Best. Comedy. Ever.
In 1892, British actor Brandon Thomas wrote a frivolous farce about an Oxford student—strong-armed by two pals into dressing in elderly drag to chaperone them with their sweethearts—who finds “herself” wooed by two older men who are after the old girl’s money. Over a century later, Charley’s Aunt remains a staple of theaters everywhere, and for good reason: No one—not Shakespeare, Shaw, Oscar Wilde or Neil Simon—ever wrote a funnier or more surefire crowd-pleaser.
In 1941, some unsung Hollywood genius decided the play would make a good vehicle for Jack Benny, a huge star in radio who had a spotty record in movies. But Benny could click when the mix was right; for Charley’s Aunt, writer George Seaton tweaked Thomas’ text (finessing the fact that Benny was a bit, ah, mature for an Oxford undergrad), and director Archie Mayo paced things at a merry gallop. The result was—let’s not mince words—one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s not on the AFI’s “great comedies” list only because it’s been out of circulation for over 30 years.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has rectified that oversight, and Charley’s Aunt can take its rightful place. Benny was never funnier, and neither was his supporting cast: James Ellison, Richard Haydn, Anne Baxter, Edmund Gwenn (six years away from playing Santa in Miracle on 34th Street) and menacing ’40s villain Laird Cregar in a rare comic turn (watch his cane when he meets the phony dowager—the neatest piece of phallic symbolism ever to sneak past the Hays Office).
A word of caution: Invite plenty of friends over to see it with you. Like all comedies—and more than most—Charley’s Aunt depends on a critical-mass audience. Watch it alone and you’ll be amused and entertained; watch it with 10 other people and you’ll all laugh till you wet your pants.