Monday, April 14, 2014

Auntie Mame


The good ladies from MUSH (Mothers United against Sophomoric Humor) seem to have taken the holiday off and things have quieted down around the studio. With Norman gone, I had no special Thanksgiving plans and used the day off from work to deal with a minor VickiWear crisis. As I relayed earlier, the Indonesian seamstresses had made a major error with the King and I holiday ball gowns; Lovely little hoop skirted things, just perfect for hostess entertaining at this festive season. An enormous batch was sent to the industrial dryers rather than the industrial dry cleaners and had shrunk to subhuman size. 

Not wanting to waste the lot, and with Wal-Mart yelling for its order, I needed to do some quick thinking. Fortunately, our local Toys-R-Us is going out of business so I sent Nurse Lynn down to buy out the Barbie department. He returned with four hundred Barbie dolls of various skin tones and hair colors. We quickly set up a little guillotine on the back lawn, decapitated them all and replaced the heads with ping-pong balls on which I laminated a small color photograph of myself taken from my famous musical Stingin' and in Pain. We then hurriedly dressed them in the ball gowns and, when done, had a shipment of limited edition Mrs. Norman Maine holiday ball gown collector dolls (suggested retail $59.95) ready for Wal-Mart. There are times when I impress even myself.

After these labors, and a little Spago carry-out Turkey and dressing, Nurse Lynn and I collapsed in the home theater where I decided a film featuring a resourceful woman was in order, especially if that woman were impeccably dressed and ping-pong balls were at least mentioned. Poking through the 'To View' pile, I happened across the 1958 version of Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell which has recently been re-released on DVD. This looked like just the ticket so into the machine it went.

Auntie Mame sprang to life in 1955 from the fertile brain of novelist Patrick Dennis (pseudonym and assumed persona of Edward Tanner, who had, until then, been a respectable New York advertising copywriter). Using a real life eccentric aunt of his, Marion Tanner, as a jumping off point, Dennis concocted an outlandish, theatrical persona who leads her more conservative nephew on a merry chase through the New York world of between the wars. The novel was the hit of the year, capturing and lampooning the conformist spirit of the Eisenhower era and Dennis went on to write a number of other light comic masterpieces. Sadly, his personal life was marred by alcoholism, conflicts over his homosexuality and an inability to manage money. He eventually abandoned writing and disappeared, re-emerging as a society butler in Palm Beach and eventually becoming majordomo to the household of Ray and Joan Kroc before his untimely death from pancreatic cancer.

The novel was turned into a stage play by the team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and it played to packed houses in New York for over a year with Rosalind Russell in the title role. It was a major triumph for her. Warner Brothers allowed the original stage director, Morton DaCosta, and star to recreate the play on film and the result is a loving adaptation, scripted by the famous team of Comden and Green. Very little rewriting was done. Some cuts were made, language was softened but the end result was similar to what had been delighting New York audiences, complete with blackouts and stage pacing.

The plot of Auntie Mame is simple. The year is 1929, shortly before the crash, and young Patrick Dennis (Jan Handzlik) finds himself suddenly orphaned and shipped off to the care of his only living relative, his Auntie Mame, who he has never met. He arrives to find her giving a jazz age soiree full of over the top people and Mame takes him to heart as her new project. Soon, she's schooling him in the nude, teaching him to mix martinis and allowing him to mix with the best society, including her very best friend, the actress (and well known lush) Vera Charles (Coral Browne). Patrick's monetary trustee, Mr. Babcock (Fred Clark), is appalled at the goings on and has the boy sent to boarding school to be turned into a proper upper crust New Englander and the crash leaves Mame without the resources to fight him. Patrick and Mame, however, remain true to each other and, in true survivor fashion, Mame meets, falls, and eventually marries Beau Burnside (Forrest Tucker), an oil millionaire with a taste for horses. Mame becomes so wrapped up in Beau that she neglects Patrick who falls more and more under the Babcock influence as he grows up. Now in college, she ends up having to ride to the rescue before he can marry the truly stuck-up lock-jawed Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes). For this, she needs the help of all her old friends and her new secretary, Agnes Gooch (Peggy Cass) in a truly memorable dinner party.

Auntie Mame is a comedy of manners and situation. It's full of sparkling lines delivered by a talented cast who are obviously having the time of their lives. Roz Russell, in particular, sinks her teeth into one of the great female roles, getting as much mileage as she can out of her bon mots. She was nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe for her efforts. She is supported by a fabulous cast, especially amongst the women. Coral Browne (with her imperious airs), Peggy Cass (with her nasal whine and galumphing gait), and Joanna Barnes (with her Park Avenue blonde idiocy) are all brilliant and walk away with moment after moment. Peggy Cass was also Oscar nominated and was so good in this role, she never really lived it down.

The film can be a bit stagey, it's rhythms are much more of the theater than of the movie house. It doesn't flow in the way modern cinema does, but the performances are so top notch, you don't really care. The sets are fun, especially Auntie Mame's various decorative phases and Orry-Kelly's costumes are vivacious and colorful throughout.

Be sure not to confuse this with the musical adaptation Mame starring Lucille Ball. The musical was lovely on stage with Angela Lansbury. On film, Lucy was all wrong for the part and the film is a particularly wretched example of how not to do stage material on celluloid. There are rumors of a new television adaptation of the musical with Cher in the title role. I'll withhold judgment but it strikes me as bad casting yet again. Christine Baranski would be much more suitable.

Red elbow gloves. Cigarette holders. Temple bell bracelets. COD roller skates. Confusing switchboard. Dissolute Irish poet. Dr. Pepper drinking. Halo of hair. Daiquiris made with honey. Flaming drinks. Pickled rattlesnake. 

No comments:

Post a Comment