At the halfway point of our Warner Brothers Franchise season, we've seen one gangster shot down on church steps and another killed in the Sierra Nevada. There's been an innocent man jailed, a leading lady heading off to a leper colony during a Yellow Fever epidemic and another one landing in a mental institution after a tragic love affair. This is what we mean when we say Warner Brothers is known for its dark films.
The studio did have a lighter side, though, producing successful, budget-conscious musicals like "42nd Street," which we showed in the fall.
But one thing Warner was never known for was original comedies. None of the major comic actors, directors or writers worked for WB. Jimmy Cagney, gangster extraordinaire, was probably Warner's top comic talent, but his comedies were not as good as the performer.
In the '30s and '40s, Warner developed successful Broadway comedies, like "Brother Rat," "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" into Golden Age hits. In the '60s, the studio expanded its stage adaptations to dramas, most successfully "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?" and big-budget musicals like its all-time top Oscar winner, "My Fair Lady."
The '50s belonged to "Auntie Mame," 1958's biggest box office hit and one of the American Film Institute's top 100 comedies. Originally a bestselling novel by Patrick Dennis, it was adapted into a Broadway sensation before the screen version that we'll see Tuesday. Its life didn't end there, as it became one of the 1960s' biggest Broadway musicals and then a 1970s big screen dud.
Mame's story is obviously appealing to writers. She is an exuberant optimist whose narrative takes us from Prohibition through the Depression and into the 1950s. Her classic line, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death," is her philosophy in a nutshell. Mame's life is one big party until she finds herself having to care for her orphaned nephew.
"Auntie Mame" is filled with bizarre, extravagant characters, many of which are played by the original Broadway cast. Most notably there is Rosalind Russell, one of Hollywood great leading ladies, in her career role. She imbues Mame with spirited and uninhibited energy, comic grandeur and, most importantly, a deep, tender and sympathetic heart. Russell was Tony nominated on stage and received a Best Actress nod for the film. Her co-star, Peggy Cass, as Mame's forlorn, myopic secretary Agnes Gooch, won the supporting actress Tony and received an Oscar nomination in that category.
The film was nominated for six Oscars, but falters in its direction. Martin DaCosta was a theater producer and director who only made three films, all of which bear his stagy, theatrical style. As a film producer and director, two of his films, "Auntie Mame" and "The Music Man," both of which he had done on Broadway, received Best Picture nominations.
"Auntie Mame" is gorgeous to look at with its Oscar-nominated, wide-screen, color cinematography and lavish art and set design. You won't come away from it contemplating the meaning of life, but you'll have plenty of laughs and are guaranteed to leave with a smile.
NAU Film Series
Warner Brothers Franchises
"Auntie Mame" (1958)
Director: Morton DaCosta
Starring: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Peggy Cass
Running Time: 143 minutes
When: Tuesday at 7 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Where: NAU's Cline Library
Free parking behind Cline Library in P13 and by Rec Center in P7A on San Francisco
For more info: nau.edu/filmseries