Monday, June 4, 2012

Let’s Go Collegiate (Monogram, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was an item from a 20-film box of classic movie musicals I’d just ordered from Critics’ Choice Video, though it was neither a classic nor much of a musical: it was Let’s Go Collegiate, a 1941 Monogram production and one of the first films they made that gave Gale Storm much of a showcase. The story takes place at Rawley University, whose star “stroke” on their rowing team (from what they showed in this movie I gathered the “stroke” is the guy who sits in front next to the coxswain and has just one oar instead of two; he’s supposed to supply the main power and “oomph” to move the racing shell in the water), Bill Terry, has just been drafted (this was in the wake of America’s first peacetime draft and on the eve of our entry into World War II, and in addition to inspiring mega-hits like Abbott and Costello’s star-making Buck Privates those realities also affected cheap, tacky movies like this). The team’s coxswain, Frankie Monahan (Frankie Darro, in a nothing role that’s quite a comedown for him after seeing him five years earlier in Born to Fight, an engaging indie that proved Darro could genuinely act), and the captain, Tad (Jackie Moran), decide to recruit another stroke and find him in Herk (short for “Hercules”) Bevans (Frank Sully) when they see Herk lift up a heavy safe and load it onto a flatbed truck. The fact that it’s a safe rather than some more innocuous sort of heavy object makes us suspicious of him immediately – as does the dese-dem-dose accent with which Sully delivers Herk’s lines – but it’s not until the very end of the movie that Herk’s past gets revealed. In the meantime, Frankie and Tad only intend to pass off Herk as Terry at their big frat party introducing him (Charles said, “What kind of fraternity is it where everybody is over 30?” – and I replied, “Phi Delta Monogram”) and then announce the drafting of (the real) Bill Terry afterwards – only Herk insists on staying in school and actually rowing once he gets a load of Bess Martin (Marcia Mae Jones), Tad’s girlfriend; and Midge Lawrence (Gale Storm), Frankie’s girlfriend, and decides he wants both of them (enough to propose marriage to both of them by the time the movie is out – I joked, “Hey, this is Rawley, not BYU!”).

Edmond Kelso’s script goes through the usual complications of a college athletic movie, including the queeny Professor Whitaker (Billy Griffith) – one wonders, “Who was the head of the teachers’ college that trained him, Quentin Crisp?” – who threatens to throw both Frankie and Tad off the rowing team because they’ve spent so much time tutoring Herk that their own grades have fallen off; and the final complication that, to no one’s surprise (no one in the audience, anyway; it comes as a bolt out of the blue to the characters!), Herk is really a wanted bank robber, and the two alumni who are there to witness the big championship rowing race, Speed Dorman (Frank Faylen) and “Bullet” Bill Miller (Paul Maxey), lock up government agent Slugger Wilson (Tristram Coffin) until the big race starts so he can’t arrest Herk until the race is over. Also there’s a running gag about Herk’s seasickness, for which Frankie is feeding him chocolate-flavored pills – though the coach (Barton Yarborough) discovers them and confiscates them before the big race and Frankie instead loads up with mothballs, which have a speed-like effect on Herk, thereby giving Rawley an exciting (as exciting as it could be given the stock footage available to Monogram, anyway) come-from-behind finish in the race.

At least part of the appeal of this film comes from the three people of color in the cast: Keye Luke, rather wasted as the coach’s assistant (especially since Luke played an athlete himself, a U.S. Olympic swimmer, in the 1936 film Charlie Chan at the Olympics!); Mantan Moreland, as the fraternity’s chauffeur delivering his marvelously dry “spin” on the African-American servant stereotype (most notably when he’s tutoring Herk for his anatomy exam – or rather Herk is using Mantan’s head as a guinea pig – he even gets to sing, or at least rap, the song “Let’s Do a Little Dreamin’” in a quartet at the end); and Marguerite Whitten, the cook, who’s there mainly to give Mantan an appropriately colored love interest in the sort of playfully bantering mold of Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel in the 1936 Universal Show Boat. Let’s Go Collegiate is a pretty predictable movie but it’s still mild fun, appealing when the people of color are on the screen or when Gale Storm is singing (two decent but undistinguished vehicles, “Sweet Sixteen” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” but songs which at least pointed out how good she could be), and directed by the Boy Named Jean Yarbrough in typically efficient if uncreative fashion.