was still a boy. It has some very amusing chapters but as a whole I found it a little tiresome. The Lucille Ball “Mame” was not a flop financially, but it was generally considered a mistake. If she had made it about 15 years earlier she might have been ideal, but by the 79s her voice had deepened considerably and lost a lot of its flexibility making her performance seem a little mechanical. It would probably have been better too had her singing been “dubbed” as was done for Rosalind Russell in ‘Gypsy’. There are some nice moments in it though, especially the opening party njmber, and her scenes with Beauregarde (Robert Preston)

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    • Thank you so much for that detailed and interesting comment! I had been looking for the Lucille Ball version to watch, but couldn’t find it. Your comment helped me not regret missing that. ;-)

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