From Rosalind Russell To Auntie Mame

mameposterIt was one of the most popular books not only of the nineteen fifties but the twentieth century. People couldn’t get enough of the lovable oddball who believed “life was a banquet and most poor suckers were starving to death”.

The fifties were (allegedly) a time of conservative conformity. The public reaction said otherwise particularly when Hollywood and more importantly Rosalind Russell brought her to the silver screen.

Auntie Marion

She described herself as the ultimate Greenwich Village eccentric. Born March of 1891 in Buffalo New York, Marion Tanner blazed her own trail early on (after graduating from college she served as an ice hockey instructor) . In the latter part of the roaring Twenties, Tanner moved to Greenwich Village and turned her house into one of the meeting places for people who reveled in the unconventional.

…for many years it was a haven and salon for struggling artists, writers, freethinkers, radicals and a wide spectrum of what Miss Tanner sometimes called ”Bohemian types.”

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The 1920’s Greenwich Village of Marion Tanner

While the Bohemian sanctuary would not entirely disappear it would eventually give way to a different type of refuge. Marion Tanner would turn 72 Bank Street into a boardinghouse for the less fortunate.

Gone were the days of painters and philosophers holding court. Now it was about lending a hand to alcoholics, drug addicts, the homeless and anybody else that might have fallen though the cracks of society.

It was a noble effort on Tanner’s part but by 1964 the money had run out and there was no way for her to continue doing it. Tanner was evicted from her home of 37 years. The sheriff who had to do the evicting summed her up this way.

”She’s an amazing woman. There’s no place left in our society for a person like her. It’s too bad. In an earlier time she might have been a saint.”

From Edward To Pat

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Edward Tanner III aka Patrick Tanner aka Patrick Dennis.

Edward Everett Tanner III nicknamed Pat by his father was born in May of 1921. While his family suffered a setback or two they were definitely of the blue blood variety. Pat from the beginning developed a love for the arts.

After WWII where he served as an ambulance driver, Pat married Louise Stickney and began a career writing advertising copy.

But something told Pat he could do a lot more with his talents than write copy and promotional material.

In the early fifties Tanner wrote two novels Oh, What a Lovely Wedding  and House Party .

Tanner’s writing style was probably best described in retrospect by his biographer Eric Myers:

“Pat had a gift for creating characters who, while exaggerated for comic effect, stopped short of being completely cartoonish.”

Neither Oh, What a Lovely Wedding or House Party sold well but in some ways it didn’t matter. Pat Tanner was now officially an author and on his way to higher ground.

Help Is On The Way Darlings

It’s unclear the depth of their relationship or how many times they visited with one another but somewhere in time Patrick Tanner decided that Marion Tanner and her lifestyle would make a good story. Told from the point of view of an orphan (Patrick Dennis) sent to live with his only living relative, Auntie Mame after being rejected by countless publishers debuted in 1955.

To say it took off is a gross understatement

 …the first edition of Auntie Mame was on the bestseller list for over two years, ultimately selling more than two million copies in five different languages. At the zenith of its popularity, it was selling more than a thousand copies a day.

Auntie Mame struck a chord. A free spirited woman making no apologies for who she was and how she lived is pretty strong stuff particularly in an era where that kind of thinking was by and large frowned upon.

But there was something else at work. While the “life is a banquet” line remains the most memorable it’s something else that Mame says which has arguably a far greater impact.

“Your Auntie Mame is going to open doors for you Patrick. Doors that you never dreamed existed.”

Auntie Mame was offering a path away from the ho hum routine many found themselves in. That feeling of having someone totally unafraid of life act as your personal guide was powerful.

Get Away From This

I want to improve my career and professional life and…I am tired of being a clothes horse – a sort of hothouse orchid in a stand of wild flowers.  – Rosalind Russell

By the late 1940’s Rosalind Russell’s time as a leading lady in Hollywood was drawing to a close. Not that she had lost any of her skills as a great actress. Sister Kenny released in 1946 garnered Russell her second Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. The film flopped at the box office.

The next year Russell turned in a superb performance and received another Oscar nomination as Lavinia Mannon  in The Mourning Becomes Electra.

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With Kirk Douglas in The Mourning Becomes Electra.

Anything from Eugene O’Neil is not for the squeamish. His works often start out in misery and by the end are in full blown despair. Movie goers have always had a hard time taking the great playwright on his own terms. Like Sister Kenny before, Electra was a box office bomb.

Rosalind Russell knew the ups and downs of her profession. She was a pro’s pro who always did her best and took whatever happened in stride.

Movie executives may have appreciated her attitude but made it very clear that whatever parts Russell wanted to play, she wouldn’t.  People like Louis B Mayer and Darryl F. Zanuck were only too happy to keep giving her what she didn’t want:

“…there were plenty of duds along the way, as I played the same role over and over—the over‐tailored, padded‐shouldered, pompadoured, funny‐hatted, sleek and tough career woman with the flip lines and the flinty heart that somehow melts in the clutches of the man I needed all the time —in the last reel, of course.”

With her career in Hollywood at a dead end, Catherine Rosalind Russell decided that it was of the utmost urgency that she take matters into her own hands

That Wonderful Town

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When something happens to you, you either let it defeat you, or you defeat it. – Rosalind Russell

In 1950 after two decades in Hollywood Rosalind Russell made her return to the stage. First as a member of the touring company in John Van Druten’s smash hit Bell Book and Candle.  She realized early on that school was back in session.

“I learned I had become sluggish working with the camera,” she said. ‘“The stage demands that you use 42 new muscles, and you can’t let down one minute. You have to relearn how to get laughs, to build ‘em from the snickers to the belly to the boff.”

If you were having a bad day in movies the studios could leave it on the cutting room floor. Theater provided no such luxury. If things weren’t going well there was no hiding it. Russell had not known this world for close to twenty years but no matter what, the stage was not going to defeat her.

Bell Book and Candle was a period of retraining for Rosalind Russell. Wonderful Town (based on her 1942 film My Sister Eileen) showed a great artist in peak form who relished any and every challenge thrown her way.

As they say in sports Rosalind Russell was in the zone. Probably in her opinion she always was but Hollywood didn’t see it that way. Thank God for the theater.

Add Water And Stir

After a year and a half Russell left Wonderful Town.  She had shown that she still had it and was capable of so much more. Wonderful Town was a huge success across the board winning five Tony Awards including one for Best Musical. Russell was hailed by audiences and critics alike for her performance.

Yet it was all just a prelude to her greatest triumph.

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When producer Robert Fryar approached Russell about playing Auntie Mame she didn’t hesitate. Even though there was nothing in the works at the moment, her years of experience as well as the buzz Edward Tanner’s novel had created told Russell this was a hit in the making.

On October 31, 1956 she would be proven right.  Auntie Mame was a bigger success than Wonderful Town. Most actors are lucky to have one blockbuster in their careers be it movie or theater. Rosalind Russell within a three year period was once again the toast of Broadway.

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On stage with Jan Handzlik as Patrick Dennis

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Styling as only Auntie Mame can

639 performances later Russell again left a successful play but the reasons this time were a lot different. Warner Brothers had bought the film rights to Auntie Mame and were not going to wait however many years before they started production. Part of those film rights stated that Russell after a certain point had to bow out of the play so she could start work on the movie version.

It may not have been the greatest movie she ever made but it would undoubtedly be the one she became most associated with. There are some so-so moments and at times it isn’t really a character study as it is a play (notice the fade outs) strung together by a series of gags.

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With the inimitable Fred Clark

But make no mistake. Russell makes it work:

It is this tenderness in Miss Russell that makes Auntie Mame tolerable, for without it she would be an inexcusable egomaniac and a bore.

This critic is wrong about one thing. Even without the moments of tenderness, Auntie Mame might come off as an egomaniac but nowhere close to being a bore.

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With Peggy Cass as Gooch about to become the victim of an Auntie Mame makeover.

Jan Handzlik reprises his Broadway role as Patrick Dennis along with Peggy Cass and Yuki Shimoda. Roger Smith plays the grownup Patrick and does a pretty decent job. And a shout out to Fred Clark as Mr Babcock. Clark was one of the best TV and movie comedians of his era. For me one of the low points of Auntie Mame is that he and Rosalind Russell don’t have enough scenes together. We’re talking two comedy technicians who knew how to get the most out of a joke.

In An Earlier Time

Unfortunately life doesn’t imitate art enough. The real life relationship between Edward Tanner and his Aunt grew sour over the years. Marion was okay with Edward when her house was akin to an art salon.  Helping the less fortunate rubbed him and her neighbors the wrong way. After awhile Edward Tanner began telling people that his Aunt was not the model for Mame. It was obviously too late to pretend that was actually true but he did anyway.

Marion had accepted she was the model and parlayed that into having her moments in the sun. But later on just like her nephew Marion began to distance herself from the character.

I don’t especially like Auntie Mame. I think I’m much nicer.

They labeled her an eccentric but that was just a term they used to describe someone they didn’t understand. In reality Marion Tanner had the courage to reach out and embrace people that many of us would recoil from.  Why?

I do believe in people, you know

Sounds a lot like Auntie Mame.

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