Travels with my Aunt is one of those films which must have looked good on paper, had a tortuous time reaching the screen, and left critics and viewers wondering if it had been worth the effort.
Originally conceived by George Cukor as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn after he read Graham Greene’s novel and before a screenplay had even been written, Hepburn rejected the first script (she had thought the book was unfilmable to begin with) and was more or less told ‘if you think you can do better write it yourself’. After several months of work Hepburn presented her version to MGM who were unhappy at the idea of her appearing as her younger self in flashback sequences. They told Hepburn they were postponing shooting, then told her agent she was being fired for not reporting for work on the film.
Hepburn, as you may imagine, was furious at this treatment and threatened to sue the pants off MGM for the work she’d put into the script, then decided against it. Apparently one speech of Hepburn’s did make it into the final screenplay but she was denied any credit, not being a member of the Screen Writers Guild.
Hepburn should really have counted herself lucky. Although not without charm, Travels With My Aunt is a lumpy affair which fails to catch the spirit of its source. It doesn't help that Maggie Smith, great actress though she is, is miscast and really too young for the part – the difficulty of using the same actress aging from 20 to 70+ was never really solved.
Henry Pulling (Alec McCowen) is a bank manager. Attending his mother's funeral, he meets Augusta Bertram (Maggie Smith) a septuagenarian redhead who claims to be his aunt. She invites him back to her apartment, where she lives with her lover, an African named Wordsworth (Louis Gossett Jr). She receives a package allegedly containing the severed finger of her true love, Ercole Visconti (Robert Stephens) with a note promising the two will be reunited upon payment of $100,000.
Augusta asks Henry to accompany her to Paris and he agrees, unaware she actually is smuggling £50,000 out of the country in exchange for a £10,000 fee she can put toward the ransom. In Paris they board the Orient Express. When the train reaches Milan, Augusta is greeted by her illegitimate son Mario, who presents her with a bouquet of flowers and an ear that supposedly belongs to Ercole.
At the Turkish border, she and Henry are sent back to Paris. Augusta attempts to secure the money she needs from her former lover Achille Dambreuse (José Luis López Vázquez), but the wealthy Frenchman dies suddenly. Efforts to extort $100,000 from Achille's widow in return for their silence about the adulterous circumstances of his death fail, and Augusta decides to sell a valuable portrait of herself she claims was painted by Modigliani to raise the money.
Once the painting is sold, they join Wordsworth on a fishing boat to North Africa, where they pay the ransom and are reunited with Ercole. He removes his bandages, revealing ear and finger intact, indicating he has been the mastermind of a plot to separate Augusta from her money. Henry was suspicious from the start, and reveals not only has he deduced Augusta is his biological mother, but that he exchanged "neatly cut pages of the Barcelona telephone directory" for the money in the package. He wants to use the cash to buy the portrait Augusta sold, but she tells him she would prefer to use it to finance further travels. Henry decides the matter should be decided with the toss of a coin and chooses 'heads'. Wordsworth tosses the coin and the film ends on a freeze frame of Augusta, Henry and Wordsworth as they await the fall of the coin.
The film simplifies and excises a great deal of Greene’s novel which ends with Henry (married to a much younger woman) and his ‘aunt’ running a smuggling operation in South America, and includes references to undercover CIA operations of the 1960’s. It was a work Greene described as an ‘entertainment’ to distinguish it from his more serious novels.
Not only has much of the novel’s structure been gutted, its spirit has been thrown aside, too. In the book Augusta is an exhilarating breath of fresh air in Henry’s life. He even comes to relish the danger and unpredictability she exposes him to, realising the predictable life of a bank manager is artificial and that danger and unpredictability are actually what make life worth living. In the film Augusta is just a rather irritating hysteric whom he comes, reluctantly, to love.
As I said Maggie Smith is too young for her role. Plastered in immobilising make-up as the elderly Augusta she cannot be shown in close-up and has to resort to a very mannered, caricatured performance which verges on Arthur Lucan’s work as Old Mother Riley, all startled jerky movements and muttered asides. Alec McCowen and Lou Gossett are far more convincing, but they have more comfortable characters to work with. Robert Stephens appears only briefly in flashbacks to Augusta’s past and in the final African sequence and does not make a great impression as a wily Italian.
Fun to watch but fairly forgettable, Travels With My Aunt could have been much better if casting problems had been overcome (I think Angela Lansbury would have made a good Augusta, but I suppose whe wasn't a big enough lead name) and a more sympathetic screenplay had been taken from the novel.