Where The Nuts Come From

Brandon Thomas’ famous 1892 theatrical comedy chestnut, Charley’s Aunt, basically strings itself along a one-joke premise: a man is forced to dress up as an elderly, respectable woman, from which situation comic complications ensue. Cross-dressing was not new to English theater. Many a Shakespearean comedy has a female character dressing up as a man to achieve her romantic goals; though Charley’s Aunt may be closer in spirit to the English pantomime, where men regularly dress up as women for laughs. The great dance writer Arlene Croce once noted how something heavy trying to be light is perceived as funny, and Charley’s Aunt manages to ring every change on the earthbound masculine principle attempting to rise to the ethereal feminine realm: the title character smokes cigars while in petticoats, or hitches up his skirts to reveal trousers. He also flirts with several men during the course of the play. A stage direction notes that the actor in the title role must in no way “act the woman,” but continue to behave like a man, to heighten the cross-dressing comic effect. A manly attempt (if you will) to hold oppositions in balance.

As the above description might indicate, the play is surprisingly subversive in its look at gender-switching among proper Victorians; though the lead actor may still ‘be’ the man, he’s awfully persuasive as the aunt. But even Brandon Thomas probably would not have been prepared for the sight of Jack Benny in Victorian drag, in 20th-Century Fox’s 1941 film version of his work. Other movie adaptations of Charley’s Aunt have been made, including a 1930 version starring that embodiment of male ditsiness, Charles Ruggles; but even he doesn’t have quite the effect of Benny galumphing about in crinolines and lace cap. All those petticoats, skirts, ruffles, and flounces wrapped awkwardly round Benny’s form makes us realize just how funny the female Victorian costume can be.

Benny, with his roots in vaudeville, wasn’t a trained actor but a clown; he was the master of the double take and the pregnant pause. He was also very much an American clown and, by 1941, when the film was released, a middle-aged one (he was born two years after the play’s premiere). However, Benny doesn’t use his vaudeville ‘shtick’ in the film. As Lord Fancourt Babberly, he plays the part straight (so to speak), throwing in an occasional “cahn’t” to simulate British speech while swinging a cricket bat or sipping tea. It’s still clearly Jack Benny behind the teacup, though. Audiences familiar with the original play must have wondered what this fantastic creature was doing amid the English college lads. The play’s Babberly is a young, aristocratic Oxford undergrad, but the filmmakers were courageous—or maybe brazen—enough to let Benny as is ride. No one in the film questions who he is, nor does any explanation seem needed as to why he’s there (although the UK distributors apparently did feel the need of some rationale, and retitled the film Charley’s American Aunt).

Perhaps the film adapters figured that spectators by now accustomed to accepting Cary Grant and Errol Flynn as regular all-American guys could accept Benny as a not-so-British milord. Golden-age Hollywood never let nationalities stand in the way of a good story; the same year Charley’s Aunt came out, audiences swallowed the midwestern-born-and-bred Lon Chaney, Jr. as the son of a Welsh peer with a lycanthropy problem in The Wolf Man. Once you believe in the impossibility of Benny as a Victorian Englishman, you won’t have too much of a problem believing in him as a Victorian English lady. As Lewis Carroll’s White Queen notes, it’s merely a question of trying.

Benny’s obvious age probably accounted for the one major change from play to film. Instead of Benny/Babberly pairing off with the aunt’s sweet young companion, he now ends up with the aunt herself, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, who’s acted with what I can only call a kind of insinuatingly luscious delicacy by Kay Francis. Francis plays her part with her characteristic slow sparkle, eyes and smile glinting with mischief; no staid Victorian she. And the actress looks particularly stunning in a frothy white evening gown, designed by Travis Banton, that cascades from her elegantly set shoulders and slim figure like crystallized foam.

Francis is also in the film’s funniest scene in which, having discovered that the fake aunt is Babberly, she cradles his bewigged head in her lap (he’s still in his ‘aunt’ drag) and kisses him; meanwhile, spying on the couple is Laird Cregar as Sir Francis Chesney, who laughs when he spots Babberly’s male trousers under the female petticoats. The scene is not in the play, and its subversiveness works on several levels beyond that of transvestite comedy, particularly with our familiarity with Benny’s fey performing persona and our knowledge of both Cregar’s and Francis’ standing as gay icons. The movie’s destablizing cross-dressing humor ranks with Cary Grant’s drag act in I Was a Male War Bride, or the moment in Some Like It Hot when a drag-clad Tony Curtis smooches Marilyn Monroe. Even though you know the context behind what’s going on, you still experience that frisson of comprehension, of grasping at a deeper, disruptive essence within the film’s romps and capers.

In posting this article in anticipation of New Year’s Eve, I think the film is an apt appetizer for the feast to come; its topsy-turvy humor seems suited for the season. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which traditionally took place at year’s end, was a time when conventions were upturned, decorum abandoned, and social norms turned about; in short, Carnival ruled. And Charley’s Aunt (both play and film) perfectly captures that happy sense of end-of-year misrule and frolic, perhaps never more so than in its famous line: “I’m Charley’s aunt, from Brazil—where the nuts come from.” For one day of the year, at least, the nuts hold sway.

Happy New Year.

BONUS CLIP: Here’s 20th-Century Fox’s rather odd promotional short for Charley’s Aunt, in which Jack Benny bemoans his casting in the title role (“All my life I wanted to be in a picture where I end up getting the leading lady. And what happens? I end up being the leading lady.”), only to be comforted by virile, outdoor he-men Tyrone Power and Randolph Scott, who envy his good fortune. Is your frisson rumbling yet?:

This article was originally posted on Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and has been reprinted here in slightly modified form.

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