Thursday, November 5, 2009

Vintage Novels {Auntie Mame}

"As luck would have it, Auntie Mame, dressed in one of her most exotic outfits, was having stingers with a distinguished Lithuanian rabbi and two dancers from the cast of Blackbirds when Mr. Babcock and I burst into the drawing room."

I love Auntie Mame! It's one of my very favourite novels. I reread it at least once (sometimes twice) a year. It's just so wonderfully hilarious and the author's descriptions of daily life and characters over a span of about thirty years are some of the best written in American Literature. For example "She was built along the lines of a General Electric refrigerator and looked like a cross between Caligula and a cockatoo".

Auntie Mame; An Irreverent Escapade was published in 1955 and was an immediate hit, staying on the New York Times best seller list for over two years. It was then adapted into an equally successful Broadway play starring the always fabulous Rosalind Russell, who reprised her role in the film version that was released in December 1958 and became the highest grossing film of 1959. A paperback edition was finally re-released in 2001 by Broadway Books along with its 1958 best selling sequel Around the World with Auntie Mame (dedicated by the author to Rosalind Russell).

Auntie Mame tells the story of a 10 year old orphan named Patrick who is sent to live with his father's eccentric sister Mame Dennis in 1928. The book is told by an adult Patrick looking back on his madcap adventures with his aunt, after being prompted by a memoir in Reader's Digest about a foundling being raised by a rather dull spinster. We first meet Auntie Mame when she is in her Japanese phase before becoming (among other things) a decorator, Southern belle, Anglo-Irish writer, society matriarch, failed actress before ending in her Indian phase. Patrick never complains about the unconventional way in which his aunt raised him, such as sending him to a co-ed school for naked children for a few weeks. But he does rebel after graduating university by getting engaged to Gloria Upson, who's all blonde, Connecticut, tennis and has a friend named Bunny (definitely not from the right sort of people). Naturally Auntie Mame has to prevent the marriage from happening in the funniest chapter of the book.
What the author does brilliantly is to describe every outfit that Auntie Mame wears and in what context she wears them in. Since she changes her style every 15 minutes, we get a record in prose form of the changing styles of the vintage era and the care in which she selects her outfits in accordance to where she is going and who she is meeting. We also have Auntie Mame's best friend and stage star Vera Charles (the archetype of the Heroine's Alcoholic Best Friend) offering this advice on what to wear to meet Patrick's very conservative trustee: "A grey day, a grey mood, a grey dress with perhaps just a suggestion of sables".

Here's the trailer and a scene from the beginning of the film. As far as adaptations go it's excellent, maintaining as much as possible from the book that the censors would allow and changing a few aspects in order to make the plot run smoother.

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