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Saturday, 30 August 2008

Auntie Mame (1958)

In the mood for something funny that isn't likely to make me think too much, I wandered down the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs list to see what I hadn't seen. This one leapt out, given that I'd recently seen Rosalind Russell in a flamboyant role in Picnic. This, from all accounts, was her flamboyant role of roles and naturally she's the Auntie Mame of the title. It won her an Oscar nomination, among others, and the film was nominated for Best Picture. Six nominations equated to zero wins though.

Russell is Mame Dennis, Auntie Mame to young Patrick, the only son of her brother Edwin. Even though he's in the best of health Edwin writes his will, just in time for him to unexpectedly kick the bucket. He leaves everything to Patrick, of course, but as he thinks his only relative is a crazy eccentric loon he only leaves her Patrick's custody. The executor of the will, the ultra-conservative Mr Babcock of the Knickerbocker Bank, gets all the trump cards so that Patrick can get a stable upbringing, and it doesn't take long before he packs him off to boarding school.

As we're in 1928 it also doesn't take long before the stock market crashes and Auntie Mame's net worth crashes with it, so off she goes to find work with the inevitable consequences for someone who's a crazy eccentric loon. Up until this point, I enjoyed the film but wasn't particularly knocked out. The whole thing was very stagy, as emphasised by the memorably lighted transitions, and populated mostly by risque jokes that are funny only through the afterthoughts of those that speak them, given that they're spoken in the presence of young Patrick.

In fact I was initially more impressed by the acting of Jan Handzlik (now a prominent lawyer) in his first and only film role, as one dimensional as it is, than I was with Rosalind Russell. I could say the same for Coral Browne, as Mame's drunk actress friend Vera Charles and Connie Gilchrist as her Irish housekeeper, all because Russell seemed to be so prominently acting rather than being Auntie Mame. Once Mame hits the stage though as a bit part in one of Vera's plays, Russell gets into the full swing of it and establishes that Auntie Mame spends most of her time acting anyway.

By the time we pick up love interest Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, played by Forrest Tucker, and we switch from Manhattan to the Peckerwood Plantation in Georgia, everyone is acting their socks off playing characters who overact their socks off. There's what can only be can be described as a duel between Auntie Mame and Brook Byron as the jealous Sally Cato MacDougall, fought with wits, bravado and sheer flamboyance, which is hilarious but so overacted its unreal.

Much of the reason is that this screwball comedy, fifties style, is based on a successful stage play and seems to be indecently happy to revel in that fact. There are some rear projection shots here that are so bad that they couldn't be accidental. I can only assume that they were deliberately done that way to remind us of stage backdrops. The play starred Rosalind Russell, who reprised her role here, and also featured the other frequent award nominee for this film: Peggy Cass. She played Agnes Gooch on both stage and screen and she's certainly memorable, not only for her unique rasp or her, shall we say, transformation.

By the time the film is over, it's easy to see what makes Rosalind Russell's performance so lauded. In a film where almost every single actor is out to steal every scene they're in, she battles them all and wins out in style. It's all complete lunacy, of course. It makes next to no sense whatsoever and there are so many conveniences that you wouldn't be able to count them, but it's all done with panache and power. What's more, it's a comedy that slaps you between the eyes and bludgeons you over the head without ever resorting to a fart joke. That's refreshing, but I'd love to see this on stage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your interest in Auntie Mame (and for the plug). Having played young Patrick in both the stage and movie versions, and having worked with Ms. Russell for nearly two years, I'm unable to be an objective critic of the movie. But I do remember that everyone involved had a lot of fun and got real enjoyment from the laughter and applause of the audiences who saw the play and later saw the movie. I believe Ms. Russell's warm and open approach to everyone influenced all of us, and that this joy is reflected on the screen. Since the movie version closely followed the play, the 'staginess' of the movie is probably understandable. But the story also contains some important messages still relevant today, not least the importance of accepting others for who they are despite apparent differences. In any event, thanks for taking the time to share your views. JLH