Where the Nuts Come From
Brandon Thomas’ famous comedic chestnut from 1892, 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 comic complications ensue. Cross-dressing was not new to English theater; many a Shakespearean comedy has a woman dressing up as a man to achieve her romantic goals; although Charley’s Aunt may be closer in spirit to the English pantomime, where men regularly dress up as women for laughs. Arlene Croce has pointed out 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, with the title character smoking cigars while in drag or hitching up his skirts to reveal trousers, while also flirting 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, heightening the cross-dressing comic effect.
As the above description might indicate, the play is surprisingly subversive in its gender-switching amongst proper Victorians. 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. Many other movie adaptations of Charley’s Aunt have been made, including a 1930 version starring that embodiment of male ditsiness, Charlie 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 round him 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). Benny doesn’t use his vaudeville ‘shtick’ in the film; as Lord Fancourt Babberly, he plays the part straight (if you will), throwing in an occasional “cahn’t” to simulate British speech while swinging a cricket bat or sipping tea. However, it’s still clearly Benny under the cricket cap. Audiences familiar with the original play must have wondered what this fantastic creature was doing amidst the English college lads. Thomas’ Babberly is a young, aristocratic Oxford undergraduate, 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 is any explanation given as to why he’s there (although the UK distributors apparently felt the need of a 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 a sweet young thing, he now ends up with the real aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, who’s acted with what we can only call a kind of insinuatingly luscious delicacy by Kay Francis. Francis plays her part with her characterstic slow sparkle, her eyes 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 solidified foam.
Francis is also in the film’s funniest scene in which, having discovered that the fake aunt is really Babberly, she cradles his bewigged head in her lap (he’s still in his ‘aunt’ drag) and kisses him; meanwhile, spying on the two 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 today 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 Tony Curtis’ Josephine smooches Marilyn Monroe.
Still, as we post this article on New Year’s Day, the film’s topsy-turvy humor seems apt for the season. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which traditionally took place at year’s end, was a time when conventions were upturned and oppositions ruled. And Charley’s Aunt’s most famous line, “I’m Charley’s aunt, from Brazil—where the nuts come from,” captures this happy sense of misrule and frolic. For one day, at least, the nuts hold sway.