The 1941 version of “Charley’s Aunt,” directed by Archie Mayo, stars Jack Benny as a student from Oxford who dresses up in drag to help two schoolmates. The fellow students need a chaperone so they can woo their sweethearts and trick the girls’ miserly guardian into okaying the couples’ marriage. When the chaperone aunt from Brazil fails to show up on time, Benny’s character dons a dress and wig.
All of these gender-bending comedies rely on the audience’s active suspension of disbelief, but the good cast makes it all worthwhile. I don’t think Jack Benny (as Babbs Babberly) could fool anyone into thinking he’s a woman, but almost everyone in the film falls for his ruse. Edmund Gwenn plays Stephen Spettigue, who spends most of the film chasing Babbs around the grounds of Oxford. Since the script (and the original 1892 play by Brandon Thomas) calls for an over-the-top performance, there’s nothing better than seeing Jack Benny play Babbs. Another personal favorite of mine, Kay Francis, plays the real aunt (Donna Lucia), who eventually returns from Brazil to join the fun. No one does sophisticated bemusement better than Kay Francis.
On one of Robert Osborne’s special movie nights, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) planned to show this version of Charley’s Aunt. However, Osborne explained they could not get the proper permissions to screen it. Instead, TCM played the 1930 version that stars Charles Ruggles. Ruggles plays a much more frantic Babbs, and his version is closer to the story of the original play. Both Benny and Ruggles did their versions of this acrobatic role while in their late 40’s, and Benny joked on his radio program about getting hurt on the set. The college stage productions of this classic play must be even more athletic.