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Charley's Aunt

Charley's Aunt(1941)

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"Keep your voice up and your dress down," someone tells Jack Benny in Charley's Aunt (1941). It's good advice, for Benny spends most of the movie dressed as a woman, "Donna Lucia," the aunt of his Oxford classmate Charley. The year is 1890, and Benny plays Babbs Babberley, currently in his tenth year at the university. His two roommates, Jack and Charley, want to woo their girlfriends (including Anne Baxter in her third feature), but the girls' stuffy guardian (Edmund Gwenn) is in the way. When Charley's real Aunt Donna Lucia is delayed, they blackmail Benny into posing as her instead. As if that isn't funny enough, the real Donna Lucia (Kay Francis) eventually shows up, leading to truly hilarious set-pieces in this entertaining film. It's now out on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment and is well worth a look for Jack Benny fans.

The film is based on a famous, venerable British play by Brandon Thomas which has been staged and filmed so many times that it's impossible to keep count. It debuted on the London stage in 1892 and stayed in the public eye, in one form or another, for many decades. In 1948, a musical version called Where's Charley? opened on Broadway, and that show was adapted into a movie in1952.

This Jack Benny version hardly feels stagy at all, thanks to Archie Mayo's expert direction which keeps things moving right along. Mayo was not known as an influential stylist, but he was a darn good shooter, extremely experienced, whose other credits included Illicitz (1931), Under 18 (1931), The Mayor of Hell (1933), The Petrified Forest (1936) and the infamous lost film Convention City (1933). When Charley's Aunt was released in August 1941, Mayo said, "Its greatest value today is that it will provide wholesome laughter at a time when the world needs some relief from more grim happenings."

Another reason Charley's Aunt feels so lively is no doubt because the story's amusing comic twists and contrasts had been well worked out over so many previous incarnations. It contains frequently hilarious physical comedy, clever dialogue and some comic fadeouts reminiscent even of a Marx Brothers movie. A kissing scene between Benny and the two ladies, as their beaus watch helplessly, is side-splittingly funny.

Benny does not use a British accent for the movie, except for the odd "shan't," which actually makes it even funnier. His "Aunt" costume was apparently reproduced from the one used in the original 1892 stage show. Benny didn't make many movies, but he was at his peak at this time. His next picture was the Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece, To Be or Not to Be (1942), one of the funniest comedies ever made.

Film historian Randy Skretvedt's dry commentary track is a disappointment. It doesn't attempt to be scene-specific, which is not necessarily a problem, but he devotes far too much time to esoteric details of the actors' lives and the property's history, and feels too much like just a list of facts. If you want to hear a specific list of every single adaptation of this show and who starred in it, and a blow-by-blow account of Benny's rise in showbiz, you'll enjoy it, but this reviewer found it all a bit too much and too unrelated to this specific movie. Skretvedt is pretty good, however, on what made Benny such an innovator of radio.

Fox Home Entertainment has packaged Charley's Aunt with liner notes and some lobby card reproductions. On the DVD itself, aside from the commentary track, can be found a stills gallery and a fun promotional short called Three of a Kind. It features Tyrone Power, Randolph Scott and Jack Benny meeting for lunch at the Fox studio commissary. Power and Scott describe their new roles in A Yank in the RAF and Belle Starr, and Benny listens enviously to their descriptions of their he-man roles, trying to hide the fact that he is about to don a dress and wig for his new movie. That proves hard to do when an assistant keeps showing up asking for Benny's approval on various parts of his costume! Very funny stuff.

The film print used for the transfer shows occasional wear but is mostly fine. Audio is clear, available in mono and stereo.

For more information about Charley's Aunt, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Charley's Aunt, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold