Friday, April 25, 2008


This is the the third version I've seen of the famous cross-dressing farce. The plot, in a nutshell, has two Oxford students getting an older student to dress up as a visiting aunt in order to be a chaperone when their two young ladies visit. The "aunt" winds up romantically pursued by two older men, and things come to a head when the real aunt shows up. This is the most famous version, though it was hard to come by for years until Fox recently issued it on DVD. Jack Benny is Lord Babberley, the guy who dresses up, and he's fine with the physical humor; when dressed as the aunt, Benny moves a bit like Robert Preston did his his drag number "The Shady Dame from Seville" in VICTOR/VICTORIA. But his attempt at a British accent is pathetic (basically, he pronounces "can't" as "cawn't" and calls it a day), and he comes nowhere near pulling off a female voice--perhaps he was afraid to camp it up in an exaggerated fashion, but that would have been funnier than what he does here, which is speak in his normal register and make his voice crack periodically. James Ellison and Richard Haydn are OK as the young men (though Ellison has the same accent problem; Haydn doesn't because he's a genuine Brit), Kay Francis is fine as the real aunt, and Anne Baxter has a thankless role as one of the young women. However, the film is well worth watching for three supporting actors: Laird Cregar, best known for villainous roles (THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE), displays fine comic finesse as Haydn's father; the always wonderful Edmund Gwenn is excellent as the girls' guardian; Reginald Owen is great fun in the smaller role of an Oxford don who pops up to comic effect now and then. I liked the scenes in which Benny, dressed as the aunt, kisses the young ladies full on their mouths. Overall, I'd say Charlie Ruggles in the 1930 version is the best screen Aunt I've seen. The commentary track on this DVD is one of the most tedious I've run across. The commentator goes along at a nice clip, but spends almost all his time simply giving biographical details about everyone right down to the visual effects artist; mostly he simply rattles off their credits, as though he just sat down at IMDb moments before he recorded his track. [DVD]


Craig Clarke said...

Interesting. That's a real bummer about the commentary.

Incidentally, I just listened to an episode of Jack Benny's radio show where the cast visits the set of this film. Kay Francis and Archie Mayo both make appearances, and Benny's attempt at a British accent is mocked.

Thanks for the review.

Michael said...

Fans of Benny may like the commentary more than I did--he spends most of the first half of the film talking about Benny's career in great detail. Nothing wrong with that, except there winds up being very little scene-specific talk about the movie. I didn't listen to the entire commentary, but dropped in frequently and it was rarely about anything going on on screen.