The 1958 movie Auntie Mame is considered a classic, and it’s a kick to watch for the constantly changing, over-the-top sets and costumes. It was based on a popular stage play starring the fabulous Rosalind Russell, who reprised her role in the film.
It opens in 1928 when her young nephew Patrick arrives at her doorstep as an orphan, in need of a guardian. His Auntie Mame isn’t the model parental figure, however (*understatement*).
When Patrick and his caretaker Norah arrive at Mame’s apartment for the first time, they’re a little startled by the “unique” hallway decor:
Norah remarks that the hallways resembles “The ladies’ room at the Oriental theater.” When they ring the doorbell, steam shoots out of the dragon’s nostrils and the eyes move:
Inside the apartment, a party–which in 1958 may have seemed wildly hedonistic, but by today’s standards looks kind of stuffy with mostly older people standing around in suits and hats– is in full swing:
Mame makes her appearance at the top of the stairs:
When they shot the first scene with her running down the curved staircase, Rosalind Russell tripped and broke her ankle. Filming was delayed until she recovered.
Auntie Mame has lots of memorable lines, including the famous, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” (It was voted as the #93 movie quote by the American Film Institute.) It was adapted from the stage play, in which she said, “most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death”–but the language was deemed too racy for film.
The play and movie were based on a popular novel by Patrick Dennis, who was reportedly inspired by his own real-life Aunt Marian.
Mame takes Patrick to the dining room where a buffet has been set up behind an ornate set of metal doors:
The bedroom she gives Patrick to sleep in is called “The Marie Antoinette Room:”
Mame’s habit of sleeping past noon is disrupted now that she has a child to care for. Patrick wakes her up by opening the blinds.
Norah complains that in the 14 days they’ve been living there, Mame has thrown 13 parties (one was canceled “because the bootlegger didn’t show”).
Mame’s apartment is redecorated at least 6 times. Even though the majority of the action takes place in the same set, it is constantly changing–just like Mame’s fabulous wardrobe.
After the initial party scene, the living room has undergone a transformation. Now it looks like this:
The walls are now gray. The furniture, pillows, and lamps are in shades of blue and purple.
The staircase is even different with a new metal railing. It’s fun to try to spot all the little changes from scene to scene.
I got a kick out of how they painted Mame’s radio and cart to match the rest of the room:
The new entry is flanked by fake palm trees:
The mantel has gone from being sleek and modern to ornate and traditional–as have the window treatments:
Russell was nominated for a Tony Award in 1957 for her role in the stage play and was nominated for an Oscar for the movie version. She also had a scene-stealing turn as Sylvia in The Women (you can see my post about the sets in that movie and its remake here), but my favorite Russell movie has to be the hilarious screwball comedy His Girl Friday with Cary Grant.
Apartment Makeover #4:
This version of the apartment is very sedate and traditional with shades of brown and tan:
Even the books in the bookshelves have been given brown and off-white covers to match the rooms:
And Mame, as always, is dressed to match her decor. Even her hair changes colors with each apartment (it was red during this period).
Remember those ornate doors leading into the dining room at the beginning of the movie? They’ve been replaced by traditional French doors:
When Patrick tells Mame he’s going to bring his future in-laws to her house, she goes all out on the apartment, redecorating it once again. This time, she’s got an ulterior motive behind it. She doesn’t like his fiancee or her snooty parents, so she decides to shake them up a bit–starting with the odd fishbowl light fixture in the hall:
The movie was remade in 1974 as a musical starring Lucille Ball. I haven’t seen that one, though, have you?
The beautiful woodwork has been taken down and the stairs now have brown carpet on them. Ugh.
Mame feeds the fish that swim under the new sculpture (my daughter thought this was really cool):
Imagine her guests’ surprise when Mame shows them that the benches they’re sitting on are adjustable!
The movie ends with Patrick and his wife visiting Mame with their son who is now the age Patrick was when he came to live with her as an orphan. Her apartment has been transformed again–this time with a Far East vibe:
This set was used countless times for different movies. It’s fun to play “spot that staircase.” A reader named Richard actually compiled a video with clips of the set from various films that you can see here. He says that during World War II materials were so scarce that they were unable to build new sets for every movie, so they got creative with “recycling” them.
Do you love old movies like these with great sets and costumes? What are some of your favorites?
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