Cast & Crew
While walking down Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida, Seton Mansley comes to the aid of Kathleen Brown, who tearfully confides to him that she has been fired from her job as an underwear clerk because wealthy playboy Johnny Kerrigan flirted with her at work. Seton coerces Clayton, the store manager, to rehire Kathleen, thus becoming her "unexpected uncle." As they are leaving the department store, Seton and Kathleen meet Johnny, who invites Kathleen to lunch at the exclusive Colony Club. There, after plying her with champagne, Johnny insists that she and her "uncle" join him for dinner at the club. Confused about Johnny's motives, Kathleen visits Seton at his trailer in the Seminole Trailer Camp, and he agrees to be her chaperone. At the club that night, Seton and Kathleen meet polo player Tommy Turner, snobbish Sara Cochran and Johnny's ex-fiancée, Carol West. Carol tells Seton that she broke her engagement to Johnny because of his all-consuming business responsibilities as the shoe magnate of Kerrigan City. To escape business pressures, Johnny gets drunk, and after he is involved in an automobile accident, Kathleen takes him to her apartment to bandage his wounds. When Kathleen's indignant landlady orders her to leave for bringing a man to her apartment, she takes refuge with Seton. The next day, the police find Johnny's abandoned car and assume that he has been kidnapped by Kathleen and Seton. Carol and Tommy drive to Seton's trailer camp and take them to Carol's exclusive country club to hide. There Carol sees Johnny and rejects his apology for the previous night. When Johnny is abruptly summoned home on business, Kathleen calls after him, prompting Seton to take her to the airport to bid him farewell. After Johnny's plane takes off with Seton and Kathleen aboard, Johnny proposes and Kathleen accepts. Once they land in Kerrigan City, however, Johnny becomes preoccupied with business and ignores Kathleen. Rejected and lonely, Kathleen gives Wilkins, Johnny's butler, a birthday party, and when Johnny and his business associates arrive unexpectedly during the festivities, Johnny berates Kathleen, who then decides to break her engagement and return to Palm Beach. After Kathleen departs, Johnny and Seton get drunk together, and Seton confesses that he is really steel magnate Alfred Crane. Seton explains that he walked out on his business to save his sanity and suggests that Johnny do the same. Back in Palm Beach, Kathleen returns to the trailer park one day after job hunting and finds that Seton has returned home. After Kathleen excoriates herself for having deserted Johnny, Seton leads her into Johnny's brand new trailer. Willkins then drives the trailer to the justice of the peace, and with Kathleen and Johnny on the road to matrimony, Seton decides that it is time to leave for California.
Robert De Grasse
Vernon L. Walker
Earl A. Wolcott
Coburn had made a few films early on, but was largely a stage star, having mounted successful repertory seasons on Broadway with his wife, actress Ivah Wills. When she died in 1937, he turned to Hollywood full time, and within a few years was one of the screen's most popular character players. With the success of two other 1941 films -- the Preston Sturges classic The Lady Eve and the romantic comedy The Devil and Miss Jones, for which he received his first Oscar® nomination -- he rose to the ranks of stardom.
Unexpected Uncle was a project tailor-made to exploit his special charms as an actor. The film was adapted from a novel by Eric Hatch, author of the novel My Man Godfrey, which had become a major film hit in 1936. Tired of the demands of big business, steel tycoon Coburn runs away to Florida (although that scenic locale only appears in background shots) to pitch horseshoes and meddle in the love lives of salesgirl Anne Shirley and millionaire James Craig.
Coburn didn't win star billing, even though he had the film's major role. That honor, along with any blame for the picture's $195,000 box-office loss, fell to Shirley and Craig. She had been scoring in meatier dramatic roles as Carole Lombard's kid sister in the nursing drama Vigil in the Night (1940) and John Garfield's young wife in Saturday's Children (1940), but as a contract player at RKO, she had to earn her keep by appearing in whatever the studio had available. Craig had scored as Ginger Rogers's doctor suitor in Kitty Foyle (1940). Later that year, he and Shirley would re-team to far better effect for All that Money Can Buy (1941), a sumptuous adaptation of the classic story "The Devil and Daniel Webster."
The failure of Unexpected Uncle was less the fault of its gifted cast, however, than of some critical miscasting behind the camera. Director Peter Godfrey had only just moved into the field from acting and had not had the chance to develop much of a personality on programmers like The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939). He would soon sign with Warner Bros., where he would direct some of the studio's most disappointing films. The picture might have been better served had producer Tay Garnett -- one of Hollywood's greatest unsung directors -- taken the job. Garnett had pioneered in the development of talking films with his witty, fast-paced direction of Her Man in 1930. He had gone on to such classics as One Way Passage (1932), starring Kay Francis and William Powell, and China Seas (1935), with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell. A few years later, he would direct one of the all-time great film noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). For that matter, the film could have benefited by moving co-scripter Delmer Daves into the directing chair, a move he would make with great success for the 1943 film Destination Tokyo. Even Daves's co-scripter, Noel Langley, who had worked on the original The Wizard of Oz (1939), would demonstrate directorial finesse when he traveled to England to make his directing debut with The Pickwick Papers (1952).
Despite its failure, however, Unexpected Uncle remains as a testament to the charms of its three stars. Coburn, in particular, would go on to make roles like the eccentric tycoon here his trademark, eventually winning an Oscar® for a similar role in the George Stevens comedy The More the Merrier (1943).
Producer: Tay Garnett
Director: Peter Godfrey
Screenplay: Delmar Daves, Noel Langley, based on the novel by Eric Hatch
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Anthony Collins
Cast: Anne Shirley (Kathleen), James Craig (Johnny), Charles Coburn (Seton), Ernest Truex (Wilkins), Renee Godfrey (Carol West), Russell Gleason (Rommy), Astrid Allwyn (Sara Cochran), Thurston Hall (Jerry Carter), Hans Conried (Clayton).
by Frank Miller
Several actors are listed in studio records as being in the film, but are not seen: Thurston Hall (Jerry Carter), Virginia Engels (Mrs. Carter), Virginia Vale (Telephone Girl), Jane Woodworth (Telephone Girl), Ken Christy (Editor) and Richard Carle.
According to a pre-production news item in Hollywood Reporter, RKO bought the Eric Hatch novel as a vehicle for Ginger Rogers and Charles Laughton. Although a December 1940 news item noted that the studio wanted Robert Stevenson to direct, by March 1941, news items listed Tay Garnett as director and Erich Pommer as producer. By Apr, however, Pommer had become ill and the studio notified Garnett that he would have to produce. According to other news items in Hollywood Reporter, RKO was also considering John Barrymore for the lead. A May 1941 news item in Hollywood Reporter notes that cameraman Paul Eagler and assistant cameraman John Eckert were filming backgrounds in Palm Beach, FL. It is not known if any of this footage was included in the film. The first Hollywood Reporter production chart credits Russell Metty as cameraman and lists Richard Carle in the cast, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Another news item in Hollywood Reporter notes that the studio utilized a new process screen for this production, which allowed the filming of twenty-five people against the screen rather than the usual two.