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Travels With My Aunt (DVD Review)

7 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Maggie Smith, Alec McCowen, Louis Gossett Jr., Cindy Williams.

A capper credit at the end of this uneven but generally pleasing twilight George Cukor romp notes that it was filmed in England, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Turkey and Yugoslavia. So where did MGM get the money or wherewithal to bankroll it, and how did brown-ish Metrocolor suddenly look so sumptuous? It would be a stretch to say that Leo the Lion’s once resplendent fortunes were, in ’72, about where Republic Pictures’ were in 1955 — but not by that much. MGM was either sticking to producing predominantly drive-in fare — or sticking it to the few good directors who’d even work for them (Blake Edwards, Sam Peckinpah) when they tried to show a little ambition.

Adapted from a Graham Greene novel that has little in common with the political intrigue of The Third Man or The Quiet American, Cukor’s movie was originally intended as a vehicle for the director’s friend and longtime colleague Katharine Hepburn in the auntie role of a bohemian eccentric who adds some needed globe-hopping zest to the life of a minor London bank exec/nephew who is used to more orderly ways. When the actress exited Aunt in a messy dispute with studio chief James Aubrey, some of the gas went out of result — though Aubrey apparently wondered, as I always have myself, how Hepburn, then in her mid-60s, could have possibly fared in three or four major flashbacks that portrayed the character as a much younger fashion plate.

In her place came Maggie Smith (between Oscars, and she’d get another nomination here), who was put in the reverse position. Smith, like the minor players here, really knows dress up ‘20s and ‘30s scenes that have a high society bordello look where Cukor and his stellar design crew really go to town. For most of the movie, though, the actress is buried in so much rouged latex that she looks like one of the old guests on the pioneer TV game show "Masquerade Party." There’s something vaguely unnatural about her appearance and something vaguely unnatural about her performance, though I still (as in ’72) let out with several hoots from some of her dialogue deliveries here.

I saw Travels on an Ohio-to-NYC movie trip at the end of the ’72 movie year, a wistfully prime time for (veteran) auteur antics just as or before the new wave of “comers” (Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg) had recently, or were about to, make their marks. In addition to Cukor’s film, Billy Wilder had Avanti! In theaters, Joseph L. Mankiewicz had Sleuth, Elaine May (no oldster but with an older-skewed sensibility) had The Heartbreak Kid and the Chaplin collection was making its first theatrical appearance in decades (I think it was Limelight playing in New York at this particular juncture for a new generation — mine). No matter how successful or un- the project proved to be (and on balance, Aunt is among the most successful movies Cukor made after 1957), it was always a thrill to see him frame a widescreen aspect ratio. Of all the “amazements” I’ve ever experienced in a lifetime of filmgoing, one of the most stirring was witnessing how a filmmaker known for 1.33:1 black-and white movies (many adapted from plays or novels) became one of the most stirring anamorphic artists around with just one picture: the 1954 A Star Is Born.

In a stroke of good fortune, the cast here was timely for its day. Smith had gotten the ’69 Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which also featured her real life husband Robert Stephens — just before he landed the 1970 title role in Billy Wilder’s more than sporadically magnificent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Here, Stephens plays the most beloved former lover of Smith’s “Aunt Augusta” — one whose alleged kidnapping sets the plot in motion as she and her nephew (good having a banker in the family) try to effect a rescue. Alec McCowen plays the nephew in what was his greatest year in the movies, having starred brilliantly as the police inspector just the previous summer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy. As the young semi-hippie who converts middle-aged McCowen to cannabis (for a while) when they meet on the Orient Express, Cindy Williams was an unknown — but by the time Travels began playing rep film theaters before very long, she had made her initial splash playing Ron Howard’s teen squeeze in American Graffiti. The other key role (as Smith’s live-in lover) cast Lou Gossett before he began billing himself as Louis Gossett Jr. and quite a ways before he won his supporting Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman — though he’d made a splash opposite James Garner in The Skin Game (one of the critical sleepers from 1971) and, if you were looking, in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord before it picked up its now generally stellar reputation.

At its weakest, the movie plays a little like a madcap party to which you haven’t been invited, yet its good and better moments are placed fairly rhythmically throughout. It is not just sumptuous, though that certainly helps: the cinematography, art/set decoration and costumes all got Oscar nominations, with a win in the last category. But 40 years ago, there was also the novel pleasure of watching an old-school Hollywood filmmaker in his 70s make a movie about interracial sex, marijuana usage between a male and a young woman more than a quarter-century his junior and all kinds of implied decadent fun from decades earlier. Several years later, Cukor (who had directed Nancy Reagan’s late-‘40s screen test at MGM) reportedly put off the First Lady’s moviegoing sensibilities with Jacqueline Bisset’s airplane-lavatory sex scene in Rich and Famous, his 1981 swan song. I’ve always wondered what Mrs. Reagan thought of this movie, starting with the fact that McCowen’s character, once he gets into the swing of reefer, doesn’t “just say no.”

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