We do keep a lot of old 40s, 50s and 60s movies in our Netflix queue. A lot of them are there because they conjure up memories, either of childhood experiences in movie theatres or watching the late show in the living room, or maybe catching some old flick in a distracted haze on the tube at three in the morning sometime in my twenties. It's interesting to retrace one's cultural steps and say, "OK, is this really as good as I thought it was once?" And sure, we like to be entertained too, but part of our idea of entertainment is to play amateur sociologist and follow the first question with, "So, what can this fun, corny old movie teach us about the times it was made in?"
Case in point: Auntie Mame. Made in 1959, based on a popular novel in the guise of a memoir, the basic story is: stuffy old businessman kicks the bucket (no real explanation of what happened to mom), leaving his young, impressionable son in the care of his eccentric sister, who in her lovably goofy, semi-responsible way, strives to raise the boy to appreciate life, culture, craziness, and the world, and not grow up to be so damn stuffy. A close call ensues later when the boy falls for a vapid, boring rich girl whose obnoxious, bigoted nouveau-riche parents want to set him up in the family business, but Auntie Mame saves the day by pulling out all the stops to shock the small-minded bourgeois family by being her extravagant, bohemian, transgressive (She likes Jews! She takes care of unmarried pregnant girls who've been ditched by their asshole one-night-stands! Oh, the impropriety!) self. Rosalind Russell is gorgeous and likeable, playing Mame as a good-hearted, if slightly flaky, woman who is devoted to her nephew and sincerely wishes to open his mind.
Right off the bat, the movie made me think about the ridiculous Presidential election season we've had to suffer through this year, particularly the shifting definition of "elitist". When Mame meets would-be in-laws the Upsons, a rich-but-ignorant couple in a "restricted" gated community who turn out to be nasty anti-Semites, it's like a confrontation between the old definition of "elite" (those who have all the power and keep those whom they look down on out of their circle and away from all opportunity) and the new one (anyone who dares to show any uniqueness, personal taste, education, or curiosity beyond what is presented by the mainstream). The question is raised: who is the real snob? The one who barely tolerates bad drinks and worse jokes, or the one who lobbies to keep the "wrong" kind of people from buying the property next door?
OK, so for all its good intentions, this is still a Fifties movie, and even while it's making extravagant statements about tolerance, there are other bits that make you stare in disbelief. Number one of these is Ito, the Japanese butler. What's the deal with this guy? Is he meant to be a gay stereotype or an Asian stereotype or both? After a while his incessant giggling got so distracting that I found myself inventing a backstory for him where every time he wasn't in a scene, he was in another room smoking a giant bong, which made his behavior appear somewhat more explicable. I suppose, in the years following World War II, a Japanese man portrayed as a giddy queen spouting broken English was an improvement from previous stereotypes. Still annoying though. (At least Ito was played by an actual Japanese actor rather than Mickey Rooney with bad makeup and prosthetic buck teeth. Could've been worse.)
Slightly problematic also is the comical portrait of genteel Southern plantation life where Mame meets the family of the Southern millionaire who (conveniently) falls for her and saves her from destitution during the Depression. (Though she never seems to risk losing her huge New York apartment.) It would admittedly put a damper on the comedy to notice who exactly was picking the cotton on said plantation. (Unless maybe it was a sort of theme-park plantation built on the husband-to-be's oil fortune, that didn't actually grow any cotton, but just adopted the look, but that would be weird, wouldn't it?) The pre-Civil Rights Movement Hollywood fantasy of Southern aristocratic life carries on as usual here. Pay no attention to the black guy in the background; he's cool with all this, honest he is.
We'll file those last two paragraphs in the Product Of Its Times file for now, though. Auntie Mame is a great character, the sort of sweet, loopy, adorable aunt many of us would love to have brightening our childhoods. Interestingly for a Fifties movie, the nudist schools, drunken actresses, and wacky endless-party atmosphere are portrayed as good influences on the young boy. A lot of the comedy and conflict comes from the fact that the kid is dropped into this environment and learns from all his new experiences, all the while shadowed by a disapproving banker/conservator with his own plans for the boy's future.
Making her an aunt allows the story to unfold this way, but I just had an odd thought for a completely different movie: what would it be like if the Mame character was the boy's mother instead? That would be interesting. Would she be considered even more inappropriate by society then? Maybe she'd be widowed, or better yet divorced, with the Mr. Babcock character as the father and ex-husband, now turning the conflict into one between two parents with radically different ideas on how to raise a boy. Now make the story otherwise the same. How do the relationships look now? A fascinating mental exercise, hmm?
Davis had her own interesting take on Mame. She saw her as a shallow, frivolous character until her husband (the aforementioned Southern oil millionaire who happens to be a really sweet guy who loves her...how's that for good luck?) dies in a freak mountain accident, leading her to retrace all of their steps, revisiting every country they had traveled together in their marriage. Davis argued that after she took this journey and got complete with her past, Mame has more of an air of seriousness and idealism about her, and cares far more about other people. That's another, equally intriguing way to read it, definitely.
None of this should take away from the fact that this is a warm, fun and sometimes hilarious piece of entertaining fluff with a decent message overall: get out there and learn about the world, have a sense of humor, show compassion for others, and to hell with jerks who try to restrain your self-expression. This is one of those movies you ought to see before you die, but be sure to avoid that godawful musical remake with Lucille Ball. Loooooo-cy, you got some 'splainin' to do.