Friday, May 18, 2012

Bob's not your uncle

Back in 1892, a play called Charley's Aunt opened in London. The play turned out to be quite the success, being produced as well in New York, beomcing a staple of stock theater, and getting made as a movie. Well, not just one movie, but a whole bunch of them. The best known of these might be the 1941 film starring Jack Benny, but TCM has had difficulties getting the rights to that version. Instead, TCM will be showing the 1930 version of Charley's Aunt at 6:00 AM tomorrow morning.

Charlie Wykeham (Hugh Williams) and Jack Chesney (Rodney McLennan) are a pair of students at Oxford who are in love with Kitty and Amy respectively. They plan to ask for their girlfriends' hands in marriage, but there's a catch. Amy's uncle (Halliwell Hobbes) is the guardian of both girls, and is going to be taking them away to Scotland in a day or two, so they have to act now. The other problem is that this is a time where a young man and a young woman aren't really supposed to be alone; the men need a chaperone. Well, that's not so much of a problem: Charley's aunt, who married up to a wealthy Brazilian, is now a widow and visiting England. They'll use her as a chaperone. And then they receive a telegram that she's been delayed a few days.

Charley comes up with a plan: his and Jack's mutual friend/classmate Lord Babberley (Charlie Ruggles) is acting in the school revue, and playing the part of an old lady, what with Oxford being an all-male institution at the time. Babberley has the costume and needs the acting practice. Certainly he can dress up as the aunt and play chaperone.

Needless to say, everything doesn't quite go to plan. The two young ladys take a shine to the "aunt", but worse, so does Jack's father. It turns out that Jack's father has lost quite a bit of money, and could use the wealth that Charley's aunt has. There's more complication where that came from, though, as Amy's uncle also seems to like the old lady who isn't really a lady.

I have to admit that I'd never seen any of the versions of Charley's Aunt, either film or stage, before TCM showed this 1930 version a month or two ago. I've mentioned before that I'm not a huge fan of comedies of lies, where the plot hinges upon a lie, and some of the characters tell bigger and bigger lies to keep the original little lie away from the other characters. So at times, the material here comes across as irritating to me at least. This version is also from 1930, which of course is near the beginning of the sound era. Filmmakers didn't have quite the freedom that they do nowadays due to the technical constrictions placed upon them by the equipment. Some plays adapted for the cinema (see The Guardsman) overcome these limitations well; others not quite as well. Charley's Aunt at times falls into the latter group. Still, Charlie Ruggles does a very entertaining job with his cross-dressing role. The rest of the actors come across more as products of the early sound era, but overall, Charley's Aunt is entertaining enough. This 1930 version is rarely seen and doesn't have a DVD release, so you're going to have to catch it on TCM.

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