Friday, December 04, 2009

"Auntie Mame" (1958): some valuable social lessons from an old WB widescreen razzle dazzle


Rosalind Russell’s most famous film probably is “Auntie Mame”, a lavish “romantic comedy” (2:23 in length), filmed in Technirama (like Cinemascope) and directed by Morton DaCosta, and one of Warner Brothers’s proudest offerings in the early Cinemascope era. The indoor sets fill the eyes, and the wonderful shades and hues of Technicolor make the film an exercise in experiencing color for its own sake.

But the social message of the film (not just “life is a banquet”) is important today. Indeed, the film shows how people dealt with tough social problems in those days and “creatively” stayed within production codes. The film opens with a shot of a typewritten will (rather odd for wide screen), written by the elder Dennis the day (in 1928) before he drops dead in a Chicago steam bath. He must leave custody of his son to his only relative, his sister Mame Dennis. Does he really have to do this, and does Mame really have to raise him? Well, Mr. Dennis leaves the authority for decision making to a trustee, Mr. Babcock (Fred Clark) because he doesn’t approve of Mame’s roaring life style (in New York).

The kid is around 12 (played by Jan Handzlik) and is so smart that he would be easy to raise. At this point, I recall other movies that have taken up variants of this situation: “Raising Helen”, “Saving Sarah Cain”, and the Spelling TV series “Summerland”. It happens, that childless siblings wind up with the kids after a tragedy. But then the movie presents Mame as not really seeing this as a real responsibility. Instead, she does bond with the kid, who likes her freewheeling values a lot more than the stuffy conservative guidance of Mr. Babcock. He does not need to be raised in a “Gossip Girl” environment.

The Mame loses everything in the 1929 crash, and has to go out and get a real job. Acting (actresses can “imagine”). But that goes bust and she can’t just to regimentation and gets fired from all her lower class jobs. She can’t handle being a switchboard operator (that scene uses wide screen effectively), and doesn’t know how to make a cash sale at Macy’s. That’s where she meets white knight Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forest Tucker) who sweeps her away, even taking her down to his plantation in oil country. Finally, she writes a book (with a homely secretary as an assistant to take dictation in shorthand in those pre-computer days), and exposes everyone.

The film does cover some familiar territory.

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