Based on a whimsical novel by the revered British author Graham Greene, this offbeat comedy was originally conceived as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Director George Cukor, a studio-era giant who helmed several of Hepburn’s classic films, enlisted the iconic actress’ participation, but MGM nixed Hepburn partly because she was too old to convincingly play her character in flashbacks. The star was replaced by Maggie Smith, who interprets the lead role so broadly that the character becomes surrealistic. This otherworldly flavor is exacerbated by Cukor’s use of over-the-top costuming and production design. Smith’s character comes across like a refugee from glamorous MGM productions of the ’30s, all flowing dresses and opulent headgear, making her an extreme anachronism within the otherwise realistic milieu of the movie. Obviously, Cukor envisioned an arch culture-clash comedy, and the effect probably works for some viewers. To these eyes, however, the movie is merely garish and shrill.
The story begins at a funeral, when uptight British banker Henry Pulling (Alec McCowen) oversees his mother’s cremation. During the service, he’s distracted by the wailings of a strange-looking redhead in flamboyant clothing, Augusta Bertram (Smith). She introduces herself as Henry’s long-lost aunt, and then she pulls him into her eccentric world. Augusta lives with pot-smoking African psychic Wordsworth (Louis Gossett Jr.), but she’s romantically linked to a string of European men with whom she shared adventures in the past. One of her ex-lovers has been kidnapped, so Augusta agrees to transport stolen goods as a means of raising cash for ransom. This odyssey is intercut with flashbacks depicting Augusta in her glory days as the mistress for various wealthy men. Emboldened by Augusta’s freethinking ways, Henry enjoys a chaste tryst with American hippie chick Tooley (Cindy Williams), who travels on the famed Orient Express at the same time as Augusta and Henry.
Travels With My Aunt goes on rather windily through myriad episodes, some of which are amusing but none of which is remotely believable. And since the movie never reaches laugh-out-loud levels of absurdity, it ends up feeling quite pointless. One problem is Smith’s over-the-top acting, and another is McCowen’s bloodlessly competent performance: The movie cries out for a brilliant comic foil, like Dudley Moore or Gene Wilder, but Smith’s energy is not returned in kind. However, Cukor’s stylization is the most distracting aspect of the picture, because all the directorial flourishes in the world can’t obscure the film’s lack of substance. Improbably, the picture received several major nominations, though its only significant win was an Oscar for Anthony Powell’s costumes. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Travels With My Aunt: FUNKY