Thursday, June 23, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Charley's Aunt'

Some notes from a gathering of the local cinephile society….

“Charley’s Aunt” (Fox, 1941) is one of several movie versions of the Brendan Thomas farce that was first performed in England in 1892. Back then the star was W.S. Penley, portraying Lord Fancourt Babberly, an Oxford student whose friends Jack and Charley persuade him (with at least a dash of coercion) to pose as the title character, a rich widow from Brazil, “where the nuts come from.” (That line must have been a hoot back in 1892, and it still plays well with a receptive audience.)

Penley (that’s a drawing of him in character at left) was unavailable for the movie, having died in 1912, so Fox obtained the services of Jack Benny, who does his best to pose as a British undergrad. Since this kind of material requires audiences to cheerfully check their common sense at the door anyway, what’s another implausibility among friends? (And Benny’s best is, as usual, very very good.)

Director Archie Mayo expertly guides the actors through the plot’s permutations. (Even if you’ve never seen this or any other farce in your life, you just know somehow – it’s probably in our DNA – that these complications will include the appearance of Charley’s real aunt, here played by Kay Francis.)

I suppose you can give the cast extra points (or extra marks, considering that this is a British play) for being able to pull off such a carefree, lightweight piece of material during a particularly heavy time in the world’s history. It helps a lot to have Edmund Gwenn around; he practically came out of the womb performing stuff like this.

A few casting notes of interest:

Charley is played by Richard Haydn in his first feature film. Haydn made a career out of playing eccentric characters who talk through their noses. (In Haydn’s case, it sounded as if he had several noses.) It’s always nice to see him in this character, but it’s particularly interesting to see him in this film, where he drops that character (which perhaps he hadn’t really established in the U.S. anyway) to play something closer to a real human being, or as real as one can get in a farce.

Anne Baxter is around – very young, very pretty, very underused.

Laird Cregar plays Jack’s father, Sir Francis Chesney. Because Chesney’s title is about all he has left to his name, he is especially eager to meet Charley’s rich aunt. Cregar was noted for playing villains, but it’s always nice to see that he can do stuff like this (and Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait”).

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the movie (and the one that got the biggest laugh from our crowd) comes as Cregar, brandishing a big walking stick, swaggers in to meet the aunt (who is really Benny). The fake aunt is hiding his/her face with a fan. When Benny removes the fan and reveals the “aunt’s” face, Cregar’s walking stick instantly shrinks.

Never mind the elephant in Captain Spaulding’s pajamas – how that gag got past the censors, I’ll truly never know....

Before the movie: “The Antique Shop,” a 1931 short featuring George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Burns sometimes said that the secret to Gracie’s success was that she wasn’t a comedian – she was an actress. I used to think this was a pretentious thing to say, but I eventually realized that Burns, whose self-deprecating gags hid the fact that he was one of the smartest folks in show business, was, as usual, right.

Gracie didn’t just say dumb and silly things. For one thing, they were usually dumb and silly and very funny – the duo generally had top-drawer material. More to the point, Gracie was playing someone who fervently believed she was right – and felt sorry for you because you just couldn’t understand. If that isn’t brilliance, I don’t know what is.

I’ve sometimes wondered how Gracie Allen would have fared in a serious part – no gags. Kind of a reverse of what Leslie Nielsen did late in his career.

I guess we’ll never really know the answer.

But somehow I think I do anyway.

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