Cukor and Sensuality

Recently reseeing George Cukor’s scandalously neglected Travels with My Aunt (1972) helps to clarify how central self-images and sensual discoveries are to his best as well as his most personal films. Travels with My Aunt isn’t on  the same level as Sylvia Scarlett (1935), A Star is Born (1954), and Bhowani Junction (1955), probably my favorites, but it often seems just as personal, and it does have some of the superbly intricate and dispersed ‘Scope compositions that one often finds in the latter two, as well as in Les Girls (1957) and Let’s Make Love (1960), with their own mottled lighting schemes.

(Too bad that Les Girls, also recently reseen, is so unpleasant apart from its choreography and compositions. All the characters are monstrous and the plot is absurd. Why does the Rashomon theme, both here and in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depend mainly on odious people and motives — unlike Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, which uses a modified version of the same theme and is much kinder to its characters?)

Travels with My Aunt can also be read as a kind of response to the free-wheeling 60s and early 70s, much as Sylvia Scarlett celebrated certain aspects of the free-wheeling and footloose 30s. Furthermore, the picaresque plot involving various scams and dodging customs officials also often echoes that of  Sylvia Scarlett. (Considering that Travels was both prepared for and largely written by Katherine Hepburn, these echoes shouldn’t be surprising.)

For me, the key image in Cukor’s finest work usually involves a woman’s empowering and narcissistic perception of herself  — epitomized by Sylvia’s infatuated (and self-infatuated) gender confusion, Judy Garland’s “The Man Who Got Away,” and Ava Gardner gazing at herself in a mirror. But in Travels with My Aunt, unlike the others, the character making the sensual self-discoveries is male (Alec McCowen). Too bad I can’t find even one decent still on the Internet to show this character, or a glimmer of what he learns from his alleged aunt. The best I can find, reproduced above, is one postage-stamp-size still from an Italian web site, showing his character on a train bound for Istanbul with Cindy Williams, discovering pot. 2017 postscript: Barry Scott Moore has directed me to better stills, including the one directly below. [8/10/09]

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