Give it to Jeremy — He’ll Watch Anything: Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt

Ed. Note: In “Give it to Jeremy — He’ll Watch Anything,” Jeremy blindly selects a movie from the Netflix “Random Picks” section, watches it, and records his reaction. It’s arbitrary. It’s chaos. It’s awesome. Warning: Spoilers.


Remember last time, when I said I might need a random number generator to help me get out of my own head in the Random Pick selection? Another option might be to just always pick the first movie listed (that was, after all, how we ended up finding the joy of Roy Colt and Winchester Jack):

Here comes…


“Facing expulsion, Oxford chums concoct a mad scheme to restore their good standing, which involves impersonating a wealthy aunt and tricking the dean.”

I’m ready.


The second star listed in the opening credits is “Richard (Stinker) Murdoch.” Now I’m ready, and I’m excited.

“Adapted from the famous farce by Brandon Thomas.” Two things: First, I trust their judgment of “famous,” and therefore assume that the reason I haven’t heard of it is because I’m an uncultured beast. Second, I love a good farce. So now I’m ready, and I’m excited, and I’m busy preparing my knee for a hearty slapping.

As suggested in the description, we open on Oxford’s campus. Folks are pointing up at a building where a statue has been given a hat and a sign that reads, “BEER IS BEST.”

My first thought: Is this 1940 movie the first in the long line of college comedies that I always assumed began with Animal House?

My second thought: I’ve now mentioned Animal House in two GITJ–HWA posts in a row. Clearly I need to see more movies.

I was excited that this is the first movie in three random picks that doesn’t have subtitles, but I’m finding that English accents on a 70-year-old audio recording isn’t much more comprehensible than Italian or Hinglish. I’m actually kind of longing for subtitles.

At last, our primary protagonist (Arthur) emerges… from a dresser drawer! “Hoo! What a blackout!”

I’m getting genuinely excited about the British wit in this movie. Arthur is hesitant to get out on the building’s ledge to retrieve his hat from his drunken statue prank, so someone tries to reassure him: “You climbed along the ledge last night.”

Arthur: “I know, but last night there were two ledges.”

People say that nothing in TV shows and movies is new, that everything borrows from everything before it, all the way back to ancient plays. I know that, and it makes sense to me intellectually. But it’s still a very strange feeling to watch a movie from 1940, about which I know nothing, and get a wave of sensation that, “Holy crap, I can see about a dozen of my favorite modern comedies totally branching out from this.”

Speaking of thievery, I’m pretty sure that Woody Allen made a conscious decision at some point in the early 1970s, “I shall be Arthur Askey. I’m taking the comedic sensibility, the self-awareness, the timing, the mannerisms, and definitely the glasses. I’ll just add a clarinet and hope no one notices.”

I finally caved and turned the subtitles on. So far the comedy in this movie has been doled out in equal parts physical gags and witty dialogue. The physical stuff hasn’t been grabbing me yet, but when I can actually understand the dialogue, it seems like the stuff I would enjoy. For example, Arthur’s chums, Albert and Stinker, are angry at him:

Albert: “You ass.”
Stinker: “You mutt.”
Albert: “You bleedin’–”
Arthur: “Alright, alright, you bet one each, now let me think of something to call me.”

Hey Simpsons fans, we just got our first look at the crusty old dean.

I’m picking up on a bit of British lingo. Apparently to be expelled from Oxford is to be “sent down.” Feel free to use this at your next dinner party, gala, or paintball outing.

This movie has enjoyably quick-hitting humor that includes jokes which repeat and build over time. It reminds me of shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock, which leads me to wonder if I’m missing a lot of jokes that are unique to a specific time and place.

The central ruse is in full swing now, so I’ll catch you up: To avoid getting expelled for their misbehavior, three alcohol-soaked Oxford students (Arthur, Albert, and Stinker), have told the dean that their aunt (the three of them aren’t actually related), Lady Blessington Smythe (AKA Aunt Lucy), will be happy to fund the dean’s next Egyptian mummy dig. To satisfy the dean’s desire to meet with her, Arthur will be dressing as an aunt, similar to what he did earlier in the movie when he performed in the campus production of Charley’s Aunt.

In other words, this might be the best episode of Frasier I’ve ever seen.

Arthur, as Aunt Lucy, trying to explain to the dean why she likes Egypt: “East is East and West is West. And, ahh, the same applies to North and South.”

I’m enjoying how several jokes are delivered via “accidental” dialogue that is quickly corrected. (See also: Anyone talking about Ann in Arrested Development.)

When did film studios first learn to create fancy transitions between shots? I just saw a pinwheel wipe. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like that in this movie, and I can’t think of a good contextual reason for it. Which leads me to believe someone was putting this film together, started to get bored because it was his fourth film that day, discovered how to do pinwheel wipes, got really excited about, had no one with whom to share his exhilaration, and decided to just put it in right here and move on.

Characters keep referring to “Bowgate College,” which means nothing to me, so let’s pause a moment and discover what that is, shall we?

First, the University of Oxford is apparently comprised of several autonomous colleges. But I don’t see Bowgate anywhere in the list. Second, several works of fiction have apparently invented fictional Oxford colleges so that they can have Oxford students as characters while making up details of the college. I also don’t see Bowgate anywhere on that list, but I’m inclined to think it fits the concept.

Arthur-as-Aunt, reminiscing on a canoe with the proctor: “How far used we to drift?”
“As far as the Locke at Ice Slip.”
“Who slept?”
“Ice Slip.”
“Oh, as long as I didn’t.”

Later, trying to stall: “I’ll turn the record now, shall I? Oh, we’ve had both sides now? I’ll see if I can play the rim.”

Do you realize yet how great this discovery is? Arthur Askey means I never need to watch Woody Allen again.

In case you were wondering, yes, even in 1940 the campus comedy includes a ladies dressing room scene. This one still felt risque in the context of the movie, even if by 2014 standards the women were in layers of snowmobile suits and straightjackets.

Amanda raises a good research point: “Did people really walk around in those hats?” I’ve noticed various people at the college wearing mortarboard hats throughout the movie. In fact, that was the hat that started this whole mess — Arthur had put his on the statue that had the beer sign.

Wikipedia, what do you have for us? First, the mortarboard cap is also known as — the Oxford! Second, yes, it was common for students to wear academic dress daily, including the mortarboard.

It turns out colleges are good for two things: not just farces, but learning too!

This movie does a great job of building up comedic suspense — putting off as long as possible how a particular scene with a faulty premise is going to resolve itself eventually. For example, right now Arthur, as the aunt, is having tea with the real Aunt Lucy. He doesn’t realize who she is, and she doesn’t realize whom he’s impersonating. It’s been going on for a good two minutes with no signs of either character figuring anything out. It’s stressful and hilarious.

Amanda wonders if Some Like It Hot was influenced by this movie. “Cross-dressing hijinks and all,” she explains. I’m learning new things left and right.

Askey shows us how to say you’re welcome to someone who is on the verge of spoiling your ruse: “Oh, don’t mention it. In fact, don’t say another word.”

Remember when I said the physical comedy in this movie wasn’t doing much for me?

Just now, Arthur, fleeing a scene while still dressed as the aunt, skirt and all, attempted to slide backwards down a long staircase banister, and didn’t even make it halfway before falling off and tumbling down the stairs. Nailed it.


Since the midway point of the movie, I’ve been wondering how these jokers were going to get away with their scheme. With each passing scene, it seemed less and less likely they wouldn’t get found out and expelled. But in modern variations of the campus comedy, the so-called protagonists always manage to get away with it and stay in school (or graduate), don’t they?

Well, guess what. Arthur and Co. didn’t get away with it! The movie ends with the three of them on a train out of Oxford. I love it.

Final Thoughts

“He likes it! Hey Mikey!”

I really enjoyed this movie. And it’s not one that I ever would have selected for myself if not for Random Picks. When I try to think of “old comedies,” I run out of steam pretty quickly after Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Did I love it? Will I watch it again soon? No, probably not. But what I did do is add the only other Arthur Askey movie on Netflix instant to my queue — I Thank You (1941). And when I watch that one, I’ll be doing what I would recommend to you if you watch this one: Turn the subtitles on. It got much, much better once I did that.

And, yes, I do recommend this one. I joked about Frasier earlier, but I think that’s actually a pretty good basis — if you like Frasier, you’ll probably enjoy this. And it’s 76 minutes, for goodness’ sake! Give it a try.

I’ll be cross-dressing another Random Pick soon. Stay tuned!

Read more from Jeremy here and on Twitter: @jereminate.