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“Auntie Mame” still a feast for one and all


Set in the Roaring '20s, Mame Dennis (Rosaline Russell( greets her nephew Patrick Dennis (Jan Jandzlik) during a party at her lavish Greenwich Village apartment. (Frame shots courtesy of Warner Archive Collection)


Blu-ray; 1958; Not Rated, family friendly

Best extra: Music only track featuring composer Bronislau Kaper’s score

IF YOU’RE lucky, you grew up with a terrific, wild and crazy aunt or two to warm your heart.

Edward Everett Tanner III, writing as Patrick Dennis, knew at least one and wrote a bestselling novel about her. “Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade,” was based on his aunt, Marion Tanner. The book is a sparkling, fictional account of an orphaned boy, also named Patrick, who comes to live with his aunt, Mame Dennis, memorably brought to life on stage and screen by Rosalind Russell.

Set in the Roaring ‘20s, it was a roaring hit on Broadway before it was adapted for film. Mame Dennis is a rich, bohemian socialite, who loves to have fun. Her motto: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” When she meets 11-year-old Patrick, it’s love at first sight. She intends to introduce him to the best life has to offer, starting with how to make a superb martini.

Jan Handzlik played Patrick Dennis on Broadway and during the 1958 Warner Brothers production that received six Oscar nominations.

Mamme Dennis visits Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker) plantation in South Carolina.

Patrick’s financial guardian Fred Clark (Dwight Babcock) is appalled. The boy is hustled off to a “normal” boarding school, but his adventures with Auntie Mame and her company of friends continue throughout his life. Key roles have become stereotypes and there are non-PC moments; the humor is broad, goofy – and sharp. She loses her fortune in the ’29 Stock Market Crash. Trying to support her little family, she fails at job after job. A Southern oil man (Forrest Tucker) meets and falls in love with her. He’s a dear, but takes a nosedive off a mountain during their prolonged honeymoon. Her plain, bookish secretary, Agnes Gooch (Peggy Cass), is turned into a bombshell. Encouraged to “live, live, live!”, Agnes takes off for a night on the town. She returns pregnant and unwed. It was a daring move for 1958, and so was Mame’s unshakable support.

Russell earned an Oscar nomination for best actress, although she graciously lost to Susan Hayward of “I Want to Live.” Russell is also known for another knock-out performance as Rose Hovick, the ultimate stage mother in the musical “Gypsy” (1962) about the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Russell’s amazing voice and presence were key to both film’s success.

Color is bright and saturated in the 1080p (2.40:1 ratio) remaster. Most scenes take place in Mame’s lavish Greenwich Village apartment first seen dressed for a ‘20s style party. Prohibition is in place but the bathtub gin and exotic guests run rampant. The set is also outfitted in mid-century modern and, ultimately, palatial gold and jewel tones for an older, sari-draped Mame who plans to take her grand-nephew, Patrick’s son, to visit India.

Forrest Tucker plays Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, a Southern oil man who meets and falls in love with Mame Dennis.

Shot by cinematographer Harry Stradling (“Gypsy,” “My Fair Lady”), most scenes are in close-up with some exterior wide shots used in a South Carolina plantation party and fox hunt, where Mame visits her in-laws to be. (Mame saves the fox, of course.) Detail is sharp from peacock feathers to fur as well as the costumes and props. Contrast is excellent, and blacks are deep and solid.

The mono soundtrack was cleaned of hiss and crackles, and upgraded to an immersive 2.0 DTS-HD track. Dialogue is delivered clearly in a variety of accents including Tucker’s authentic Southern drawl and Cass’s nasal urban voice. Effects are used for fun; they’re more Looney Tunes than cinema verite. The score is by Bronislau Kaper (“Lili,” 1953), and showcased as a bonus feature in a music-only, mono-track. Viewers can choose to follow the story and dialogue through subtitles.

Rosalind Russell earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as Mame Dennis.

Sadly, extras are sparse with only the original trailer, a good comparison to see Warner Archive’s upgrade, and a trailer for “Mame,” the 1974 musical starring Lucille Ball and Robert Preston. Angela Lansbury helped make the musical a Broadway hit, but in a supreme case of bad casting – power over talent – Ball was cast as Auntie Mame. Due to Ball’s trademark slapstick humor and lack of musical talent, the film was a flop, even though some of its songs – “We Need a Little Christmas,” “Mame,” “Open a New Window” – remain hits.

But Rosalind Russell and co-stars still entertain. “Auntie Mame” was nominated for five additional Oscars including “Best Picture.” It’s easy to see why.

- Kay Reynolds

An Old Movie Trailer



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