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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Auntie Mame (Blu-ray)
Auntie Mame (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // December 5, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 26, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Auntie Mame (1958) is a movie I've long avoided, and I confess to watching now chiefly because it was photographed in Technirama, the large-frame widescreen process the allowed extremely sharp, CinemaScope-wide theatrical prints. And, indeed the transfer used for Warner Archive's new Blu-ray looks splendid.

The movie, adapted from the stage play that in turn was adapted from Patrick Dennis's semi-autobiographical 1955 novel, is a bit better than I expected. Though stagey, in some ways its early scenes capture a bit of the essence of 1920s New York Bohemian living, and its basic story is built upon a compelling premise dating at least as far back as Shakespeare's Falstaff and his relationship with Prince Hal: the young lad who adores his eccentric, life-loving parental figure gradually becomes embarrassed by his behavior, before finally rejecting him for a "normal" life. With variations this premise turns up again and again in other good movies before and after Auntie Mame. Most of W.C. Fields's best film are built around this premise (with a grown-up daughter) and Bill Forsyth's later Housekeeping (1987) tells a much more subdued but quite similar story.

The play and movie of Auntie Mame were, of course, adapted yet again as Mame, the 1966 musical that originally starred Angela Lansbury, That show was itself turned into a movie, with Lucille Ball's famously calamitous 1974 performance, her last movie role.

Stories, possibly untrue, persist that Ball wasn't happy with Rosalind Russell's performance in the movie Auntie Mame, feeling that she stole a lot of her shtick from Ball's Lucy Ricardo character on I Love Lucy, though the resemblance is at best tenuous. Another story has Ball taking notes from the wings of Lansbury's Mame, and securing the movie rights to ensure beating out Lansbury for the film version.

In any case, Auntie Mame was Russell's late-career triumph. Popular but no longer beloved as it once was, it nonetheless was the top-grossing movie of 1958, earning an impressive $9 million in North American rentals. All this is a bit surprising considering that Auntie Mame is fairly daring for a 1950s mainstream studio release. In the play and the movie, Mame battles anti-Semitism, enthusiastically flirts with non-Christian religions, embraces unconventional educational methods, and is nonjudgmental toward social outcasts of that time: alcoholics, unwed mothers, unemployed artists, lesbians, etc.

Suddenly orphaned upon his father's death in 1928, Patrick Dennis (Jan Handzlick) has no choice but to move in with his only living relative, flamboyantly eccentric Auntie Mame (Russell). From her Manhattan apartment she hosts nearly constant booze-driven parties (despite Prohibition) attended by other bohemian types. (It's very clear that among them are late-middle-aged lesbians, and topics like libido, Free Love, and other sexual matters are openly discussed.) Her closest friends include alcoholic actress Vera Charles (Coral Browne) and book publisher Lindsay Woolsey (Patric Knowles).

Dwight Babcock (Fred Clark), the trustee of Patrick's inheritance, pushes Mame to enroll the boy in a conservative, traditional (and restricted) private school, but she defies him until the 1929 stock market crash threatens her freewheeling independence. Various jobs end in disaster; one genuinely funny scene has Mame working as a switchboard operator for the firm of Widdicome, Gutterman, Applewhite, Bibberman and Black, whose names she continuously rattles off faster than the very model of a modern Major-General. She meets and eventually wins over rich oilman suitor Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker), but then he dies in a mountaineering accident and the now-grown Patrick (Roger Smith) threatens to reject his Auntie's way and teeter toward a more conservative, boring life.

Morton DaCosta was primarily a stage director, and helmed only three movies, though both this and The Music Man, also from Warner Bros., were big hits. Like The Music Man, Auntie Mame is competently directed but stagey and rather uninspired visually. DaCosta uses the very theatrical effect of ending many scenes with a lighting trick that gradually fades everything around Mame to black first, so that the eyes of the movie audience become focused on her face (and, by extension, internal feelings of the moment), but it draws attention to itself more than it is effective.

Nevertheless, Auntie Mame's celebratory air, embracing nonconformity, risk-taking, and adventure is infectious. The character are mostly broad stereotypes, DaCosta's theatrical blocking and pacing making this even more pronounced, yet Russell's exquisitely-tuned performance is geared for the intimacy of the Technirama camera. In other words, she may be playing a flamboyant, larger-than-life character, but does so with deft subtlety. The audience can always read what's in her heart and ticking away in her brain, despite her broad gesturing and ever-changing hair color and fashions. It's a generally great comedy performance.

The handsomely produced movie carried over much of the play's original cast, including Peggy Cass (as mousy Agnes Gooch, Mame's personal secretary), Yuki Shimoda (as Ito, the chauffeur), and Jan Handzlik. In supporting parts Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Forrest Tucker, Henry Brandon and Willard Waterman are all delightful, as in Pippa Scott in a small but significant role as Agnes's replacement.

Though mostly confined to one huge set, Mame's apartment, her character has the place constantly redecorated, no doubt a logistical nightmare for the film's set decorators and assistant directors scheduling what must have been a stop-and-start shoot.

Video & Audio

Like VistaVision, Technirama used standard 35mm film that ran through the camera horizontally rather than vertically, thus producing an image roughly eight perforations wide rather than four perfs highs, Technirama adding a slight anamorphic squeeze to produce a CinemaScope-shaped picture. This essentially provided an image twice as sharp as regular CinemaScope and much less grainy. Auntie Mame wasn't especially suited to the format, but the elaborate sets and costumes sure look great, and the color is striking. (Ironically, it appears medium and close-ups of Russell incorporate a bit of gauze over the lens to hide her middle age somewhat, though it's barely perceptible. The robust DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono audio is impressive and optional English subtitles are provided.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to a 2.0 music-only track, a 1.85:1 widescreen trailer, and a laughable one for the 1974 Mame with Lucille Ball.

Parting Thoughts

Not great but a solid piece of entertainment perfectly presented, Auntie Mame is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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