Directed by Morton DaCosta
There is an oddness to this movie. It looks and feels as if it should be a musical (which it eventually became). But it’s not a musical. Auntie Mame is a comedy-drama with the emphasis on comedy.
The reason it has such a strange feel is because it is so stagy. Many scenes, if not most, are shot as if this was a film of an actual stage production. And that is because it was a play, originally. Actually, it started as a book. But back to the movie …
The movie even goes so far as to end scenes by fading to black, keeping the foremost character lit a moment against the darkness, then fading out completely. It feels like a stage production where the lights go down following a scene.
But is this a bad thing? Yes and no, though more yes than no. It somehow just looks wrong and this creates an awkwardness to the film.
On the other hand, the movie is essentially a fantasy, a fable, and this approach does help to emphasize the unreality, in the fantastic sense, of the story. (Fantasy here does not refer to anything magical or supernatural.)
It’s the story of a 10-year old boy whose father dies. The father leaves his son to his sister, the boy’s Auntie Mame, a firecracker of a woman with a powerful, zestful personality and very definite opinions about things. Those opinions are, primarily, liberal.
Based on a novel, the movie recounts their adventures together. They are numerous and there is little point in detailing them. It is told from the boy’s perspective and is about Mame, particularly her relationship with the boy as he grows into manhood.
Mame’s fortunes fall and rise and through it all she remains witty, bubbly and largely self-obsessed except for her deep love of the boy she has taken into her life.
The movie succeeds in large part because of Rosalind Russell’s incredibly energetic performance. (You can almost hear voices crying out, “No more coffee for her!”)
Mame’s attitude is summed up pretty succinctly when she says, in the movie’s best remembered line, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
The production is best described as fun, with the character of Mame at its core. While being entertaining, the movie is also a raspberry of sorts to a more conservative period (the late fifties). It’s a plea for more tolerance and a tribute to living well.
Does that aspect work? Again, yes and no.
At a distance of more than 45 years, it probably doesn’t strike us the same way it hit audiences back in 1958 yet it still resonates, at least to some extent.
Primarily, however, it works as a great characterization of a wonderful personality.