Monday, April 28, 2014

Setting and Color in "Auntie Mame" (1958)

I know I've said it before, but even after all these years of watching classic film, Auntie Mame is still one of my favorite movies of all time. How could it not be? With an endearing story, timeless humor, and Rosalind Russell, who doesn't fall in love with the film that's all about learning to "LIVE! LIVE! LIVE!" And, to top it all off, the film is a visual delight. The set in Auntie Mame is simply "top drawer-" there's no other way to succinctly describe it. So, I'm dedicating this post to those beautiful sets and how those sets helped set the mood of the film in general.
1.The Oriental Phase
I'm not alone in my praise of the set of Auntie Mame. Famously, the film redecorated the central staircase to reflect Mame's changes of styles and moods. I want to talk more about the paintings on the wall and the color schemes used in the different apartment designs rather than simply focus on how the staircase and the chandelier's changes signaled a mild change in Mame's personality. 
2.The Blue Period
As a true Mame-iac, I'm familiar with the novel, play, film, musical, and (unfortunately) the musical film (I do love Lucy, but not that much). In the novel, Mame's home changes throughout the novel because she moves all over New York as her economic status changes. She moves from Beekman Place right after the Stock Market crash in '29 and ultimately ends up setting up camp in several rooms of the St. Regis Hotel after she marries Beau. But in the play (and later in the film), Mame simply stays at No. 3 Beekman Place. Instead of the whole house (and set) changing, her decorations change instead. It's rather brilliant, very practical (in a stage sense) and makes for a very interesting setting analysis. 
3.The Genteel Mourning Stage
Before I start, I have a few confessions to make. The first is that I'm not going to focus in on each of the decor changes. That would be extremely time consuming and, besides, I am not qualified to be a strict judge of decor. Secondly, despite my best efforts, I have been unable to identify any of the paintings or decor in the film. I'm going to keep looking and I'll keep you up to date if I find anything. However, for the purpose of this post, we're looking much more broadly at decor anyway so individual pieces are less important than the composition created by uniting the group of paintings or sculptures, etc. There will be a companion post to this analysis, showing and describing individual pieces in hopes that some helpful member of the art or film history community can help out. 
4.Classical Literary Phase
Auntie Mame transitions time by focusing in on set changes. Throughout the film, there are iconic shots when the camera focuses in on the chandelier (or what's in its place) and then slides down the stairwell to reveal the rest of the decor. Obviously, these decorative changes represent the changes of Mame's interests and personality. When Patrick first meets her, she is in her "Oriental stage" and the decor is clearly Chinese with a 1920s twist- lots of lacquered wood and decorative dragons. But at the same time as the paint and furniture changes, Mame's individual fashion (which is uniquely incredible) with the sets, something which is incredibly significant. There are a number of effects to these extreme costume changes. 
5.The Exotic Modernism
First, Mame looks great in almost every scene despite the alterations in her hair, dress, jewelry- she just shines. Which is, of course, credit to the brilliantly wonderful Rosalind Russell. Mame's matching home and fashion create a feeling of unity with her apartment. They equally reflect each other's styles. At the same time, Mame looks incredibly comfortable and at home in her apartment- no matter the style. Even when she's in her traditional, staid literary phase, she manages to find a perfectly wonderful, uniquely modern outfit that still manages to fit in with the interior design. This, I think, is a bit of subtle characterization by the set designers. Mame is perfectly at ease wherever she is which is part of her undeniable charm. Visually, we immediately recognize it and grow to appreciate it as we see her character develop. 

I'm going to start focusing in on a few individual set designs and explicate this idea further.Before I get much further, though, I just want to give credit to the cinematic geniuses behind the look of Auntie Mame.
Set Designer: George James Hopkins
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly 

1. Mame's Blue Period (ca. 1929)
A costume sketch by Orry-Kelly 
Like I said earlier, when Patrick first comes to New York, Mame is in the midst of Mame's Orientalism. But, in a few weeks, perhaps transformed by Patrick, she redesigns the apartment. In my opinion, this is the best the apartment looks throughout the whole film. Dominated by gentle shades of blue, gray, and purple, No. 3 Beekman Place is just so sophisticated- I love it. In my opinion (and I've been wrong before), it is a mix of Art Deco elements and mild classical elements (I'm thinking of those classical urns framing the doorway).

Everything is offset with beautiful white accessories and soft furniture in the color scheme. But it is also decidedly modern: the movers are seen fixing an abstract painting (in the color scheme, of course) to the wall and there are several Cubist paintings evident. One of my favorite changes in the film's decor is how the stair's baulestrade changes with each style switch. It is just kind of fun to notice

The Blue Period also eventually fits Mame's mood. Out of money from the Crash, she keeps the apartment in its blue glory until she meets and marries Beau. (How she is able to afford the two story apartment is honestly beyond me). It doesn't take a genius to know that blue symbolizes sad and there are several heartbreaking scenes in the apartment during this decorative phase. The room fits Mame's mood when Mr. Babcock takes Patrick away and later when she is desperately trying to keep a job.

I wish I could identify the paintings on the walls, but unfortunately, I am pretty certain that they are studio originals. They were probably put in a prop warehouse and appear in a plethora of films. Patrick does change one painting- a so-called Picasso- to make it more Christmas-y: he adds a funny beard which probably devalues the painting by millions, but no matter. Mame has a great line when she calls the painting a example of Picasso's "Black and Blue period:" an obvious joke about Picasso's real life Blue Period.
Mame's wardrobe matches the apartment and likewise her mood. In that devastating scene when Mr. Babcock takes Patrick, Mame is left alone in that beautiful blue fur coat. That outfit is simply stunning and makes Ros look great! But even later, when Mame returns to the apartment after being fired from Macy's at Christmas, she is dressed in a simple, but chic, blue dress. Despite everything that happens to her, Mame fits her surroundings perfectly. She makes life work for her, which is the strength of her character.

2. The Classic Literary Phase (ca. 1940)
Mame stops being blue when she meets Beau and is rescued financially and romantically. At the same time, she ends her mellow blue period. After all, she can return to her old habit of spending with Beau. After her marriage, she goes through a Southern phase, whose effect on the apartment goes unseen. After Beau dies, Patrick (and Vera?) redecorate the apartment into a very traditional and flowery design: an exuberant mix of Rococo and Classicism. But, I'm focusing on her literary phase- which itself is a tasteful mix of styles. There's a little American Federalism, Neoclassicism, and all-round very traditional, very staid design choices.
The color scheme for this phase of Mame's life is clearly... shades of toast (a phrase Patrick Dennis himself coined). There are light tans and rich browns offset by the neutral whites and beiges. There is beautiful woodwork- both traditional mahogany and painted white. The fireplaces are much more ornate. And there are books and bookshelves everywhere. Look at the picture at the very top, those rows of matching volumes- absolutely beautiful. Books can be so decorate, can't they? (That's an ironic reference to the film).

The inspiration for this design is a little muddled. Sometimes, it reminds me of a British men's club with all the dark wood and traditional furniture, but somehow I don't think that the Irish bum O'Banion would have brought that on. I think that the set designers were simply looking for a very academic setting for Mame in her literary phase and this very traditional, Federalist style worked.

I'm going to write a companion post about the paintings (which I am unable to identify), but I can tell you that they are an interesting mix. In this set alone, I notice an early 19th-century American portrait, late-17th century European portraits (on the staircase), a 20th century portrait (almost definitely from a former studio film), a Dutch floral piece, and a 17th or 18th century animal painting. There are also Federalism American motifs, such as a beautiful carved Federal eagle above the fireplace.
I love Mame's costumes in this phase of her life. You really have to hand it to Orry-Kelly- he covers such a variety of colors, fabrics, and styles in this film alone. And they all really work. Mame's costumes in her literary phase are boldly modern and practical (those fabulous tights and flowing robes) but they still manage to fit in with the setting, which is incredible. In the first outfit we see Mame in, maybe its the pseudo-tuxedo look, but she just looks like a natural literary figure marching around the house giving Agnes orders and giving us another quick view of her apartment. And her second outfit- that wonderful sequined brown outfit- is the perfect match to the apartment's color scheme. Watch the famous "Life is a Banquet" scene again- you'll notice that Mame matches the painting behind her perfectly.
The result of this period of Mame's life is obvious. She is diving full into her memoirs and following in the footsteps of the great... or at least trying. You really can't beat that shot of her leaning against a Shakespeare bust. But at the same time, she is doing it her way- modern, unique, and a little madcap- but wonderful all the same.

3. The Exotic Modernism
I wish I knew more about the production design because I would love to know who exactly designed the specifics pieces in this phase of Mame's life. I don't want to focus too much into this wonderful Yul Oolu design but I do love it dearly. I know Mame's motive for this design is to stick it to the Upsons, but I still love the modernism of it. My favorite piece is that Calder-esqe mobile that Pegeen has so much trouble hanging up and which brings Patrick and her together. 
It's in this modernist setting that Mame seems the most comfortable in. With that beautiful, sparkling outfit with that beautiful green shawl, Rosalind Russell has never looked more stunning. Of course, that scene also has some of the funniest dialogue in the whole film and makes it completely worth waiting for. But, to return to the costume- doesn't it seem that Mame fits in perfectly? The sparkles of her outfit match the sparkles of that fabulously bizarre sculpture in the center of the staircase. Most wonderful of all, though, Mame has become the center of attention that scene. Her sparkling silver outfit (which matches her personality) and her green wrap stand out of the linear browns of the apartment and the browns,whites, and blacks of the rest of the dinner guests. Which is what we, the audience, want by the end of the film because we've completely fallen in love with her.

4. Indian Stage
At the very end of the film, we get this very brief look at Patrick's married life when he brings his young son to visit his Auntie Mame. At this point, Mame is in an Indian stage, dressed in a sparkling gold sari with an apartment with a gold-motif that matches her perfectly. Mame may in her golden years (literally), but her charm and her style (albeit changing) are still constant. I've always noticed how, at the very end, when Mame is leading Michael up the stairs, she matches perfectly with the Buddha in the Indian temple on the staircase's wallpaper. Is she perhaps leading Michael up the steps of Enlightenment? 
Mame is one of the great characters of film history due in large part to the talent of the incredible Rosalind Russell. But Auntie Mame is one of the great films because it is so all-round perfect: funny, heartwarming, and beautiful. And it is made beautiful by the unity of the costumes of Mame and her equally stunning and matching setting. She fits in, she feels comfortable, she is simply... wonderful. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this - I just watched the movie and fell in love with... everything!

    I came here looking for the chandelier and balustrade changes, but stayed for the texts.
    Great blog!


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