Reportedly, the character of Auntie Mame was based on Patrick Dennis's real-life aunt, Marian Tanner. A good-natured eccentric, who lived to be nearly one hundred years old, Ms. Tanner's advice to those seeking a more interesting, adventurous life was to never be afraid to try a new experience and to keep an open mind about everything and everybody.
Rosalind Russell was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, but lost to Susan Hayward for I Want to Live! (1958). After the awards ceremony, Russell reportedly said, "Well, I have to admit that nobody deserved it more than Hayward. If it had to be somebody else, I'm glad it was Susie."
The line, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death," does not appear in the book. It is derived from the stage play, where it was originally, "Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death." Though "damn" and "hell" are both heard in the film, "sons-of-bitches" was apparently thought too rough.
All in all it was a smooth shoot, save for a minor hiccup or two along the way. For instance, Coral Browne had an alarming hair mishap early on. "For me, the atmosphere became chaotic because the day before I was due on the set the hairdresser dyed my hair from dark brown to platinum blonde and it all fell out overnight on the pillow!" she recalled according to Richard Tyler Jordan's book But Darling, I'm Your Auntie Mame!. "I arrived on the set bald!" After Browne's head was treated by a doctor, a solution was assembled. "Costume designer Orry-Kelly had to quickly improvise a turban, and I played my first scene in this way," said Browne.
Morton DaCosta maintained a theatrical feel to the film's visual style throughout, including his choice to use the artistic touch of blacking out the set and fading out on Mame's face at the end of each scene. This technique was known, according to author Richard Tyler Jordan, as a "Flanagan Fade," named after chief electrician at Warner Bros. Frank Flanagan, who came up with the unique flourish.
The name of Mame's husband, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, is made up of the names of three Confederate generals (Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard,Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson and George Edward Pickett) and one Union general (Ambrose Everett Burnside).
The stage play "Auntie Mame" opened at the Broadhurst Theater in New York on October 31, 1956 and ran for 639 performances. Rosalind Russell, Yuki Shimoda, Jan Handzlik, and Peggy Cass were in the original cast, and reprise their roles in the film. In her autobiography "Life Is A Banquet", Rosalind Russell opined that it was a nice idea to allow Handzlik to reprise the role of young Patrick, but that he had really grown too old for the part by the time filming began.
Mame's line in French at Macy's is "Après moi, le déluge" ("After me, the flood"). This quote is attributed to King Louis XV of France and represents a philosophy of living for now when disaster looms in the future. In the movie, it relates to purchasing Christmas gifts on credit so that one doesn't have to worry about paying for them right away, something that a rich socialite would be very comfortable with.
The film spawned a successful Broadway musical "Mame" in 1966, starring Angela Lansbury. Rosalind Russell was asked to reprise her role, but she declined, saying, "It's not for me anymore. I've done it, I have to move along."
Even though the original Broadway play, also entitled "Auntie Mame" was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and which was also based on the novel by Patrick Dennis, Lawrence and Lee did not receive any on screen writing credit for this film, only Dennis did.
The technique Rosalind Russell uses to interrupt and insult Mr. Babcock - "Nuts?" - was previously used against her character "Sylvia Fowler" in The Women (1939) after Sylvia's line "I wouldn't dream of hurting Mary".
The story opens in 1928 according to Dennis' will and closes in 1946 according to Mame's telegram. Patrick is 10 years old when story opens, so he's only 28 at the end, but he has a 10-year-old son. At Mame's party for the Upsons, Babcock complains he's had to deal with Mame for 9 years so it's 1937. At this party Patrick, who must be only 19 and still a college student, meets Pegeen for the first time. Even if they married the next day, they couldn't had have a 10-year-old son in 1946. The entire action of the story takes place in 18 years, between 1928 and 1946.
The Broadway production starred Rosalind Russell and ran from October 1956 - June 1958. Russell was replaced by Greer Garson, who was replaced by Beatrice Lillie before she opened the play in London. No other actresses have starred in this play on Broadway.
Director Morton DaCosta used blackouts to mimic stage techniques. He used the same technique when he directed The Music Man (1962), which had also been a Broadway hit. He had directed both shows on Broadway.
Mame and Vera reminisce about being in the chorus of a show called "Chu Chin Chow." This musical show premiered in London in 1916 and in New York in 1917, about 20 years before the opening scene in Auntie Mame (1958). The show toured America for years. It was likely one of these touring companies in which the girls appeared.
Gloria Swanson tried to buy the movie rights to the play. Even in the mid-1950s Swanson was looking for a big follow-up to Sunset Blvd. (1950), but Rosalind Russell already owned the movie rights and would not sell. The film was a great comeback for Russell.