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Film Review: Auntie Mame

Auntie Mame (1958; Directed by Morton DaCosta)

Witty as all get out, this is studio-era Hollywood screwball comedy at its best but also, sometimes, at its worst. For all of its sharpness, Auntie Mame is rarely anything but unsubtle with its conclusions, its intrusive orchestral score, and especially with its racial stereotyping (poor, marginalized Ito). Following an orphaned boy who goes to live with his jetsetting aunt in Manhattan and the madcap antics that swirl around them, it’s a depiction of a particular culture of American privilege that is more persistent and contemporary than the passage of half a century since its theatrical release might otherwise suggest.

Still, Auntie Mame is quite funny stuff fairly often, with Rosalind Russell firing on all comic cylinders as the titular lead. The writing is snide and knowing, rising once or twice to inspired heights (see the embed below: “It was just ghastly!”). The film is also a cutting satire of several facets of the clashing cultures of the wealthiest cadre of Americans that the Occupy movement sharply labelled as “the 1%”. Young Patrick Dennis’ coming-of-age path crosses that of progressive New York City faux-hemians, aristocratic and reactionary Southern plantation owners, Romney-esque Eastern Seaboard country-club scions, and staid, conventional urban bankers. Every faction comes in for roughly equal comic abuse, although Mame’s membership in the first group ultimately encourages us to side with them in the end as the least objectionable group, or at least the most fun to be around, despite their other foibles.

If such an obvious frothy slice of entertainment fluff has an overarching political-sociological point to make, however, (and comedies basically always do, if you parse the laughs properly), it’s that class isn’t the basis of the vaunted liberal-conservative divide in the United States. Culture, on the other hand, most definitely is. Furthermore, nearly everyone of any consequences on both sides of this divide are pretty equanimously ludicrous as well as complicit in the perpetuation of their common socioeconomic privilege. It’s a conclusion of which Jon Stewart would be very proud.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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