Friday, September 5, 2008

Freshman Love (Warners, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to run us the first in an all-day Turner Classic Movies marathon of sports-themed films from the 1930’s: Freshman Love, an appealing semi-musical from Warners in 1936 based on a 1904 (!) play by George Ade called The College Widow. This was once again a “serious” (more or less — any movie that casts Frank McHugh as a coach can’t be all serious!) treatment of something the Marx Brothers had brilliantly satirized in Horse Feathers (where Thelma Todd’s seductress character is referred to as “the college widow” in the dialogue!): the use of blonde co-eds as sexual lures to get top athletes to attend a particular college in order to beef up its sports teams.

The gimmick in this movie is that the sport involved is rowing, and the “college widow,” Joan Simpkins (Patricia Ellis, top-billed), is actually the daughter of the Billings College president (Henry O’Neill), though she’s cooked up the plan to seduce ace rowers Tony Foster (Walter Johnson) and Bob Wilson (Warren Hull, second-billed) into beefing up the Billings team so the school can win its first Tri-State Regatta since 1911. Also in the dramatis personae are E. Prendergast Biddle (George E. Stone), descendant of one of the aces of that 1911 team but more interested in bandleading than rowing — he becomes the team’s coxswain and has them practice to music, and there’s a battle of the bands during the final race when the coach of the rival Chase College team attempts to sabotage Billings’ chances by having their school band play a tango during the race, which slows Billings down until the Biddle band plays an uptempo version of “Dixie” that speeds up the Billings crew and allows them to win.

The movie also features three rather good songs ostensibly composed by George E. Stone's character but actually by M. K. Jerome (music) and Jack Scholl and Joan Jasmyn (lyrics): “The Collegiana,” an uptempo romp in the mold of “Americana” and “Balboa” from Judy Garland’s early films Every Sunday and Pigskin Parade, respectively (and as good as Patricia Ellis’s voice is — especially by comparison to some of the other songstresses who croaked out songs in Warners’ “B”’s then — it’s a pity we can’t get to hear Judy Garland sing this one!); the romantic ballad “Romance After Dark,” by which Warren Hull woos Ellis away from her first boyfriend (the Walter Johnson character (who frankly seemed both nicer and sexier to me!), who’s later conveniently deleted when he flunks a makeup exam the academic-minded president requires all the rowers to take on the eve of the big race); and the title track, set in a soda shop and rather creatively staged — as is “The Collegiana,” even though it’s set in a nightclub and it appears as if the people you thought were just random dancers turned out to be the performers in the floor show (and the number is well done for a “B” budget but one wonders what Busby Berkeley could have done with it!).

It’s a thoroughly predictable film but it also has a certain charm, and while hardly the laff-riot Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland was it was reasonably amusing even though it tended to drag towards the end and one began to wonder (even in a 65-minute movie) just when they were going to have Billings win the damned race already!