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A truly hearty helping of Hollywood-style moviemaking from a golden age director, George Cukor's sparkling Travels with My Aunt does not betray its origins as a tough project that strained old relationships. MGM sold it as premium goods, which is a good sign, but audiences were split over its appeal. Even with the addition of contemporary content, it didn't fall in with the general run of entertainment in 1972. Identified as an "old man's movie" by film critics lauding the late works of Howard Hawks (Rio Lobo), Billy Wilder (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) and even John Ford (7 Women), Travels with My Aunt now plays as premium goods and an almost-classic. Like the Wilder film, it had no stars of current caliber to draw an American audience. The wonderful, eccentric Maggie Smith had recently enjoyed a hit in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but she wasn't exactly a household name.
Travels with My Aunt was prepared specifically for Katharine Hepburn, George Cukor's congenial collaborator on films made twenty-five years before. Those plans went sour over "artistic differences" with MGM's production head James Aubrey Jr., the "Smiling Cobra" who, among other cinematic crimes, chloroformed Fred Zinnemann's epic Man's Fate just before the cameras were to roll. Aubrey wanted a younger actress for the flashback scenes and fired Hepburn over a technicality. Thus Maggie Smith gained her most glamorous film role. (The full story is much more detailed than this brief description.)
This elegant light comedy also raised the ire of fans of author Graham Greene, that objected to liberties taken with his original story. Katharine Hepburn rewrote the screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, shifting the tone of Travels from affectionate memoir to more of an un-Greene-ish madcap comedy. Hepburn was dropped from the production but her script was the one filmed, which guaranteed bad blood between almost all the parties involved.
The extremely tasteful and ornate production plays like a continental version of Auntie Mame, if Mame were an ex- call girl and libertine taken to regularly smuggling drugs and contraband currency. In her seventies but far too animated (and extravagantly dressed) to act her age, Augusta Bertram (Maggie Smith) attends her sister's funeral and reconnects with her "nephew" Henry Pulling (Alec McCowen of Frenzy), a conservative bank manager whose idea of fun is tending his flower garden. Hitting Henry with the bombshell that she is his real mother, Augusta pulls the middle-aged man into a fantastic, liberating and wholly illegal adventure that begins with a trip to Paris. Before he knows it Henry finds that Augusta's cohort Wordsworth (Lou Gossett) has concealed marijuana in his mother's ashes. He then unknowingly smuggles undeclared cash to France in a vanity case. Rushed through Paris and onto the Orient Express by the hyperactive Augusta, Henry becomes close friends with a carefree young American, Tooley (a pre- American Graffiti Cindy Williams). She shares her stash with him; he calms her panic that she has become pregnant.
Why is "Aunt" Augusta dragging Henry all over Europe? She's trying to collect funds to ransom the love of her life, Ercole Visconti (Robert Stephens, Ms. Smith's real-life husband), who is being held by North African brigands. Augusta gets the cash from trusted, if shady, friends like Crowder (Robert Flemyng, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) and various old lovers spread across the continent; Henry tries to figure out if any of them happen to be his own birth father. From time to time Augusta entertains glorious memory visions of her youth. She ran away from school to become Ercole's lover, and later found him again while working as a high-class prostitute.
Travels with My Aunt is an extremely polished production. The delightful flamboyance of Maggie Smith -- her bigger than life acting and her loud but tasteful costumes -- is matched by seemingly effortless location work in London and Paris. It's possible that the rest of Europe was sketched in the studio, with Istanbul represented by a glimpse from a prison train as our adventurers are deported ("I didn't get to see one minaret!") and a café stop in Milan railroad station built elsewhere. But top production designer John Box dazzles us with the interiors of at least five impossibly ornate French and Italian hotels, so that we never think to question what we see (North Africa is probably Spain). Compared to this, MGM's earlier European-set films like The Yellow Rolls-Royce look like cheap goods.
Henry doesn't put up much of a fight against his Aunt's corrupting influence, although he does complain a lot. A running gag involves Augusta introducing him as her nephew in hotels and restaurants, an assertion that convinces not a soul -- Henry's assumed to be her gigolo. He meets a real gigolo in Ercole Visconti's effusive, sentimental son (also played by Robert Stephens). What's especially good is the way actor Alec McCowen makes Henry seems amenable to Augusta's schemes, even after he realizes that she is using him to slip contraband through customs. At any moment he could be caught, and the fluffy comedy would end with our hero doing time in prison. By the time he is helping Wordsworth ferry Augusta to her rendezvous with the kidnappers, Henry knows exactly where he stands. He's been the amateur and the patsy all along, unable to contribute much more than a variety of surprised stares to his "Aunt's" caper. But Grahame Green, Jay Presson Allen, Katharine Hepburn or somebody pays off Henry's character as a Howard Hawks-style professional, when he delivers just the right skill exactly when it's needed. During a tense money exchange, Augusta looks at the tall stacks of bills and simply says, "Give me a professional count, Henry". The Banker steps forward and riffles through the money as efficiently as a robot. Even the bad guys ask if he wants a job.
Maggie Smith spends most of the film under excellent makeup that adds deep folds to her face. Yes, it's true that that she doesn't look quiteyoung enough to pull off the flashback scenes from the 1920s and '30s, when her character is meant to be sixteen years old: no baby fat, perhaps. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe gives Ms. Smith a solid assist without resorting to extreme gauze effects or peek-a-boo lighting. Although she can make herself look as imposing as she wants, Ms. Smith is a slim, petite woman (only 5' 5") with angular features. The film's glamour treatment succeeds overall. With her flaming red hair and overstated makeup, Augusta is a sight to behold -- outfitted this way, many a lesser actress would come off looking like Bozo the Clown.
Augusta Bertram employs plenty of zinger one-liners to justify her various vices and evasions, a philosophy that holds together long enough to keep the show from questioning her entire being. She has one bon mot to excuse her overall decadence and several to defend her erratic and totally self-serving lifestyle. When Henry objects that one only gets out of life what one puts in, Augusta shoots back that "some of us take out of life what everybody else is foolish enough to put in!" Although a farce is not expected to deliver a moral sermon, Augusta's chicanery prevents us from being entirely on her side. She's an irresistible whirlwind of emotion and energy, and she probably belongs in jail! 1
Assuming that George Cukor was in charge of the casting, young Cindy Williams is a real coup. Her Tooley is a sweet, adorable sudden traveling companion for Henry, a fact that Augusta acknowledges when she quickly leaves them alone together. Louis Gossett was a hot property in 1972, having just come off of the critically lauded The Landlord and Skin Game. Handsome Robert Stephens never established himself on the screen to the degree that he became an icon of the English stage, despite his superb Sherlock Holmes for Billy Wilder. He'd played film parts from the middle 1950s but would be seen mostly in TV miniseries and long-shot film work like the oddball horror offering The Asphyx.
Appearing briefly is Corrine Marchand, the serene beauty of Agnés Varda's compelling Cléo from 5 to 7. A grinning Turkish customs cop is played by Daniel Emilfork, an actor with a face that, once seen, is never forgotten.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Travels with My Aunt is touted as a Remastered Edition, which in this case really makes a difference. Earlier transfers for laserdisc were on the mushy side, pretty much neutralizing the film's basic visual appeal. This new disc is a dazzler that shows off director Cukor's smartly chosen views of Paris and the great lighting of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. Maggie Smith's makeup and wardrobe really "pop" in color ... the film's design elements come together in a way that many '70s films simply abandoned. Glamour has its place: the skill and talent of the best studio artists, turned loose with a decent budget, could indeed charm audiences with just the look of their work.
The clean soundtrack makes all the accents easily understood, even Louis Gossett's English dialect. Tony Hatch's discreet music is quite lovely, especially a sweet and understated love theme. Hatch didn't compose too many soundtracks, but is a legendary pop producer and songwriter, with numerous mega-hits for Petula Clark. The disc includes an original 1972 trailer that sells Travels with My Aunt as a class product. It uses clips from famous George Cukor movies, perhaps in hopes of reconnecting with the audience that abandoned theaters when confronted with the realities of post- Easy Rider cinema.
I forget how I got in, but I saw an early MGM screening of this show at the "big theater" on the lot. I didn't know George Cukor from Adam, but my companion spotted him and we told him how much we enjoyed the movie. Not being used to accosting classic movie makers, I wasn't sure he really was George Cukor until 1974, when the director addressed a UCLA film class after a screening of Holiday. Yep, it was the same energetic, optimistic little man.
This particular disc offers a good opportunity to laud the Warner Archive Collection. Warners invented the Manufacture On Demand concept in response to fan requests for disc releases of library product insufficiently profitable for the normal DVD production pattern. Many DVD releases sell only a few thousand units, and some even less. The break-even point is much higher. The MOD sales model serves a loyal but limited customer base. The fact that the WAC is remastering any show that doesn't meet current standards places it well ahead of most of the competition. Believe me, hardly any studio is still thinking along those lines... most no longer have properly staffed Home Video Departments. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Travels with My Aunt rates:
1. Travels with My Aunt ends with a coin toss that may completely change Henry's life. The situation is entirely different, but this ending always reminds me of another coin toss at the conclusion of Dead of Night, a "cyclical" ghost story that is mostly a dream. Only a few minutes of the movie take place in waking reality ... a tiny slice of time in which the anxious hero tosses a coin. The toss will determine whether the dream cycle will stop, or continue forever.
2. I hear enough about conditions at various studios to know that several have abandoned marketing their 'vault library' product altogether. Now that Home Video profits are no longer booming, studios can't be bothered to sell their own movies (face it, they rarely really aggressively sold them). They prefer to instead license DVD and Blu-ray rights to enterprising boutique companies, while awaiting a promised financial windfall from streaming and downloading. Yet the Netflix example shows that the public expects such services for free, or next to it. And a download is not a "product" that one can collect on a shelf or give to a friend as a gift.
Most of the majors will now no longer routinely remaster an older title for home video, which is why the outside licensors are stuck with whatever they're supplied. One studio presents consistently excellent transfers partly because its library is relatively small. Warners' list of exploitable library titles is enormous. I am happy to know that the WAC will hold off on releasing my own favorites until a proper transfer is completed. When the discs come out they'll look as good as the technology will allow without extensive restoration. I really appreciate seeing a title like Travels with my Aunt in such an attractive remastered transfer.
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T'was Ever Thus.