Jack Benny and The Fox Team Players
Sometimes in the workplace, it’s necessary to get all the employees together for a real group effort --- one of those one-for-all-all-for-one projects where everyone hauls the freight together. Here we have the happy family at 20th Century Fox putting their shoulders to the wheel on behalf of Charley’s Aunt, Jack Benny’s 1941 remake of that venerable war-horse familiar to most anyone who’d ever bought a theatre ticket. They really put the big sell behind this one, and every major name on the lot seems to have kicked in. I’d first noted the unusual campaign for Charley’s Aunt some fifteen years ago as I walked down a hotel corridor during a Syracuse Cinefest. Through a partially open door, I heard the familiar chatter of a 16mm projector, not an uncommon thing at Cinefest --- but this one was firing up on a deluxe trailer for Charley’s Aunt, and there on the somewhat off-white far wall of the room was a galaxy of Fox stars endorsing Jack Benny and his new comedy. Having never seen the feature, I couldn’t imagine it measuring up to this trailer. Some time later, I did finally see Charley’s Aunt, and I laughed --- no, I really laughed. This is one terrific Jack Benny performance. Rumors are afoot that Fox is considering a DVD release of this and The Meanest Man In The World (Jack’s other Fox vehicle, and a good one). I hope this rumor pans out.
Now all of you no doubt wonder, as do I, if these caricatures of Jack Benny were really drawn by the artists credited. Alice Faye? Tyrone Power? Rochester? I mean, who knew? John Barrymore, yes, as he was somewhat accomplished with a sketchpad, and had indeed considered a career in commercial art before the lure of family business proved irresistible. I wonder how Jack might have fared if they’d just let go his own way as a young man. Would he have been content drawing ads for Carnation milk and Arrow shirt collars? As it is, Barrymore is once again spoofing his own glory days behind the footlights with a Shakespearean spin on his artistic contribution ("Alas, Poor Bennick"). Having recently done The Great Profile for Zanuck , for which he received a much needed $200,000, Jack probably recognized a certain obligation to the studio that had, by now, sustained a considerable loss on his account (The Great Profile went $250,000 into the red).
You’ll note the convenient mentions of other Fox productions --- Tyrone Power jots down his depiction of Benny while awaiting the next set-up on A Yank In The R.A.F., while Alice Faye whiles away the time between takes on Weekend In Havana. I’d really like to know if they actually drew these things. Actually, I think the caricatures are pretty good. Maybe too good --- know what I mean? Rochester’s contribution is the oddest --- what’s with the padlocks? I suppose it was inevitable that Betty Grable would be pressed into service for a little comparative leg art with Jack. For that matter, all these people shared criss-crossing paths between sound stages and broadcasting studios. Benny always liked to promote his movies with guest appearances of movie star friends, and based on his gigantic listening audience, it behooved these personalities to play ball. Mutual back scratching between motion pictures and radio was at a near peak when Charley’s Aunt came out. It must have been a pretty good plan, because the movie, with a negative cost of $889,000, brought back domestic rentals of $1.5 million, foreign was about half that at $737,000 (well, they had a war on over there, and didn’t have Jack Benny on the radio). Worldwide rentals were $2.2 million for a total profit of $722,000.
That supporting cast in Charley’s Aunt is an interesting mix of young ones moving up, and veterans headed down. Ann Baxter was a teenage ingenue having just completed The Great Profile with Barrymore. James Ellison was getting another chance at Fox after that bid for stardom in Paramount’s The Plainsman failed to launch. He’d be an ingratiating addition to The Gang’s All Here a couple of years later, but Fox would eventually cut him loose, and from there it was back to budget westerns where he’d gotten his start in the 1930’s. A welcome addition to Charley’s Aunt is Laird Cregar, lending a deft comedic touch he’d later apply to Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait. Finally, there is Kay Francis, her major league status well past, and now approaching retirement from the screen --- her last would be a handful for Monogram before a final exit in 1946. Other than a few cameos, Benny himself would abandon movies even sooner with 1945’s The Horn Blows At Midnight.