Thursday, November 30, 2023

Auntie Mame - 1958

Auntie Mame
(1958) presents one of the most concise and yet comprehensive illustrations of Christmas in yuletide filmdom. It is only one episode in the smorgasbord of events in the life of larger-than-life Mame Dennis (catch the “life is a banquet” reference), but it contains more Christmas bang for your buck than a lot of “Christmas movies.”

Rosalind Russell, lovingly and superbly over the top as Mame, has lost her fortune in the infamous October 1929 Wall Street Crash. In the Great Depression, she must work for a living and after losing a string of jobs in the funniest way possible, she finds herself struggling through her latest employment, working the toy counter in a New York City department store. 

This one, as in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), covered here, is in the champion of them all, Macy’s. Roz has trouble filling out her sales slip book for cash transactions, so she encourages her customers to purchase toys C.O.D. The floorwalker morphs from mere steam coming out of his ears to ulcers.

Lucky for Roz, a good-hearted Southern Gentleman millionaire stops in to buy several pairs of roller skates for an orphanage back home. She messes up the sale and gets fired. Hilariously, in a spirit of Christmas revenge, she urges the millionaire, played by Forrest Tucker, to shop at Macy’s competitor, Gimbel’s, instead. 

She walks outside into the dark night of wintry, snowy streets with festively decorated store windows, and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” wafting through the air from some unseen choir, and the sound of bell ringing from the street corner Salvation Army volunteer. Roz is poor, but still a good egg, and she drops her last coin into the bucket.

When she arrives back at her apartment, her little nephew, Patrick, played by Jan Handzlik, is home from boarding school and is excitedly decorating the living room. It is a week away from Christmas. There is a table-top tree. He wants to celebrate Christmas now because he’s so excited to give her a present. It’s a costume bracelet, which she treats like diamonds. Taking courage, she calls in the housekeeper Nora, played by our wonderful Connie Gilchrist, and the houseman Ito, played by Yuki Shimoda.

Roz gives Patrick and the staff their presents because they need Christmas now. Christmas is restorative, and a rope to cling to of hope. The staff’s present to her is to have paid off the butcher and grocery bills.

They dance around, sing “Deck the Halls” along with the radio, until Roz, overcome by the joy, the fear, the shame of not paying her bills or her staff, collapses into tears. All the colors of Christmas swirled into the image.

Then, a Christmas miracle. Forrest Tucker has tracked her down, apologizes for her losing her job, and comes to take them all out to dinner. There is joy and celebration again. Of course, those familiar with the story will know he becomes her dearly beloved husband.

The stories her nephew wrote about Mame Dennis were published in a book in 1955, and the Broadway play came in 1956. Roz, little Jan Handzlik, Mr. Shimoda, and also Peggy Cass were all in the stage play (Roz was nominated for a Tony), and this lush and offbeat movie that resurrected Roz’s career came in 1958. She was nominated for an Oscar.

This Christmas scene also left another legacy. In 1966, the stage musical version Mame, starring Angela Lansbury, gave us a popular Christmas song to add to our repertoire, “We Need a Little Christmas”…right this very minute.


Get your copy of CHRISTMAS IN CLASSIC FILMS here at Amazon in print or eBook...

...and here at Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and a variety of other online stores.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century and Hollywood Fights Fascism and Christmas in Classic Films. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.

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