Screening Classic Hollywood: “Auntie Mame” (1958)

I miss many things about classic Hollywood, but one of the greatest casualties was the opening credit sequence. In fine classic Hollywood style, the opening to Auntie Mame is a riot of colors, designs, and patterns, a harbinger of the flamboyant personality embodied by Mame herself.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

When his father unexpectedly dies, Patrick is sent to live with his father’s eccentric, larger-than-life sister Mame (Rosalind Russell). Mame is full of wit, vivacity, and joy, swanning about New York with a social group as eclectic and flamboyant as she is. When the Great Depression hits, she manages to snare a Southern gentleman as a husband (Forrest Tucker), go on a world-wide tour, and even begin penning her autobiography. Unfortunately, her exuberant lifestyle clashes with Patrick’s upper-class aspirations. However, through it all she remains true to herself and in so doing forces Patrick to be true to himself as well.

From her very first appearance, Russell is nothing less than divine as Mame. With her glaring orange outfit, her rat-a-tat-tat, rapid-fire delivery, and distinctively husky voice, she is the embodiment of flamboyant femininity. She owns who she is, and she feels no shame about it. Her honesty is bracing but refreshing, especially compared to the stuffy, hypocritical, and disgustingly fake affect of Patrick’s soon-to-be-laws, who are the most loathsome type of New England WASP.

Beneath all of her exuberance, Mame has the proverbial heart of gold. Unlike his father, who treated Patrick with what amounts to contempt, Mame clearly has a profound fondness for her nephew. What’s more, she treats him as an adult rather than a child, and she bears him an affection deeper, richer, and more genuine than she has had for any of her other “hobbies.” This obviously extends into her fervent, and accurate dislike, of Patrick’s first love interest, and she accurately sees that this woman will lead Patrick into unhappiness.

Mame is fiercely protective of Patrick, and she gives him the chance to be loved for who he is rather than what his father (and his father’s patriarchal surrogate, Mr. Babcock) want him to be. Whereas they want to forge him into the same sort of frigid, buttoned-up man that they are (and they threaten to succeed), she wants nothing more than his happiness, even if that means telling him unpleasant truth that he doesn’t want to hear. With her profound ability to cut through the bullshit that bourgeois culture uses to obfuscate its own inner rottenness, Mame also exposes the hypocrisy of postwar American culture as a whole.

I’ve always thought that there was something deliciously queer about the Mame story and its various iterations. In this film, that queerness stems in part from Russell herself, who commands the screen with every biting remark and scathing witticism. She resists the dominant ideology that says that she should behave as an appropriate woman, and this liberates both herself and Patrick from the stuffy, irritatingly hetero pretensions of everyone else (including and especially his potential in-laws).

Mame’s queerness is particularly evident during the dinner party that she throws for the Upsons, in which her unruly energies–the flaming (literally) drinks, the pickled rattlesnake, the presence of her unmarried-and-pregnant secretary–are on full display. Unlike Patrick, who has internalized the shame of America’s upper classes, Mame has embraced her chosen family, and she reminds him of what he risks giving up if he joins with the Upsons, with their annoying accents, their restricted homes, and their too-sweet cocktails (nauseatingly sweetened with honey). The film makes it quite clear who has the right of it in this situation. Mame promises Patrick a life lived on his own terms, with a merry band of misfits, all of whom are united in their love of life.

Just as importantly, the queerness emerges in the film’s aesthetic, in the brash Technicolor that seems to exist for no other reason than existence. Blue is a particularly prominent shade, one that appears in both the décor of Mame’s magnificent home and in those moments when the screen fades, leaving Mame’s face saturated with blue. To my eyes, the blue conveys a sweet sort of melancholy so sharply at odds with the exuberant joy on evidence throughout the rest of the film. The film is sweet, but also a little sad, and it’s in the blending of those two sentiments that it really excels.

Auntie Mame is the very best sort of film that classic Hollywood can produce. Hilarious, touching, and gorgeously shot, it’s films like this that make me glad I watch these old movies. They help us to see that, even in a seemingly repressive and conformist culture like the 1950s, there was always the possibility of resistance, no matter how subtle it might seem. Life, as Mame says, is a banquet.

To put it bluntly, it’s a damn fine film.

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One comment

  1. Eric Binford · December 10

    Excellent review! I love the film. I also love how so many 1950s movies question American patriarchy. P.S. I too miss the great opening credit sequences, specifically the works of Saul Bass and Maurice Binder. I’ve always thought that they should give an Oscar for Best Title Design. 🙂

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