The Avant Garde Liberalism of Auntie Mame: Or How Americans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Language of the Cold War

Auntie Mame was Hollywood’s highest grossing film of 1959. And historians have written a lot about the films of this period. (I know, I’m one of them.) So why has no one written about Auntie Mame?

Too often, we look to the margins when we should look at the center. (David Welky makes such a case in Everything Was Better in America, a study of Depression-era print culture.) For historians of the blacklist era, looking at the margins has yielded countless studies of anti-communist cinema gems like The Red MenaceInvasion U.S.A. and I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., as well as examinations of the blacklisted film Salt of the Earth. But more work needs to be done on mainstream films, particularly those of the late fifties.

Auntie_Mame_PosterI discovered Auntie Mame when I was finishing up my dissertation and I couldn’t quite find a way to fit it into my outline. But I’ve become obsessed with the film because of what I think it can tell us about how liberalism transformed, and the role of popular culture in that transformation, during the early decades of the Cold War. What follows are some initially thoughts that I hope to eventually put into a longer form somewhere!

Films like Auntie Mamejust like the popular television shows at the time, reveal how liberalism and the cold war reconciled with one another in the aftermath of the red scare. They reveal how a new space was created in popular culture for narratives that were at once anti-authoritarian, individualistic, civil libertarian, and wholly compatible with the discourse of the cold war. Watching the movies at the margin of the era give the specious impression that McCarthyism played out on a battlefield with two clearly defined, antagonistic foes, the left and the right. Watching films like Auntie Mame, on the other hand, suggest that the discourse of liberalism worked in a more slippery and multivalent fashion.

To be sure, Auntie Mame is worth watching because it’s kind of fun. The premise is that in the 1920s, a carefree, cosmopolitan socialite in New York City has been tasked with caring for her newly orphaned midwestern nephew, Patrick. Mame, who takes quickly to the boy, decides to raise him as a forward thinking and fun loving liberal, while the boy’s financial ward has other ideas.

I won’t ruin the ending for you, because of course you’re going to go watch it right away. But suffice it to say that throughout the film Mame contends with, to use her words, “beastly, bourgeois, Babbity” ideologies. Mame’s greatest opponent in the film turns out to be the father of the woman that Patrick — now fully grown up — intends to marry. He abhors the city, and instead lives in what his wife calls “authentic colonial America,” where he invites Mame and Patrick to visit. There, he tells Mame of he and his wife’s plan to keep their neighborhood “restricted”: he will buy the house next door to his, which a Semitic prospective buyer, Abraham Epstein, has been eying, and will gift the house to his daughter and Patrick once they’re married. The scene offers Mame one of my favorite lines from the film; “You wouldn’t really be losing a daughter, you’d be gaining a patio.”

Auntie Mame challenges all that is old, musty, and staid, which is great. In another scene, when Mame this time hosts Patrick’s fiancee’s parents at her condo in the city, Patrick looks over Mame’s latest decorations and proclaims her tastes “a little avant garde,” afraid the sensibilities of the yet-to-arrive suburbanites will be offended. When they arrive, and then Mame’s motley crew of friends arrive as well, Patrick becomes testy. “Auntie Mame, I thought this was going to be a family night,” he whispers, to which she replies “This is our family.” Mame’s charm and humanistic spirit, on display throughout the film, has earned her a circle of friends that care dearly for and support one another.

This is most on display earlier in the film, during the sequence  that takes place during the Great Depression. Mame loses most of her money, and is forced to take a job. But in the end she is saved because she falls in love with a rich man who is nevertheless far from “Babbity.” The film raises the spectre of the Great Depression not to emphasize the primacy of materiality, but to suggest that it matters little. Mame got through the Depression intact not by being a cunning entreprenuer, a gangster, a criminal, or a wage slave, but by hanging on to her individuality, and relying on the kindness of those around her. Even her service staff from the roaring twenties, when she tells them she can no longer pay them, sacrifice so as to repay Mame’s beneficent spirit.

Auntie Mame is a rejection of all that is “fake” and “phony,” just like that era’s Catcher in the Rye. And just as Grace Elizabeth Hale has insightfully written in Nation of Outsiders about Salinger’s novel, in Auntie Mame “alienation exists, but it is not a political and economic problem” (30). Mame taps into, and helps resolve, the tangle of conservatism and authoritianism that was in some ways were the seed of the fifties Red Scare (and of prior Red Scares too). To American liberals in the late fifties, films like Auntie Mame must have signaled the end of a frightening repressive political period. At the same time, works such as Auntie Mame worked to legitimize the liberal worldview that elevated libertarianism as the solution to matters social, political, and economic. And anti-conservative films have been fetishizing individualism and libertarian notions of freedom ever since.