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  Charley's (Big-Hearted) Aunt Bloody Students
Year: 1940
Director: Walter Forde
Stars: Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, Graham Moffatt, Moore Marriott, J.H Roberts, Felix Aylmer, Wally Patch, Phyllis Calvert, Jeanne De Casalis, Elliott Mason
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The hallowed halls of Cambridge University, a respected seat of learning for centuries, and as a tour is led around it, when they reach this particular quad the tourists cannot help but notice someone has been up to monkey business with one of the statues up high. It is now sporting a mortar board and a fishing rod to which is attached the message "BEER IS BEST", which makes them laugh but is not the done thing in that establishment. The culprits? Three students, Arthur (Arthur Askey), Stinker (Richard Murdoch) and Albert (Graham Moffatt), whose hijinks last night could have landed them in trouble, though Arthur thinks he can retrieve the hat - it's his - before the Dean sees it. But the trio will soon be in deeper trouble than that...

Charley's Aunt was a venerable old warhorse of a play even before Askey and company got their hands on it, and had already been filmed a few times, with many more to come: Hollywood were especially fond of doing versions, but despite it being a British play the Brits were content to leave it on the stage rather than bring it to the big screen. Those rep theatres wouldn't have appreciated a supposedly definitive effort stealing their thunder, therefore for this variation, a new plot was applied that perhaps was not exactly revolutionary, but was oddly meta in its approach. Here, Big-Hearted Arthur was already starring in a staging of the play for his fellow students before being forced by circumstances to adopt the auntie persona for real.

Now, it should be noted Askey was forty years old when this was shot, so maybe you could call him a mature student if only he did not act so immature, but the fact this was barely believable as a concept was part of the joke, and he was in on it as much as the audience were invited to be. His humour was born of the quick-thinking of the music halls, and he only won a film contract because he had been a runaway success on radio alongside sidekick Murdoch with The Band Waggon - that was also filmed after a fashion, and the play here was dusted off and adapted to his abilities. Really it was an excuse to get Arthur into drag, which he was happy to do as one of the finest pantomime dames the British stage ever saw in the twentieth century: the contemporary viewer would have been well aware of this, and welcome the conceit that got his character wearing female attire.

To find this amusing you may have to be attuned to that music hall sensibility, with all its asides and traditions, but if you were, Arthur and his team, which also included Moffatt's old Will Hay partner Moore Marriott as an elderly assistant, would provide some easy laughs. It was daft to a fault, and therefore just the thing to take the wartime audiences' minds off the troubles the world was enduring, but even now there were laugh out loud moments as the proceedings grew ever more ridiculous. With the trio threatened with being sent down, or expelled, they contrive a scheme to have Arthur pose as Albert's aunt and persuade the Dean (J.H. Roberts) not to come down too hard on them, but events escalate until Arthur is being courted by one of the other officials (Felix Aylmer) and the real aunt (Jeanne De Casalis) arrives to tighten the screws on the charade. Featuring such novelties as Askey crowdsurfing and a would-be addition of racy material when he ends up in a changing room full of ladies in their underwear, vintage star spotters may like Phyllis Calvert, a future matinee celebrity, in the role of the token woman. Otherwise, it raced along, winking at the audience at the silliness of it all.

[Extras on the Network Blu-ray of this title, under The British Film banner, are two chat shows, two episodes of panel show Joker's Wild, an image gallery and subtitles.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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