Tuesday, September 2, 2014

College Holiday (Paramount, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was College Holiday, a 1936 Paramount musical which I recorded off TCM just after The Big Broadcast of 1937 — TCM paired the two because they’re the only two movies Jack Benny and George Burns ever made together, despite their long friendship and history of guest-starring on each other’s radio and TV shows. College Holiday is a bland title for a truly weird movie — it begins conventionally enough, at a college dance (well staged by director Frank Tuttle, choreographer Dave Gould — who worked on the first two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcée, and cinematographers Théodor Sparkuhl and William C. Mellor, whose presence here virtually defines the term “overqualified”), at which romantic leads Dick Winters (Leif Erickson, who puts the rest of this cast one degree of separation from James Dean — they worked together on that bizarre 1951 TV-movie Hill Number One, a Biblical tale of the aftermath of the crucifixion in which Erickson was Pontius Pilate and Dean the Apostle John) and Sylvia Smith (Marsha Hunt) meet, exchange kisses (and slaps) and he falls so madly in love with her he determines to track her down even though all he knows is that her last name is “Smith” (yeah, that’s a lot of help!) and she’s returning to her home base of Santa Teresa, California (really an alias for Santa Barbara — where some exteriors for this film were actually shot — as it would be starting in the 1980’s for mystery writer Sue Grafton as well) for the summer, where she helps her father (Harry Hayden) run a hotel.

Alas, dad took in J. Davis Bowster (Jack Benny, top-billed) as a junior partner and left Bowster in charge — and as a result the hotel is about to go broke and get foreclosed on by its mortgage holder. Its mortgage holder is Carola P. Gaye (Mary Boland), an eccentric heiress with a penchant for bizarre fads. Her latest is Greek revivalism and eugenics, both of which have come to her in the person of her current boyfriend, “Hercules” Dove (Étienne Girardot). Faced with immediate eviction by Sheriff John J. Trimble (Jed Prouty, who made a career, it seems, playing dog-faced sheriffs about to evict the nice people in Depression-era melodramas), Bowster and Sylvia Smith manage to talk the hotel’s creditors into giving him a one-month extension, during which time Bowster hopes to attract enough collegians on summer break both to perform at the hotel and be its paying guests, thereby putting it into the black. Only Carola and “Hercules” will sanction this only if they can turn it into a eugenic experiment, which means that the young men from men’s colleges and the young women from women’s colleges have to be strictly segregated on the train bringing them out (represented, oddly, by a cartoon train moving over model mountains!), and Bowster’s attempts to do this are at least moderately amusing even if they don’t have quite the obsessive quality of the Boy Scout troupe’s interferences with Bob Hope’s would-be amours in Hope’s bizarre 1949 dark comedy The Great Lover. Then the train arrives in “Santa Teresa” and we learn that the person Carola and “Hercules” trust to pick which young men and which young women are the perfect eugenic matches is “Hercules”’ daughter Calliope, played by … Gracie Allen.

The moment Gracie and George Burns make their entrance — racing down the L.A. streets in a chariot drawn by four horses, in viscerally exciting camera setups that make it virtually certain director Tuttle had seen the 1926 Ben-Hur — the movie turns delightfully surrealistic, filled with rapid-fire Burns and Allen gags and an overall demented sensibility that makes it difficult to believe Preston Sturges wasn’t on the writing committee. (Four writers are credited — J. P. McEvoy, Harlan Ware, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” co-writer Jay Gorney and Henry Myers — and imdb.com lists three others: Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Walter DeLeon and former Mack Sennett comedy star Bobby Vernon.) The movie contains its share of clichés — notably the back room of the hotel theatre into which Carola, “Hercules,” the sheriff and anyone else who might interfere with the big show at the end is locked by stagehand Ben Blue, who also “wires” the chair in which Gracie Allen is doing the eugenic judging so she gets shocks to her rear that she interprets as signals from the ether as to who should be matched with whom — but overall it’s a delightful romp that gets considerably more delightful once George and Gracie enter and do both crazy dialogue and enticing visual gags. The big finale is a minstrel show — one of those insane Hollywood productions with rows upon rows of people in blackface (far more than the regulation nine-member troupe of most real minstrel shows) — and an astonishing effect in which Martha Raye (who’s good but was clearly warming up for her later and even better films) is shown first in blackface and then in whiteface as the colored filters on her stage lights change and either reveal or conceal her dark makeup. This was a special-effects gimmick invented by Roy Pomeroy at Paramount in 1923 to achieve the effect Cecil B. DeMille wanted for the silent film The Ten Commandments of having Moses’ sister Miriam develop leprosy right before our eyes, and it was used several times after that — notably in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde so Fredric March could change from Jekyll to Hyde on screen without cutaways or double-exposure dissolves. But it’s odd, to say the least, to see a 1936 film that shows us on-screen how a major special effect was done!

I suspect the double-whammy of political incorrectness — eugenics and minstrelsy — is what’s responsible for this uneven but often dementedly hilarious film being almost totally forgotten today; eugenics ceased to be a laughing matter after World War II and the revelation of the Holocaust (though that didn’t stop Arnold Belgard, writer of the 1957 film Bop Girl Goes Calypso, from making the villainess of that piece a eugenics fanatic who believes she’s the perfect scientific match for the film’s male lead — who, of course, has picked his true girlfriend in more normal human fashion). Another oddity is this is an early film pairing talented tap dancers Johnny Downs and Eleanore Whitney, whom Paramount briefly tried to build up into their answer to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO, and they do two numbers — including an opening one which starts with them tapping on the floor while they’re sitting on chairs, then pushing the chairs around with their tapping feet. (I can imagine the writers thinking, “Astaire and Rogers dance on furniture? We’ll go one better and make the furniture dance!”) The problem is they are both excellent dancers but neither has a discernible personality — one doesn’t care about them the way one does about Fred and Ginger — and though I don’t know what happened to Eleanore Whitney after this, Johnny Downs ended up as the male lead in PRC’s 1942 horror movie The Mad Monster and did a spectacular but all too brief dance solo in Warners’ 1945 George Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue. One problem with College Holiday is the lack of any truly great songs — aside from Leo Robin’s and Ralph Rainger’s “Love in Bloom,” which is used only for scratchy violin bits by Jack Benny — but it’s still a very funny movie (especially when Burns and Allen are on screen) and one that deserves to be better known.