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Unexpected Uncle

Unexpected Uncle(1941)

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teaser Unexpected Uncle (1941)

Charles Coburn starred in this 1941 romantic comedy, filmed during his emergence as the latest of Hollywood's character stars. Through the rest of his career, he would move between colorful supporting roles in which he often stole films from the higher-billed talent and leading roles in which he traded not in romance but in an irascible geniality that audiences found irresistibly charming.

Coburn had made a few films early on, but was largely a stage star, having mounted successful repertory seasons on Broadway with his wife, actress Ivah Wills. When she died in 1937, he turned to Hollywood full time, and within a few years was one of the screen's most popular character players. With the success of two other 1941 films -- the Preston Sturges classic The Lady Eve and the romantic comedy The Devil and Miss Jones, for which he received his first Oscar® nomination -- he rose to the ranks of stardom.

Unexpected Uncle was a project tailor-made to exploit his special charms as an actor. The film was adapted from a novel by Eric Hatch, author of the novel My Man Godfrey, which had become a major film hit in 1936. Tired of the demands of big business, steel tycoon Coburn runs away to Florida (although that scenic locale only appears in background shots) to pitch horseshoes and meddle in the love lives of salesgirl Anne Shirley and millionaire James Craig.

Coburn didn't win star billing, even though he had the film's major role. That honor, along with any blame for the picture's $195,000 box-office loss, fell to Shirley and Craig. She had been scoring in meatier dramatic roles as Carole Lombard's kid sister in the nursing drama Vigil in the Night (1940) and John Garfield's young wife in Saturday's Children (1940), but as a contract player at RKO, she had to earn her keep by appearing in whatever the studio had available. Craig had scored as Ginger Rogers's doctor suitor in Kitty Foyle (1940). Later that year, he and Shirley would re-team to far better effect for All that Money Can Buy (1941), a sumptuous adaptation of the classic story "The Devil and Daniel Webster."

The failure of Unexpected Uncle was less the fault of its gifted cast, however, than of some critical miscasting behind the camera. Director Peter Godfrey had only just moved into the field from acting and had not had the chance to develop much of a personality on programmers like The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939). He would soon sign with Warner Bros., where he would direct some of the studio's most disappointing films. The picture might have been better served had producer Tay Garnett -- one of Hollywood's greatest unsung directors -- taken the job. Garnett had pioneered in the development of talking films with his witty, fast-paced direction of Her Man in 1930. He had gone on to such classics as One Way Passage (1932), starring Kay Francis and William Powell, and China Seas (1935), with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell. A few years later, he would direct one of the all-time great film noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). For that matter, the film could have benefited by moving co-scripter Delmer Daves into the directing chair, a move he would make with great success for the 1943 film Destination Tokyo. Even Daves's co-scripter, Noel Langley, who had worked on the original The Wizard of Oz (1939), would demonstrate directorial finesse when he traveled to England to make his directing debut with The Pickwick Papers (1952).

Despite its failure, however, Unexpected Uncle remains as a testament to the charms of its three stars. Coburn, in particular, would go on to make roles like the eccentric tycoon here his trademark, eventually winning an Oscar® for a similar role in the George Stevens comedy The More the Merrier (1943).

Producer: Tay Garnett
Director: Peter Godfrey
Screenplay: Delmar Daves, Noel Langley, based on the novel by Eric Hatch
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Anthony Collins
Cast: Anne Shirley (Kathleen), James Craig (Johnny), Charles Coburn (Seton), Ernest Truex (Wilkins), Renee Godfrey (Carol West), Russell Gleason (Rommy), Astrid Allwyn (Sara Cochran), Thurston Hall (Jerry Carter), Hans Conried (Clayton).

by Frank Miller

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