Cast & Crew
In 1890, Lord Fancourt Babberly, known to his friends as Babbs, has been studying at Oxford for ten years to obtain a three-year degree before joining his uncle Hilary's law firm. During a cricket match, Babbs is annoyed by schoolmate Harley Stafford and their subsequent chase ends with Babbs unconscious, holding onto the rope of the fire bell. About to be expelled for his inadvertent prank, Babbs tells the don, Mr. Redcliff, that his friends, Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham, were witnesses to the event and can prove his innocence. Redcliff promises to interview the young men the following day, after which Babbs returns to his rooms. There he finds Jack and Charley very upset, for Stephen Spettigue, the guardian of their respective girl friends, Amy Spettigue and Kitty Verdun, intends to take the girls away so that his income as their guardian will not be stopped by any romances. Jack and Charley have invited the girls to tea, during which they will propose. The intended chaperone is Charley's Brazilian aunt, Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez, whom he has never met. Meanwhile, unknown to Charley, the wealthy donna Lucia is consulting Hilary, who advises her to visit her heir Charley incognito, as Spettigue is a well-known fortune hunter. Hilary sends Babbs a telegram ordering him to entertain Mrs. Beverly Smythe, the name donna Lucia plans to use, and she leaves for Oxford. She is not on the train Charley meets, however, and Charley and Jack panic, for the girls will not come to tea unless a chaperone is present. When Babbs appears in the dress he is to wear for the school variety show, Charley and Jack blackmail him into impersonating donna Lucia in exchange for their testimony to Redcliff. Babbs assumes the role of the aunt from Brazil, "where the nuts come from," and soon is amusing the girls. Babbs must also fend off the attentions of Spettigue and Jack's father, Sir Francis Chesney, who are both after Lucia's fortune. The real Lucia arrives at Oxford, and Babbs spends a wearying afternoon going back and forth entertaining her as himself and impersonating her to keep Spettigue and Chesney away from the romancing young couples. Jack and Charley succeed in their marriage proposals, but the girls insist that they obtain a written consent from Spettigue. Jack and Charley convince Babbs to continue the charade at dinner that night, and to accept Spettigue's proposal in exchange for the written consent. Babbs goes through with the dinner, during which Lucia secretly deduces his real identity. After dinner, Babbs and Lucia pursue their own romance in the garden, and when Chesney sees them, he deduces the nature of the ruse and laughingly congratulates Spettigue on his incipient engagement. After Babbs wheedles the consent from Spettigue, his identity is revealed when his wig is accidentally removed. Spettigue declares that the consent is invalid, as it is addressed to Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez, but Lucia then reveals her own identity. As Babbs wonders if Spettigue can sue him for breach of promise, he receives a kiss from Lucia, and Jack and Charley embrace Kitty and Amy.
Joseph E. Aiken
Kemper Campbell Jr.
Darryl F. Zanuck
Charley's Aunt - Jack Benny in CHARLEY'S AUNT on DVD
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
Charley's Aunt - Jack Benny in CHARLEY'S AUNT on DVD
Somewhat a landmark film for 20th Century-Fox as it was the first film they offered the exhibitors under the recently-established terms of the consent degree conditions that no longer allowed a film studio or company to force the exhibitors to book a large block of films from the same company in order to get any film from that company in a production season. They could still require the exhibitor to make bookings in blocks of five, and "Charley's Aunt" was the first of the five offered. The other four could have been turkeys, but they had to be booked in order to get "Charley's Aunt."
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 José 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 café 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.