Saturday, February 18, 2017

3 Beekman Place – The Art Direction/Set Decoration of Auntie Mame

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon
This post is an entry in the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Paula at Paula's Cinema Club, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled.

In Auntie Mame, there are only about fifteen separate locales shown in the film. Most are relatively simple sets, shown only for a minute or two. A few others are fairly complicated, but from art and set design standpoint the real star of Auntie Mame is Mame's apartment at 3 Beekman Place, New York. The apartment is shown throughout the film and in most cases has a completely different decor each time it is shown. Further, all are fantastic. 

Auntie Mame received a total of 6 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress (Rosalind Russell), Best Supporting Actress (Peggy Cass), and of course, our topic Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White or Color for Malcolm C. Bert, Art Direction, and George James Hopkins, Set Decoration. 

Auntie Mame was the second of two Academy Award nominations for Art Director Malcolm C. Bert. The other nomination was for A Star Is Born (1954). Malcolm Bert's other credits include East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, The Pajama Game, and numerous TV shows, such as Gun Smoke, Bewitched, and The Monkees.

Set Decorator George James Hopkins was nominated for eleven Oscars in his long career.  He won four Academy Awards for A Streetcar Named Desire, My Fair Lady, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, and Hello, Dolly! His other credits include Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Strangers on a Train, and The Great Race. In the silent era, he has credits as actor, writer, costume designer, and production manager, among others.

In the credits for Auntie Mame, Robert Hanley is listed as Consultant for Interior Design. I assume this type of credit was rare at the time, but considering how spectacular the interiors of 3 Beekman Place are, presumably some of the credit should go to Hanley as well. 

As I was writing this, I came to realize that the sets in Auntie Mame all serve a certain function. Obviously, 3 Beekman Place is an extension of Mame's vibrant personality, showing her enjoying life's banquet, while the rest of the world starves to death. The apartment is almost another character in the film, a character much more interesting than many of the living breathing people in the film. 

Let's start with the other locales and see how they work. All can be put into a number of different categories:
  • Places Mame works – Early in the film, in fact only weeks after Patrick arrives, the stock market crash of 1929 occurs, wiping out Mame financially, forcing her to get a job. From these scenes, you learn something about Mame. First, in a very funny way, you learn how hopelessly ill-prepared she is to support herself, but more importantly, you learn how much how much she loves Patrick and that she is willing to do anything for him. Mame's jobs include, a small role in Vera's play Midsummer Madness, telephone operator at Widdicombe, Gutterman, Applewhite, Bibberman, and Black, and saleswoman at Macy's toy department, where she meets her future husband Beau (Forrest Tucker).
Widdicombe, Gutterman, Applewhite, Bibberman,
and Black
[You can click on images to enlarge; in some cases, they may seem blurry, especially if camera or actors were moving, probably, a reflection of way I did screen captures]
  • Patrick's schools – These places show one thing, Mr. Babcock's efforts to make Patrick as unlike Mame as possible. Fortunately, it doesn't take. The first of these is the Bixby School, where Mr. Babcock wants Patrick to go. Patrick doesn't attend school there, but rather Mame sends him to a progressive school in Greenwich Village where the children play fish family. Afterwards, Mr. Babcock insists that Patrick attend a boarding school, St. Boniface. Later, a grownup Patrick attends Rumson University also at Mr. Babcock's behest, but at Rumson, Mame is constantly sending Patrick souvenirs from her exotic travels.

St. Boniface
  • Places Mame goes – After marrying Beau (Forrest Tucker), they travel to Egypt on their honeymoon. You also see that Auntie Mame and Uncle Beau take young Patrick to Paris. Presumably, this was one of many trips they took Patrick on while he was growing up. The last of these is the Matterhorn, where Beau falls off the mountain. None of these sets are particularly extravagant. To be honest, the Matterhorn looks a lot like the ride at Disneyland to me. 
Yodel le he hooooooooo!!!
Finally, we see two other homes. Honestly, I think this is to show how normal people live in comparison with Mame, but really we are talking about how other upper-class people compare.

  • Peckwood – This is Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside's family plantation. It is a very traditional Southern mansion. You could film a historical drama about the old South there. Reflected is old money, and the pursuits of the gentry of a bygone era, horses and fox hunts. The name of the plantation, Peckerwood, is the traditional name of plantation.
  • Upson Downs – This is the estate of grownup Patrick's fiancee's parents. Often they mention that it is a restricted community, and Mr. Upson wants to buy the property next door to prevent a world-reknown cellist from moving in because he is Jewish. You really only see the patio, but there are interesting details beyond the honey daiquiris, such as a spinning wheel and butter churn alongside the ceramic lawn gnomes. Obviously, this is new money, trying to impress people with valuable antiques placed out-of-doors. The self-dubbed name of Upson Down is a title they invented to try to usurp the tradition of the old money.
Upson Downs
3 Beekman Place

This is why we're here. Auntie Mame's apartment appears throughout the film, and often is used as a time marker in the film. There are six distinct decors. In addition, Auntie Mame uses the chandelier as transitional element from one decor of the apartment to the next.

First appearance – Oriental decor. This our introduction to Mame and 3 Beekman Place, when a frightened, newly orphaned Patrick shows up. The first view of the apartment is an elaborately carved Chinese dragon door with steam shooting out the nostrils and a gong that plays when you ring doorbell. Also the dragon eyes open into a peephole for the servant, Ito, to screen the party guests. The color palette is muted with cream walls, to highlight the Oriental art and statuary virtually everywhere. This is also one of the few times that you see more than a glancing view at the upstairs of the apartment.

Dragon door, Patrick's first impresion

Ito looks through peephole

Even piano is Asian inspired

First view of Mame and one of few
views of upstairs

Behind Mame is another interior dragon
 door and Chinese lion, lower right

Oriental screen separating dining room

Mame introduces Patrick to fish berry jam
(cavier), served from Buddha's belly

Great details here, Asian demon statue
behind Mame and Patrick, guests cooking
on open flame, and Vera with long handle
on Martini glass

Oriental details mostly obscured by party
guests, but what a view of Brooklyn Bridge

First lady of American theater being carried
to bed; note traditional banister

At foot of stairs, banister morphs into
dragon head

Sculpture room, where Mame's sculptor
friend had lived

Mame's bedroom suite

Oriental chandelier, dissolves into chandelier
for next incarnation of Beekman Place

Second appearance – Modern traditional decor. Bear in mind I know very little about design. Possibly, there is a name for this. I call it modern traditional. Modern fits. I added traditional most because it retains traditional elements like columns and urns. The color palette is blues, grays, and purples. We see it both before and after stock market crash. After the crash, you can see evidence of Mame's dire financial situation.

Modern chandelier 

Workmen hang new modern art; note
new banister on stairs

Mame's bedroom, completely new look
from last time we saw it

Marie Antoinette room, were Vera
routinely passes out

Entry foyer, note simplified columns/urns
and modern painting on right

Patrick mixes martinis, great bar cart and
modern art on right

Simple elegant furniture

Exterior hallway decorated to match

More modern art center above Patrick

And behind Mame here

After stock market crash, Patrick provides
his own art, signed Patrick Picasso, his
black and blue period

 More evidence of their dire financial
situation, wall (center) shows where art
formerly hung, now hocked; also bar
cart (right) now empty 

Third appearance – French provincial, I think. Mame returns to Beekman Place after Beau has died. The color palette is light taupe with black and gold accents. To me, this is the least interesting. Still, everything is elegant and tasteful, and you do see evidence of Mame's exotic nature with some of the accent pieces.  

Again we start with chandelier

Banister is same as last, but sash accents
have been added

Entry way, with decorative palm tree

Mame in mourning, note obelisk
behind Vera

French provincial desk and cherub
on terrace 

Elegant details abound, especially around
fireplace (left)

Fourth appearance – Library decor. At this point in the film, Mame is fully immersed in writing her memoir. Naturally, she has redecorated in a library motif. The artwork and sculpture has a Renaissance feel. This is where we meet Patrick's fiance, Gloria Upson, who comments on the decor, "Books are awfully decorative, don't you think?" That about sums her up.

Another chandelier, a little more ornate
than last

Bannister appears to be same as Oriental
one without the dragon
Spiral library ladder to get at those
awfully decorative books

New piece of furniture added, editor and
ghost writer, Brian O'Bannion

Miss Gooch, types up Mames manuscript;
note Shakespeare bust

The muse can take many forms, such as
the harp behind Mame

Grownup Patrick enters to Roman-inspired
busts either side of door

Author Mame takes break at
mahogany bar 

Fifth appearance – Danish modern decor. After being entertained by the Upsons, Mame redecorates to return the favor and welcome them to the family. This time it is the work of famed designer, Yul Oolu. Of all the incarnations, of 3 Beekman Place, this is my favorite, though I don't think I could live there without regular infusions of Flaming Mames.

New chandelier, well, sort of

Sculpture that can be used upside down

Simple modern banister and Mame
feeds the fish

That's right, fish

And outside the apartment, more fish

What Danish modern is complete without
kinetic sofa

Drinks all around, love centered doorknob
in background

And of course lotus nectar for Patrick's
former teacher

Mobile gets in Mr. Babcock's, umm, hair

He's not the only one with something in
his hair

Sixth and final appearance – Indian decor. It is now years later. Patrick has married Pegeen, a woman worthy of both him and Mame. They have a son, roughly the same age as Patrick was when he came to live with her. Mame has come full circle, though perhaps spiral is a better term, because each time around, you end up on a different level. Thus, 3 Beekman Place returns to the East, India this time.

What do you know, another chandelier

Stair banister same as previous but
updated to blend with Indian motif

Mame adorned in gold

Front entry foyer

Great relief behind Mame; fish have
been replaced by flowers

Mame leads her new protege up
the mountain


Auntie Mame didn't win any Oscars. The Oscar for Art Direction-Set Decoration for 1959 went to Gigi. I honestly don't think I can complain about this. Art direction for Gigi was both innovative and first class with the design inspired by famous French art of the era. Perhaps on a different year, Auntie Mame might have fared better, but that doesn't take away the wonder that is 3 Beekman Place.


  1. The Danish Modern phase was my personal favorite. Marvelous piece here, Chris! 3 Beekman Place is indeed its own unique, and ever-evolving character. Thanks for joining our blogathon and contributing this FAB post!

  2. Thanks, it was fun to do and kind an accident. I remembered the blogathon within a day or so of watching Auntie Mame. I looked at the announcement, saw something about behind the scenes, and immediately thought of Mame's apartment.

  3. A great piece Chris! I had never really focused on the 6 different decors before, although it is really obvious. I, too, love the Danish Modern phase, just because it's so over the top. I saw this for the first time only a few years ago. RR is perfect.

  4. Thanks, Jeff. I'm glad you enjoyed. It's a huge favorite of mine. It almost seems like they scimpted on the other sets so they could make her apartment that much better.

  5. Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Richard:

    Liked your look at Auntie Mame’s decor.

    I totally enjoyed this look any Auntie Mame's decor. This movie and her apartment has interested me forever. Especially her staircase. I have spotted it in 14 other Warner Brothers films and put it in a YouTube video you might enjoy. But there is one other set you point out also used other films. The set of St. Boniface was actually on the backlot at old MGM in Culver City. It can be seen in MGM films such as "Good News", "Where the Boys Are" and "Merry Andrew”.

    I don’t think my comments on your blog worked so I'm sending this.

    Here is the link to the staircase video...


    Thanks, Richard. I enjoyed the video. I know have seen most of those films and never noticed it. Great work. It's kind of amazing some of the things they did to it. In particular in some, the banister seems to have been exaggerated to make it appear the stairs go up higher than they actually do, and I suspect that they even combine with a matte paintings for similar affects as well. Way cool.

  6. The Peckerwood mansion was filmed on the backlot of 20th Century Fox in West Los Angeles, now Century City. The mansion had been built in the 1930s and was used in dozens of features until being demolished in 1961.