Jack Benny … Babbs Babberley
Kay Francis … Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez
James Ellison … Jack Chesney
Anne Baxter … Amy Spettigue
Edmund Gwenn … Stephen Spettigue
Laird Cregar … Sir Francis Chesney
Reginald Owen … Redcliff
Arleen Whelan … Kitty Verdun
Richard Haydn … Charley Wyckham
Ernest Cossart … Brasset
Produced by William Perlberg.
Directed by Archie Mayo.
Based on the play by Brandon Thomas.
Screenplay by George Seaton.
Music by Alfred Newman.
Set decorated by Thomas Little.
Costumed by Travis Banton.
Editing by Robert Bischoff.
Released August 1, 1941.
A Twentieth Century-Fox film.
Background: After two so-so comedies, Play Girl and The Man Who Lost Himself, Kay’s freelance career needed a new boost. She chose to play the title role in Twentieth Century-Fox’s Charley’s Aunt (1941). But her role was a supporting one, as much of the story revolves around a young man masquerading around as his aunt, believing she is an older, ugly woman, before his young, glamorous aunt makes her entrance towards the end of the story.
The story had been brought to the screen many, many times before this production. One of the more memorable movie versions of this famous play came in 1930 with Kay’s future Trouble in Paradise costar, Charles Ruggles, taking on the starring role.
But it was this version, directed by Kay’s frequent coworker Archie Mayo (who once went as far as to tell Kay she couldn’t act during the filming of Give Me Your Heart) that became the 8th highest grossing movie of 1941, according to Variety.
The film was shot fairly quickly, with production beginning May 12, 1941 and ending June 24. But, considering her small role, Kay wasn’t required to begin work on the film until May 24. She recreated her performance on Jack Benny’s radio show on May 28 to promote the film.
Kay’s career after Charley’s Aunt only rose to the top once more in The Feminine Touch (1941), her last A-role in a quality film. It was downhill into the full-fledged B-movie status after that.
As Lynn Kear and John Rossman pointed out in Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, in truth, much of Kay’s freelance work wasn’t much better than the projects Warners had offered her in the late 30’s.
On a positive note, the film did provide Kay an opportunity to rework with her Paramount costume designer, Travis Banton, who helped make Kay into the clotheshorse she is famous for today.
Review by T.S. in the New York Times, published August 1, 1941.
Consider this a minority report. For though a good deal of the world’s innocence has gone up in smoke since 1892 and the original “Charley’s Aunt,” one never would have known it yesterday at the Roxy, where Jack Benny, in crinolines and cigars, was bucketing through its latest screen incarnation. Not in quite a while has an audience been in more uproarious spirits at a comic shindig. When the Benny physiognomy peered impishly from behind a lacy fan, the audience held its sides, and when in the final scene his wig vanished to leave his masculine coiffure stark naked, there was a roar of laughter that must have shaken the Roxy’s rococo ceiling.
But if Mr. Benny’s ill-fated excursion to the distaff side seemed a hilarious jape to others, we did not find it a more than occasionally chucklesome charade. After an interval of nearly half a century, the merriment of Brandon Thomas’s Oxford comedy of errors seems too tightly calculated. Its comic situations are so obviously plotted and so long forewarned that it never achieves the loose humors of a spontaneous antic. When Mr. Benny is caught with his skirts off, so to speak, the cue for laughter has the dismal inevitability of a grandfather clock sounding out the chimes. And laughter should never be inevitable.
If its humors seem not a little dated, the producers have nevertheless embroidered the skit with foolish detail and dotted it with amusing players. Mr. Benny, as young Lord Babberly who agrees to masquerade as his classmates’ chaperon only to find himself furiously pursued through the halls and box-hedges by several short-winded-gentlemen, has a dryly sardonic delivery that may seem a little worldly-wise for a guileless romp but gives the part an edge it needs. And when he coos “Chase me!” to a bewhiskered suitor, his invitation is in the coyest school of acting.
As the young knaves whose amours started it all, James Ellison and Richard Haydn make a likable pair of exaggerated innocents. Arleen Whelan and Anne Baxter, as the ladies in question, bustle about in twittering feminine apprehension. Laird Cregar’s swashbuckling parent and Edmund Gwenn’s hot-footed old codger are wickedly comic portraits both, and Reginald Owen as a doddering Oxford don turns his role into a hilarious commentary on all guardians of the cloistered life. Only Kay Francis, as the lady from Brazil, seems oddl colorless.
But amid the random gayeties of fussy pedagogues, presumptuously moral guardians and frolicking youths, the escapade of young Babberly still seems strangely mechanical. Although it is breezily played, it has the dubious gayety of an old gentleman cutting a caper. We could almost hear the joints creak—or was it the stop-watch clocking the laughs?
Images from the film:
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