New Year's Eve And A Prototype Plain Jane Superbrain

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

the book:

Auntie Mame – An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis

Published 1955

[A couple of Pink Whiskers cocktails at Christmas have a dramatic effect on Mame’s mousey, frumpish secretary Miss (Agnes) Gooch]

She snorted and pulled off her orange tam-o’shanter, then she stared up at me long and hard. Her eyes, instead of being colorless, were a deep, glorious gray and they were enormous … she was – just for a moment – almost beautiful.

[She passes out and narrator Patrick – see this entry – is putting her to bed]

With a good deal of tugging, and with several of her loving stitches giving, I removed the mustard wool dress and dumped her on the bed, unlaced the health oxfords, and took off her glasses. Her hair looked quite pretty when it fell loosely on the pillow. As a matter of fact, I’d never noticed before, but Agnes had a damned good figure.

[On New Year’s Eve of the same year Miss Gooch’s potential, glimpsed here, has to be realized. Mame is ill and her fiancé needs a suitable substitute to take to a party he can’t afford to miss for business reasons]

“Put down that red one this instant, Agnes!” Auntie Mame said from the depths of her Kleenex. “You’re supposed to dominate it. … Here, that one, that good, tight, form-fitting Patou velvet.” …

Even with her plain white slip showing over the top of the black velvet evening dress, Agnes looked pretty good … She did have a form.

observations: When luminous Carey Mulligan played Violet Willett in ITV’s Marple: The Sittaford Mystery (see this blog entry for the non-Marple version), she looked gorgeous throughout and had only a pair of specs to make her, supposedly, into a mousey frump like Agnes. So once she took them off and revealed her true beauty, she hardly looked any better. The problem with ugly ducklings in TV and film is that you always know that’s what they are: the actress clearly has to be quite the hotty to carry off the big transformation, so if they’ve got her frumped up you know it’s not going to last.

But in a book you can get away with a lot more. Before the Christmas drinks, Miss Gooch is a bit of a bumpkin and her spinsterish personality (although she’s only in her twenties) perfectly suits her dull wardrobe. We don’t get any clues that she might be a babe in hiding. Then, the minute she’s drunk, she tries quite raucously to seduce Patrick. (Whether she succeeds or not is unclear.) And we gradually get to know that her body and face and hair are all lovely, and so are her eyes behind her comedy specs.

Not her skin, though. She has to be helped out by another Lydia van Rensselaer (see this entry) product: “Skin-Glo” leaves her whimpering with pain and “glowing like a red-hot rivet” but does the job of waking-up her skin, as Mame puts it. High heels instead of health oxfords is the final touch, and in the end, after six hours, Agnes can’t even see the result in the mirror because Mame won’t let her wear her glasses.

And how does it go? Well, without wishing to give too much away, she and Mame’s fiancé never come home after the party…

It is not that surprising that Patrick and Agnes are able to get cocktails at the Algonquin on Christmas Day, but it is a little surprising that they were able to go to a movie at Radio City. **

Readers of a certain age will probably remember the great event in Neighbours when swotty schoolgirl Plain Jane Superbrain was revealed to have been a hotty all along. They got around the problem I described above by virtue of the actress (Annie Jones) being a virtual unknown and the character (Jane Harris) brand new, so she could be geeky and speccy and frumpy (and of course, as this is TV, grumpy) and we never guessed what a swan she could turn into.

The main pic shows Carey Mulligan bravely trying but failing not to be gorgeous. The other shows I believe a genuine Patou black evening dress - although the picture is from 1950, whereas Agnes was borrowing Mame’s in the 30s. Also here’s an advert for some 1920s Patou gowns:

** The Guest Blogger is not quite as cosmopolitan as the original Clothes in Books, so apparently doesn't know that there is a long American tradition of going to the movies on Christmas Day, nothing odd about that at all. 

But CiB is not, surprisingly, perfect. This entry, on Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, shows two Patou dresses as part of a recantation of an earlier entry.

Last year's New Year's Eve entry featured a horribly memorable party.

Thanks again to Trish Winter for the suggestion.

For more from the guest blogger, click on Colm Redmond below.


  1. Moira - Thanks for opening up the blog to Colm.

    Colm - It's so interesting to look at how fiction treats those 'swans in ugly ducklings' clothing.' That's a really interesting topic, so thanks for the 'food for thought.' And I have to add my vote to CiB's: going to see a movie on Christmas Day is really common in the US and has been going on for a long time.

    1. Yes the ugly duckling scenario is a fertile one, even if you omit people who look better-than-usual on their wedding day, and there are even more examples of just transformations in general - such as the disastrous one in Rebecca; or all those times when an amateur sleuth has to don a disguise and the gent of the partnership sees her with new eyes... [In crime films and tv shows this will naturally mean the hot actress having to pretend to be a prostitute; with dazzling results and drawing lewd comments from her male colleagues. In the US she can get fashion tips from the eternal crew of street girls sitting around the foyer of every police station at night.]

      My plan to let all CiB readers feel dumb along with me, when told about the Christmas Day movies scenario, has failed, then. You already knew.

  2. I love this entry, but I am suffering from overload. I always get miffed at ugly ducklings turning into gorgeous ladies, but that's my problem. I love the one in The Big Sleep where Dorothy Malone (in the book shop) transforms by taking off her glasses and undoing her hair. The images for this are great.

    I do remember going to the movies on Christmas day back in the 70's (in Alabama). It was unusual for us, but all the "kids" with their spouses / boyfriends went as a group. Back when I actually went to the theater for movies.

    1. There's a big distinction between people who are simply revealed to be more attractive than we thought - like Miss Gooch, unfortunately - and people who have other grander qualities that were overlooked till they, literally, let their hair down.

      That's a great example from The Big Sleep, Tracy. Judging only by fiction there seems to have been no conception of glasses ever looking good till maybe the 1950s. You'd think people would have learned sooner, from wearing stylish sunglasses.

    2. The whole glasses thing is interesting - it comes up in this entry - where it's not clear quite what the author means about the glasses being incongruous. But even better, the entry has a link to a vintage eyewear site which is well worth a look.

    3. That is an interesting entry with a lovely picture of a girl in glasses. And the eyewear site is amazing too.

      I went and checked out the poem mentioned in that entry, Walking Away, and it is very beautiful. It took me a few readings to get into it, which I suppose is normal. I read quite a few Nicholas Blake mysteries many years ago and would like to re-read some of them. Someday.

    4. Thanks Tracy. I like both his murder stories and his poetry....

  3. Late to the party, but not a book for me thanks,

    1. And there'll be another entry on it for you to ignore soon....


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