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Sunday, 11 July 2010

Charley's Aunt (1941)

Although I have fond memories of Ray Bolger's "Where's Charley" from 1952, I have not previously had the pleasure of seeing this fairly amusing version of the classic play. Originally produced in London in 1892 where it ran for years, it then opened on Broadway the following year for a four year run. Prior to this film, the first movie version dates back to 1915, followed by a second American silent in 1925 (starring Sidney Chaplin) and the first sound version in 1930 with Charles Ruggles. There have also been earlier foreign-language versions plus innumerable later ones in various tongues, while the play remains a staple of amateur dramatic societies. The casting coup here was to present popular comedian Jack Benny in the lead role as Lord Babberley (the oldest Oxford University student ever!), blackmailed by his buddies into impersonating his friend Charley's aunt from Brazil ('where the nuts come from').

Benny was rising fifty when he took on this role (it's explained away by saying that he has been pursuing his degree for ten years), but then again his two college mates played by James Ellison and Richard Haydn were both well into their thirties when the film was made. They need Benny to chaperone their luncheon with their sweethearts (a young Anne Baxter and Arleen Whelan) when Charley's previously unknown millionairess aunt delays her arrival in Oxford. To complicate matters Ellison's recently impoverished father (Laird Cregar) decides to woo the mysterious widow as does the girls' fortune-hunting guardian -- a manic Edmund Gwenn (everyone's favourite Kris Kringle). To cap things off, Charley's real and glamorous aunt, played by a still handsome Kay Francis, arrives incognito to spy on the suitability of her nephew's sweetie. As they say, hilarity ensues! Benny has a ball in drag in what must be one of his best roles, with set scenes of comic slapstick mixed with the cast's frantic dashing about to prevent their deceptions being unraveled.

Two further comments on the casting. Cregar was only 28 years old when he took on the role of Ellison's portly father -- some three years younger than his movie son. He was always a memorable actor in all of his early 1940s character parts, but unfortunately he died only three years later after attempting to slim down drastically to make himself more suitable for lead roles. As for Arleen Whelan, she made little else of note, but she does take the lead female role in the much later "The Sun Shines Bright" (1953) which figures very high amongst my John Ford favourites, so it was good to see her in another entertaining movie.

I shall be away for a few days later in the week, so I probably won't post anything new before next weekend. I'm sure you'll all survive this deprivation. See you soon....PPP
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