Travels With My Aunt

1972, Movie, PG, 109 mins

Review

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Madness runs rampant in this adaptation of Graham Greene's bestselling novel. McCowen, an English banker, meets Smith, a red-haired older British eccentric, while attending the cremation of his mother's remains. Smith claims to be McCowen's aunt and then says the ashes he now holds in an urn are not his mother's. McCowen escorts his newly discovered relative back to her flamboyantly decorated apartment. Waiting for them is Gossett, Smith's current lover. After their arrival Smith receives a package that contains a finger supposedly removed from the hand of Stephens, the true passion of her heart, and an enclosed note informs her that if she pays $100,000 in ransom the two will again be reunited, though not in one piece. McCowen, a rather boring man, thinks the atmosphere at Smith's home is a little hectic and heads back to his place in the suburbs. When the police pay a call on him, McCowen is surprised to find that Gossett had removed the ashes from inside the urn and replaced them with marijuana. Luckily for McCowen, the lawmen let him go. Then McCowen hears from Smith, who wants her nephew to travel with her to Paris to see Gossett. McCowen agrees, not realizing that Smith is using him to help pay off Stephens' ransom by illegally smuggling foreign money out of England to Turkey. The two board the famed Orient Express, and McCowen meets Williams, a young American hippie who takes a liking to the Englishman. She gets her stodgy new companion to join her in smoking some dope, then engages him in uninhibited sex. When the train stops in Milan, Smith receives a bouquet of flowers along with a human ear that seemingly belongs to her missing lover. Gerome, the flower bearer, proves to be Smith's son whom she had by Stephens, a fact that shocks McCowen. Arriving at the Turkish border McCowen gets another unpleasant surprise when officials discover Smith's smuggling plot, and the two are sent back to Paris. McCowen, whose personality is beginning to show some signs of life for all he's been through so far, suggests that Smith go to another of her lovers to help obtain the ransom cash. The plan involves Vazquez, a wealthy Frenchman who drops dead of a heart attack in Smith's hotel suite. A valiant attempt is made to blackmail the man's widow, but she is impervious to their threats. Smith decides to sell an important portrait of herself to raise the money, then informs McCowen that he is not her nephew. Like Gerome, McCowen is a son of hers, fathered by Stephens as well. After the portrait is sold the two rejoin Gossett and take a fishing boat to Africa where they are scheduled to pay off the ransom. The cash is handed over and Stephens appears, nary a hair out of place, to say nothing of fingers and ears. It has all been an elaborate plot to dupe Smith out of her money, but thanks to her now-wily nephew/son the plan has been foiled. It seems McCowen had handed the kidnapers only a small amount of the ransom money because the whole thing seemed suspicious to him from the start. McCowen now wants to use the money to buy back the painting for Smith. She has other plans for the cash, however, and tells McCowen the money would be better spent continuing their travels. One coin flip later and it's off to Nepal, as the pair decide it's high time to reunite with Williams.

At the core of TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is Smith's wildly histrionic and occasionally hammy performance. She sweeps and swirls like a hurricane, picking up everything that comes in her path, as McCowen remains an uneasy eye within her storm. Though she is clearly enjoying the role, at times she pushes her eccentricity too far, which drains the character of believability. McCowen handles his straitlaced role well, with Gossett and Williams providing delightful performances in their smaller parts. This is a film alive with color and brimming with setting and costumes that match the flamboyant central character. Costume designer Powell was awarded an Oscar for his work on the film, and the movie was also nominated for Best Actress (Smith, who lost to Liza Minnelli for CABARET), Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. Condensing Greene's novel into a workable screenplay was not entirely successful. Some moments are glossed over; others fly by all too rapidly in a valiant attempt to cram in as much of the book as possible within the 109-minute running time. Though it doesn't always succeed, the spirit is there often enough to cover the rapid-fire plot development. Cukor gives this a sort of tongue-in-cheek direction; at this point in his career his heyday was long past, and the film is no match for some of his earlier successes. Like its central character, it is unusual, unexpected, and not entirely what it projects itself to be, yet it is entertaining. The role of Aunt Augusta was originally to have been played by Katherine Hepburn, but she was replaced by Smith shortly before production was to begin. Everyone involved had a different story as to why the change was made. Hepburn claimed she hadn't the faintest idea why she'd been replaced but said that when she left, Cukor almost went with her. "Don't be impractical. You've worked on the film for two years," Hepburn reportedly told her old friend. For his part Cukor told an interviewer from the New York Daily News that Hepburn still was his first choice for the role, but he couldn't allow some of the changes she demanded in the script. According to the director, Hepburn finally withdrew and the two parted amicably. leave a comment

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