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Charley's Aunt

Charley's Aunt(1941)

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The opening title card of this film reads, "Twentieth Century-Fox presents Jack Benny in Charley's Aunt Brandon Thomas' Immortal Comedy." According to an July 11, 1941 Twentieth Century-Fox press release, the studio paid $125,000 for a "five-year lease" on the screen rights to Thomas' play. The press release asserted that in order to obtain the rights, the studio had "to agree that in no way would the story line or the characters be altered, or else the deal would be off." Although this stipulation was mentioned in other contemporary sources, a July 31, 1941, unsourced newspaper column, contained in the film's file at the AMPAS Library, noted that several changes were made by Twentieth Century-Fox in translating the play for the screen. The column mentioned that the incident in which "Babbs" gets in trouble and is thereby blackmailed by "Charley Wykeham" and "Jack Chesney" into impersonating Charley's aunt, and the romance between "Babbs" and "Donna Lucia" were created specifically for this picture. On August 26, 1941, Carly Wharton and Martin Gabel, who had produced the recent Broadway presentation of the play (New York, 17 October 1940), filed a lawsuit against Twentieth Century-Fox. Stating that the studio had appropriated "new dramatic incidents, sequences and other 'creations' added to the original play," the plaintiffs asked for an injunction preventing the exhibition of the film and "unspecified damages." On September 23, 1941, New York Supreme Court Justice O'Brien dismissed the injunction and ordered that the case be brought to trial. The disposition of the case is not known.
       According to a December 5, 1940 Hollywood Reporter news item, when Twentieth Century-Fox first expressed interest in obtaining the screen rights, the film was intended as a starring vehicle for Tyrone Power. The news item also mentioned that Paramount had been interested in starring Bob Hope in a filmed version of the play. According to studio publicity, producer William Perlberg, director Archie Mayo and actor Jack Benny visited New York before production began on the film in order to see the current stage version starring Jos Ferrer. Contemporary reviews, news items and studio publicity noted that Charley's Aunt marked the screen debut of English comedian Richard Haydn and that James Ellison was borrowed from RKO and Reginald Owen from M-G-M for the production. Laird Cregar, who plays Ellison's father in the picture, was actually six years younger than Ellison. Studio publicity also noted that the cricket players were members of the UCLA cricket team, and that the dress worn by Benny was an exact replica of the dress worn by Etienne Giradot in the 1893 New York stage production. Giradot's dress was in turn a copy of one worn by W. S. Penley in the 1892 London stage production, and after filming was completed, Benny and the studio announced that Benny's dress would be donated to an English war charity.
       A unique trailer, entitled "Three of a Kind," was made for the picture, showing Benny in the studio caf discussing the film with Randolph Scott and Tyrone Power. Scott commented on his current film, Belle Starr, and Power on his, A Yank in the R.A.F. No footage from any of the three films was shown. A July 1, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item asserted that a special trailer was needed because "the conventional type of trailer would give away too many of the film's surprise comedy situations, if detailed, or misunderstood if abbreviated." Although the news item stated that Kay Francis was to be featured in the trailer, to be written by George Seaton, it appears that only the three men were in the trailer as released.
       According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, on February 26, 1942, during the annual Academy Awards presentation, master of ceremonies Bob Hope gave Benny a "special Oscar statuette" with "skirts and a cigar in its mouth." Hope stated that the award was for "being the best cigar-smoking sweater girl, and the outstanding example of lavender and old lacing." Benny replied, "I've been waiting around so long for an Oscar that I'm ready to accept anything from anybody."
       Among the many film versions of Thomas' play are the 1925 Christie Film Company release directed by Scott Sidney and starring Sydney Chaplin and the 1930 Columbia release directed by Al Christie and starring Charles Ruggles (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.0824 and F2.0825). According to the Hollywood Reporter review, Archie Mayo, the director of the 1941 version, served as a "gag man," on the 1925 Sydney Chaplin production. Other films include a 1940 English picture entitled Charley's (Big Hearted) Aunt; a 1952 Warner Bros. release entitled Where's Charley?, starring Ray Bolger, which was based on a 1948 stage musical with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by George Abbott; a 1959 French picture entitled La Marraine de Charley; and a 1963 Austria release entitled Charley's Tante. A televised version of the play, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Art Carney, Jeannette MacDonald and Richard Haydn as "Spettigue," was broadcast on March 28, 1957 by CBS. In 1970, the BBC presented a telecast of the play starring female impersonator Danny La Rue.