Thursday, December 3, 2020

Roz's Signature Role: ‘Auntie Mame’ 1958

"I'm your Auntie Mame!" Rosalind Russell as the larger than life Mame Dennis.


Auntie Mame is the comic character instantly associated with Rosalind Russell, one of film’s classic comedic actresses.

First a comic “memoir” by Patrick Dennis,  free-thinking Auntie Mame was an anti-dote to the conformist ‘50s. And the timing was just right for that class act with a bit of brass, Roz Russell, to play her. Roz first won raves as the bon vivant diva on Broadway, for two years. Auntie Mame and Roz’s prior stage smash, Wonderful Town, provided a career bridge for Russell in the ‘50s, between her studio era heyday and her post-Auntie Mame ‘60s movies.

Mame's intro as Roz Russell as she romps down those stairs, and is off and running!

I grew up on the ’74 Lucille Ball musical version, Mame, and didn't see the ’58 Russell comedy, Auntie Mame, until years later. Watching Roz’s original for this review, I kept expecting the Mame songs to start. The Rosalind Russell version is so much more buoyant and lighthearted than the Lucy musical. When Russell comes running down those stairs for the first time in Auntie Mame, Roz's energetic and effervescent personality hits you like a tidal wave. During the party scene, as Mame mingles with the best of them, it's not just little nephew Patrick's head whose is spinning. 

Russell first played Auntie Mame on Broadway, to great acclaim.

Russell mixes Mame’s piss-elegant, imperious delivery with her slapstick, hoydenish side, so that Mame Dennis never becomes a one-note bore. And Roz's warmth helps offset Mame's more fanciful flaws, as well. This was reinforced after re-watching Lucy's Mame as a comparison. Lucille Ball was just as versatile as Rosalind Russell, with many of the same strengths. There was the age difference when they played Mame, though Roz was just five years older than Lucy: Russell was 50 when Auntie Mame was filmed, and Lucy was 62 and recovering from a broken leg. (Roz herself broke an ankle running down those stairs the first time.) 

Mame's motto: "Live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"

Yet, the difference in energy and good humor is surprising. Perhaps the difference was Russell was re-recreating her Tony-winning Broadway smash, and going into filming on a high. Whereas Lucy knew everyone was depending on her, nursing a healing leg, facing ill will for taking the role from Angela Lansbury, with all eyes on her. Her grim gumption and self-consciousness over her age and ability seeps onto the screen and dissipates nearly all the fun. In fact, Lucy’s Mame feels like one of those great lady star vehicles from the ‘40s that Ball never got to play. Her pal Ginger Rogers’ leaden Lady in the Dark comes to mind. Why Lucy felt the need to scratch that itch three decades after the fact is still a mystery.

Mame needs a little Christmas, right this very minute! Patrick gives her "almost-diamonds."

It’s interesting that Roz, who was a staunch Catholic and married just once, had the raucous humor to play her polar opposite, Mame Dennis, with such ease. Lucy—whose personal life had known more than a few late nights, men, cocktails, and smokes—comes off as uptight and tough, much like her later TV appearances.

Mame & bosom buddy Vera Charles. Coral Browne is elegant & acidic as the actress.

Another surprising difference about the two versions is that the original—with Hollywood censors having their last hurrah—is more risqué than the ‘70s Mame. The one-liners from Auntie Mame are quite sly, and some of the passing characters still raise an eyebrow. In the '74 musical, once Beauregard dies, Mame becomes far less funny, and overly serious. The '58 version deftly mixes drama and humor regarding adult Patrick's conformity and Auntie Mame's misgivings. Russell, while disapproving of her intended in-laws, is up to her tricks. The uppity Epsons get funny bits of business in the ’58 film, whereas in the '70s version, they're just annoying bigots. This is certainly due to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, old pros at musical comedy and smart enough to realize that the stage play had culled the essence of the Patrick Dennis novel. In the ‘70s version, serious playwright Paul Zindel was chosen to write Mame’s screenplay. What’s strange, the most hilarious lines or bits from Auntie Mame are gone in Mame!

Rosalind Russell brings her considerable talents to the role of the free-thinking Mame.

I used to be put off that Auntie Mame is presented like a play, but now I love it. It's very stylized, yet stylish, much like the characters and performances. As Mame, Rosalind Russell gets to show off her physical comedy finesse, her rapid-speed dialogue delivery, genuine warmth, intelligence, sparkling personality, and winking sense of humor. There are so many memorable moments, as Mame gamely raises her young nephew: Life of the party Mame trying to get herself together the morning after for Mr. Babcock’s visit; novice actress Mame when she tries to upstage pal Vera Charles; Mame as a working girl, the motor mouth switchboard operator; life coach Mame conspiring to give Agnes Gooch a makeover; and the classic fox hunt scene, where Mame hangs on for dear life.

Fred Clark as trustee Mr. Babcock makes a fine comic foil for Russell's Mame.

The supporting cast is delightful, with Connie Gilchrist as Nora Muldoon, a no-nonsense delight as the Irish maid who delivers Patrick to his eccentric aunt. Fred Clark, always the comic heavy, is Mr. Babcock, the perfect foil for Auntie Mame, each with their own agenda for Patrick’s upbringing. Coral Browne is hilariously acerbic as Vera Charles, and far more elegant than later Vera, Bea Arthur, already in Maude mode. Peggy Cass gives Shelley Winters a run for her money in the nasal whine department, but here it’s done to hilarious comic effect as frumpy Agnes Gooch.

The finish to the hilarious fox hunt, where Mame wins the real prize, Beauregard!

Jan Handzlik as Patrick the boy is quite pleasant, but Roger Smith as the adult edition is a bit Ken doll-ish for my taste. Roger later found the role of a lifetime as Ann-Margret’s one and only husband. Forrest Tucker is most amiable as Mame’s southern suitor, Beauregard Burnside, he of the beaucoup bucks. Willard Waterman is hilarious, with always-reliable Lee Patrick, as Claude and Doris Upson, Patrick’s prospective in-laws. Waterman also played Mr. Babcock later in the Broadway musical Mame. Joanna Barnes is slyly funny as Patrick’s fiancee, Gloria, with her pretentious, lockjaw delivery: “It was just ghaaa-stly!”

The uppity Upsons have no idea what's in store for them, as they enter Mame's home. 

The set décor must have been a field day for George James Hopkins, who did some of the most memorable film sets for decades. Malcolm C. Bert created the production and art design. Mame’s 3 Beekman Place pad gets redecorated nearly a dozen times!

The ever-changing decor of The House of Dennis!

The stylish clothes by Orry-Kelly were over the top only when the story called for it, unlike the drag queen parade of Lucy’s Mame. Surprisingly, Orry-Kelly got zero Oscar nominations during his WB studio heyday (Now, Voyager and Mr. Skeffington are surprising shutouts) but he started getting nods from the mid-50s on—but not for his Auntie Mame fashion extravaganza.

Rosalind Russell gets beautiful cinematography, hair & makeup, and costumes.
Add Roz's high spirits & energy, and you get a memorable Mame.

While much was made of Lucy’s attempts to look younger as Mame, Roz also had help to augment her face as Auntie Mame. Russell’s beautifully photographed by Harry Stradling, who later got fired from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for making Elizabeth Taylor look too good as drunken Martha! Roz’s makeup man was Gene Hibbs, famed for his mini-face lift strings and tape combo, and stylized makeup. She first worked with him on ‘53’s Never Wave at a WAC. At the time, the Hibbs effect was considered miraculous, but it gave later drag queens something to work with! Roz looks more naturalistic than some of his other clients like Bette Davis circa Dead Ringer, Eva Gabor on Green Acres, etc. And Roz’s multiple wigs as Mame offered camouflage for his fine work. Hibbs worked on a number of episodes of Lucille Ball’s latter day series, and notably Ann Sothern and Judy Garland on their TV series. Roz used him again in Gypsy and Five Finger Exercise.

Mame gets in the Christmas spirit when her luck begins to change!

Morton LaCosta, more famous for stage direction than film, helmed Auntie Mame competently, though I wonder what a Cukor or Minnelli might have done. LaCosta got to direct his two huge hits, Auntie Mame and The Music Man for the screen, and critics and audiences applauded. Both made a bundle for Warner Brothers.

Ultimately, it’s the irreverent Patrick Dennis story and irresistible Roz Russell that truly makes Auntie Mame memorable.

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  film page. 

Check it out & join!

"Auntie Mame" ends with her and an enchanted great-nephew, as they head off to new life adventures.


  1. Hi Rick, this is one of my all time favorite films—I love its exuberant philosophy of Live, Live, Live and the witty acerbic script and brilliantly portrayed characters, headed by La Russell and ably assisted by Coral Browne, Peggy Cass and the rest; the fabulous production design and costumes. It’s a feel good movie, especially during the holidays. As always, your dynamic writing and beautifully curated images, including your perfect GIF opener, perfectly illustrate its dynamic verve and energy!!!!! Thanks for covering this great film classic!
    - Chris

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Chris! Had fun writing this one, a favorite! Cheers, Rick

  2. Wonderful review and great reading; Rosalind was indeed a devout Catholic, but she seemed to have a deep appreciation of the complexities and diversities of the human condition, as well as a great sense of humor something evidenced in her both her private life and work; the Lucy Mame film is an embarrassment to all involved ... for all the power and money invested in it's creation ...

    1. Exactly! I just watched Roz's Oscar speech for her humanitarian work and she was incredibly touching and modest. And in audio interviews, she sounded like great fun. Thanks for your great comments, Rick

  3. My all-time fave. The most feel-good movie made. I could watch it every other month. Rosalind Russell was perfect as were all the other actors with the possible exception of Roger Smith.

    1. Hi, I feel exactly the same way about everything you wrote!
      Cheers, and thanks for dropping a line,

  4. I believe the director's name is DaCosta, not La Costa. Great review, btw. Interesting that DaCosta used the "iris in/iris out" effect in both AUNTIE MAME and THE MUSIC MAN. A little too theatrical for film, in my opinion. I found Peggy Cass's whiny Agnes Gooch incredibly annoying, but I guess it's the way that the character was written. I actually think Bea Arthur's Vera Charles is the best thing about Lucy's 1974 version, though Coral Browne aquits herself admirably here. I didn't realize that the makeup guy used tapes and other "lift" devices on Roz Russell in this movie. Interesting to read after all the criticism about Lucy's efforts to look younger in MAME. I own AUNTIE MAME on blu-ray, and it's a stellar transfer. The color is gorgeous!

    1. Thanks for the comments and good to know about the Blu Ray.
      Roz was able to pull off the early middle age of Mame as she was 50, whereas Lucy was a dozen years older and looked older than that, off camera.
      Frankly, I thought Bea Arthur looked drag queen-ish, after seeing her frankly middle-aged as Maude, then seeing her in a black Joan Crawford pompadour as Vera.
      And La Costa's adaptations are def theatrical, but still fun.
      Cheers, Rick

  5. Well I just love those really old movies they remind me of my grandfather and my grandmother ❤️ and that would be and (Joe Williams swampy) and grandmother name is Florence swampy)❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️