things to think about

today i am thinking about: AUNTIE MAME
May 9, 2009, 10:37 pm
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I am a bad movie watcher if you mean sitting down and watching through. I am a great movie watcher if you mean stopping and thinking and discussing. If you for some reason are sensitive about spoilers, this is not the post for you, although this movie was made in 1958 and really now.auntiemameposter

Here is a quick summary. Mame Dennis is a lovely lady who loves life. Her son passes away and leaves his son, Patrick, in her care. She tends to Patrick, who over the course of the movie grows older. Mame loses everything in the stock crash, but has the good fortune to fall in love with and marry Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, an oil millionaire, who dies on their multi-year around-the-world honeymoon. Patrick grows up and turns into a real square, and wants to marry Gloria Upson, who is a WASP to the hilt. Mame meets her WASPy parents, the Upsons, and decides this marriage is a horrible idea. So she interferes and the marriage does not happen. And they all live happily ever after.

  2. Auntie Mame is Very Fabulous.
    • She lives at 3 Beekman Place in New York, a neighborhood far to the east between 49th and 51st street.
    • She is very rich; her dress, she says at one point, cost $500.
      • $500 in 1928 is $6,219.56 in 2009.
      • If Mame were buying off the rack, she could (according to the Bergdorf Goodman website) buy almost any cocktail dress in stock.
      • So Mame is something like Lily Van der Woodsen Bass, only more fun. Maybe more of an Eleanor Waldorf Rose?
        • Why doesn’t Gossip Girl have more boozy old ladies? Gramma Van der Woodsen is not nearly enough. An Auntie Mame would do a lot of good.
    • But you might remember what happened in 1928. Rich people like Auntie Mame lost everything. And when Auntie Mame goes to work we quickly learn how intensely unsuited she is for any life of labor. This is something I think about a lot — how lots of capital (not even just class privilege) means that you get to be unsuited for a life of labor. If you don’t have a lot of cash access, well, that sucks and you better figure out how to make it work. You have to be intensely, opulently, lavishly rich to really never have to worry about learning how to make change. It makes me wonder about this now, the greatest depression. Is there a generation rich enough they are only just now figuring out how to make change or run a multi-line phone? It is hard for me to even imagine those people exist any more, but they must.
    • Mame runs an incredibly rich house — at the beginning of the show she redecorates and we first meet her throwing a lavish party, ordering bootleg gin by the bathtub. Once she loses everything, her house is empty, stark white — she can’t pay her staff, who stick with her anyways, and she can only buy one tiny present for each of them. Her staff, in fact, dip into their own savings to pay her grocery and butcher bill. The look on Roz Russell’s face when she realizes this is what makes her a great actress.
    • Luckily there are MEN for her. In comes Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, literally saving her at her job at Macy’s, marrying her, and then off they go to travel around the world. Mame has her diamond cigarette holder back and life is beautiful. In what world is this how it works? Does this model of marriage still exist? I am inclined to say no. At any rate, his money is in oil, and as he says “The oil keeps coming up, stock market crash or none.” Later he falls off a mountain trying to take a photograph — yes really — and he dies. Mame’s awfully sad — they really are in love, it’s clear — and she is also awfully set for the rest of her life.
      • I think this is probably a warning about the dangers of that digital photography thing where everyone’s too busy taking pictures to look around them.
      • Like texting while walking, right?
    • Once Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside bites it, Mame of course manages to continue looking fabulous even in her mourning. She also has the most impeccably placed grey streaks. I love the version of aging characters in movies from this time: add three dignified streaks of grey and call it good.
    • One of the plot lines I hate the most is the plot line surrounding Brian O’Bannon. He is a tortured asshole “poet” who has been hired to help Mame with her book. He drinks, he sits around, and — in one of the most disturbing scenes of the time — he tries to have his way with Mame. She only gets away because Patrick comes in…and completely believes Mame wanted it. Agnes Gooch, Mame’s secretary, goes out with him, he roughs her up, gets her pregnant, and leaves. He comes back at the end to claim his part of the royalties of the book — and everyone’s so glad, because it turns out he married Agnes when she was so drunk she didn’t remember it. Hoorah! At least she’s not an unwed mother!
        Unwed women: a primer

      • It sucks to be you. You will horrify your benefactress’ nephew’s stupid relatives.
      • Better to have an asshole husband who abandons you than no husband at all!
      • Part of the overall thread of Mame’s permissiveness is that she has taken Agnes in without batting an eye. Her acceptance of Agnes’ “condition” without question is part of what I see as her sympathetic character. Sympathetic for real? You decide.
    • The most miraculous part of this whole movie by far is Mame’s visit to the Upsons in Connecticut. They are petit bourgeois small-minded WASPs played to the teeth by Lee Patrick and Willlard Waterman. Right now I am thinking about going home to Seattle and how once you’re in New York everywhere else feels strange. Mame is a creature only of New York; where else would she get to be herself? But she is also worldly, and cultured, compared to the Upsons, who are bigoted and awkward.
      • Gloria Upson is played as some kind of stereotype I don’t know much about. Joanna Barnes plays the role through her teeth and it’s imPOSsible. I assume this is a WASP thing but I can’t quite place her voice — it’s a very particular accent. Glory is an Upper Richmond Girls’ School girl. “Mums and Daddums and I went down to our place in Ft. Lauderdale.” Here is a clip of her telling a story and even though it’s late in the movie, if you’ve gotten this far I’ve spoiled it all for you anyways so ENJOY.
      • The Upsons are anti-Jewish, make bad canapés, worse cocktails, and leave running from Mame’s generous life. This is a picture of them at their house, Upson Downs, in Darien, CT (Aryans from Darien!). Such scorn was never directed at a garden gnome.
    • Auntie Mame lives in New York of 1928.
    • Auntie Mame’s world is very, very lush and forward thinking.
    • People of color in this movie:
      1. Mame’s Asian butler, Ito. Command of English: comical, fey, and shrill. Heart: of gold. Helps pay Mame’s grocery bill. Lays out her dresses. From my 21st century eyes, definitely the precursor of the Wise Gay Asian Best Friend. Ito is played by Yuki Shimoda, who played many roles and who is one of those great actors whose whole career was defined by the inability of any actor of color to get a decent part in a Hollywood movie. You should click on his name and read about him. He did some commercial work, did some good films, and probably had to mince and shriek way more than he would have liked.
      2. Article about Asian stereotypes in Hollywood, darling?
      3. Black horse helpers. Command of English: irrelevant. They don’t have lines. They just hold horses. Turner Classic Movie’s series about black roles in Hollywood, darling?
      4. Here’s a tough one: Irish nanny. Command of English: lilting. Heart: also of gold. She’s white but also clearly an ethnic stereotype. This movie was made in 1958, and set in 1928, when the Irish were definitely not “white,” even if they were white skinned. I’m leaving this in, but putting it at the bottom, because to a 2009 audience Irish people are much more definitively white than anything else.
      5. And if the nanny goes in, of course the Irish writer O’Bannion does too. Only he is upper class — at least, he’s played that way — or at any rate his stereotype isn’t “lusty Irish” as much as “tortured artist asshole.”
    • And finally, this movie as a play was turned into a musical — Mame! — that ran for 4 years on Broadway. Roz Russell did not come back to the show. Mame! was made into a movie in 1974, with Lucille Ball playing Mame in a performance that everyone says was just great but not amazing. And look who plays Mame’s friend Vera, a bit part made into a serious role in the musical.