Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Kaleidoscope Title Sequence in "Auntie Mame" (1958): Judge a Movie by its Title

Recently, I re-watched one of my favorite all-time movies. Really, the movie that made me love movies- 1958’s classic comedy, Auntie Mame. It’s one of those great film that manages to make you make you feel so happy, and uplifted and sentimental all at once.

Based on a popular play which in turn was based on a bestselling novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame tells the story of a young orphaned boy who is raised by his eccentric, albeit lovable Auntie Mame played to perfection by Rosalind Russell. Young Patrick brings fulfillment to Mame in his youth, while she teaches him how to “Live, Live, Live” and eventually rescues him from some of the most beastly, bourgeois, babbity snobs on the Eastern Seaboard. 
If I may, I’ll digress briefly to sing the praises of Ros Russell. Really, she was an extraordinary woman. Not only was she a talented versatile and beautifully elegant actress, she was also an exceptionally kind and caring women who was recognized over and over again for her extensive charity work. On screen, Rosalind Russell is always so vibrant and funny that it’s hard to look away. I feel today, her talents often go unappreciated and it brings me great sorrow.

But anyhow, Ros first played Mame on Broadway and she was hugely successful because the part is really the culmination of all her other roles: lovable, loud, and elegant. To begin with, Dennis’ story is hard to screw up; and perfected by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Auntie Mame easily became an eternal classic. Eventually, Warner Brothers bought the rights and produced the movie, which is equally excellent. It’s one of the lovely movies from the fifties, with glittery sets, incredible Technicolor and of course, an amazing story and cast. Everything I love about old movies is front and center in Auntie Mame.

Typical of films of the era, Auntie Mame also starts out with an incredible title sequence backed by a lush score written by Bronislau Kaper. The titles begin with the red-gloved hands of Auntie Mame offering forth a kaleidoscope.  The camera zooms to the kaleidoscope and from then on, the title play out in front of a changing, colorful kaleidoscopic background. Visually, it’s actually quite stunning.

The whole inspiration behind the title sequence is that Mame allows people to view the world from a more colorful and an exciting perspective. And what’s more colorful and exciting than a kaleidoscope. It’s a simple concept, but it really works with the theme of the film. In essence, Auntie Mame is not complicated, and nor is the title sequence.

On a practical note, the film exhibits the bold, vibrant colors that Technicolor was able to offer to movie makers of the time, giving Auntie Mame, like many films of the 50s, a beautiful, bright look that's very common in movies of the era. There was just something about technicolor that made everything look great... wasn't there?

To return to the music, I feel it adds a lot to the title sequence and the movie itself. It’s just simply rich and throughout the film, Kaper added little subtleties to it so it could fit more cleanly into the time specific time period of the film. For example, there’s really this lovely brassy, rich sound when Mame redoes her apartment in blue in the very beginning that I feel just fits the art deco, sophisticated atmosphere.

The sequence was designed by the prolific art director Wayne Fitzgerald. Wayne worked for the studios in the ‘50s and ‘60s, creating some fabulous work that was really basically unnoticed. Later on, after making some friends in high places, he ventured out on his own and continued designing great work. You’ll see more of his genius later.

More likely than not, Wayne Fitzgerald himself did not actually create the fabulous moving pieces of art; he was more likely only the designer. But I guess, he is the real genius behind the work. Once again, some faceless artist actually made the pieces we see today, immortalized forever on screen.

If you get one thing from the whole blog, understand this. The art that appears in films is truly a work of art, regardless of the medium in which it appears. Art in movies is important, even in subtle ways. Nothing is without a purpose. Title sequences like these are first visual delights. But on secondary levels, these sequences set the tone for the entire film and mentally prepare the audience for what they are about to see. In the case of Auntie Mame, the film is a colorful, vibrant, joyful piece. And just as it should be, so is the opening title sequence. 

Mame famously said, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death," and these sequences are certainly completely satisfying to the classic film fan!

Note: Title sequence clips appear in no particular order

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