TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT (1972): A Katharine Hepburn Original?


Sunday night at 8:00pm EST, Turner Classic Movies will be showing a Maggie Smith classic, George Cukor‘s TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT (1972). When I first saw this movie, I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen, but I am thinking now that I was possibly too young to understand what was going on. It is still a good film, primarily due to the fantastic performance given by Dame Maggie, but it’s themes are definitely PG13. It won the Academy Award for best costume design, and it was also nominated for best leading actress, best art direction, and best cinematography.

Not very long after Spencer Tracy (1900-1967) had died, director George Cukor, one of Katharine Hepburn’s closest friends in Hollywood, gave her a copy of Graham Greene‘s novel Travels With My Aunt. Hepburn read the book several times before she had thought of a way it could be turned into a screenplay. She worked for months on the project, but Metro producer James Aubrey was not impressed. He thought the charm from the original story had been lost and he feared that Hepburn was too old to portray the younger Aunt Augusta in flashbacks. Hepburn was ungraciously fired from the project, supposedly for refusing to work.

“I would never refuse to work ten days before a picture was scheduled to start. I would consider that an outrage.”

“I thought of suing them because I don’t feel things like that should be allowed to happen. The script was practically all mine. Cut to hash, but practically all mine… but, then I thought it is a bore, trying to prove that you’ve been misused. I was never paid a sou for eight months work, sixteen hours a day. I would be curious to know why I was fired. I don’t know whether it was Aubrey…. The only thing that he did that really offended me was to write me a letter to KathErine. I thought the least he could do when he fired me was to spell my name right.” (Edwards, 360)

At any rate, Hepburn was not given any screen credit for the work she put into TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, possibly because she was not a member of the Screen Writers Guild. Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler were brought in to adapt Graham Greene‘s novel into a script more acceptable to James Aubrey. The final product varies a great deal from the original story, which is really just a collection of anecdotal stories about a stuffy banker who’s life changes when he meets his eccentric aunt for the first time at his mother’s funeral.

Aunt Augusta (Maggie Smith) sweeps her young nephew Henry (Alec McCowen) away on her wild travels throughout Europe, Eastern Europe, and North Africa as she attempts to accumulate enough money to pay ransom to free an old lover. Henry is shocked to learn about his aunt’s passionate past, and he does his best to rein in her lavish spending on her extravagant lifestyle, but to no avail. She jubilantly steamrolls his cautiousness, spilling out her theories on living. The two end up developing a very unusual bond. 

“You must learn to surrender yourself to extravagance, Henry. Poverty is apt to strike suddenly, like influenza.”   

“My father was a great traveller?” “He travelled from one woman to another all through his life, which comes to much the same thing.” 

“Steward! More champagne.” “Pardon me, miss. We’re just coming in to land.”
“Then you’ll have to hurry, won’t you?”

“Oh, the Louvre! All those naked women with parts missing – it’s morbid!”

“I’ve always preferred an occasional orgy to a nightly routine.”

Whether penned by Katharine Hepburn or not, TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is a fun movie. Hepburn would have been very good a Aunt August, but they would have had to cast another actress to play the flashback scenes. Maggie Smith was only nine years younger than Alen McCowen, who played her nephew (in fact, the two actors had been at the Old Vic together back in the 1950s). Many young people who know Maggie Smith only as Professor McGonagall or as the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey” might not be aware that she started out in comedy. My favorite Maggie Smith comedies include HOT MILLIONS (1968), starring Peter Ustinov, and MURDER BY DEATH (1976), which will be on TCM next Sunday. 


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