Thursday, August 21, 2014

High Society Never Changes

Film: Auntie Mame
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Auntie Mame is a film I’ve seen before, so when I found it on a library shelf, I figured it was a painless choice. I’m still trying to watch longer films when I can, and Auntie Mame is a good length. What I forgot, since it’s been years since I had seen it, is that there are large swaths of this film that I don’t like very much. As it happens most of the things I dislike are specifically Mame herself.

We open as a man writes his will, suggesting that should he pass away, custody of his son will revert to his sister, Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell), of who he evidently disapproves. Of course, he promptly dies and the boy, Patrick (Jan Handzlik) is promptly whisked off to Manhattan to live with his eccentric (to put it mildly) aunt. This is our introduction to the force of chaos theory that is Mame Dennis.

Mame is a society dame, living off evidently inherited money. It’s quickly evident that Mame’s life is money, parties, and hobnobbing both with the famous and with a variety of beatniks, hooligans, and Bohemian types. She knows nothing of Patrick or of taking care of a child, but she throws herself wholeheartedly into the process, using her money and a near epic level ability to ignore what everyone else around her is saying to just do whatever the hell she wants.

And then the stock market crashes and Mame is wiped out. Patrick’s care essentially reverts to the trustee of the will, who enrolls the boy in boarding schools while Mame attempts a series of failed jobs to make ends meet. At the third of these failed jobs, she meets Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker). One whirlwind romance later and Mame is suddenly married to an extremely wealthy man from Georgia, whose family is appalled that he’s married a Yankee from New York of all places. Mame and Beau go galavanting around the world while Patrick grows up in the care of stuffy schools and stuffier people and before you can say “doodly-doodly-doop,” Patrick is all grown up and being played by Roger Smith. After evidently years and years of travel, Beau, trying to get yet another picture from high up, falls off the Matterhorn, leaving Mame a suddenly wealthy widow.

The last hour of the film consists of a series of events trying to get Mame to write her memoirs with the assistance of a secretary named Agnes Gooch (Peggy Cass), a ghostwriter who is actually a scoundrel and a mooch (Robin Hughes) and an attempt to pair Mame up with her old flame, Lindsay Woolsey (Patric Knowles). Additionally, Mame is concerned that her dear nephew Patrick has turned into something of an upper crust bastard and that his proposed fiancée Gloria (Joanna Barnes) is a witless society twit, which means we need to resolve that, and get Patrick hooked up with the much more interesting Pegeen (Pippa Scott), the secretary who replaces poor Agnes Gooch.

Mame herself is the central character, of course, and so an explanation of exactly who and what she is is merited. Mame is…how do I put this? She’s the sort of person who lives only for herself, is concerned only for herself, thinks the world of herself, and annoys the living hell out of me. She’s the sort of person who attempts to adopt the accent of the person she is with. What annoys me to no end about her is that no one can tell her anything, partly because she simply assumes that she is right about everything and partly because she doesn’t shut the hell up ever about anything at any time. In fact, her only redeeming quality is that she’s absolutely devoted to her nephew.

When I first saw this as a kid, I couldn’t have actually pinpointed the best way to describe Mame, but as an adult, I think I’ve got it. Mame is, in many ways, a female drag queen. It’s that sort of extravagant flamboyance, that same comic egocentrism. I just find it tiresome. And that means that ultimately I find Auntie Mame pretty tiresome, too.

Go ahead and throw stones. I dislike Auntie Mame despite trying very hard to like it. I wanted to like this, and I simply can’t. I give Rosalind Russell full credit for the performance. I can’t think of a single other person who could pull the role off as well as she does. It’s a really good performance, but it’s a performance of a character I dislike intently. Peggy Cass is solid as well, in an obvious comic sort of way.

Ultimately, Auntie Mame is too broad for my tastes and features too many people I just want to punch really hard in the nose. I can sum up my distaste in a couple of scenes. Early on, when Patrick arrives, Mame introduces him to one of her Bohemian friends who runs a school. Patrick asks the simple question of whether or not they wear uniforms there. As it happens, all teachers and students at the school go nude. Mame’s comment is that this will be good for 10-year-old Patrick’s libido. How is that not evidently and immediately pervy? We later get a description of the school, since Mame sends Patrick there, and, well, it’s an attempted piece of comedy around what can only be thought of as a place rife with child exploitation and molestation. But Mame thinks it’s wacky, so we’re encouraged to laugh at it. Sorry, no.

Need more? To avoid a social engagement, Mame gets poor Agnes drunk, which leads to Agnes getting pregnant. And that, in a nutshell, is Mame Dennis--causing life-changing issues for others for her own convenience.

Why to watch Auntie Mame: Parts are funny.
Why not to watch: Mame has only one real redeeming feature.


  1. I saw this years ago and actually didn't remember much about it until I read this. For whatever reason I remember the servants paying the outstanding bills for Christmas.

  2. Yep. I knew I had seen this before. I remembered a couple of things, but not much. I'm guessing in a year I won't remember much again.