Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sweetheart of the Campus (Columbia, 1941)

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

The film was Sweetheart of the Campus, a 1941 musical from Columbia that was Ruby Keeler’s last film, and which Turner Classic Movies had shown as part of a tribute to its director, Edward Dmytryk. It turned out to be a quite engaging modest musical, with serviceable if not truly great songs and a pleasant if clichéd plot. Besides Keeler, the stars were bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his wife (since 1935 — for some reason, probably due to a misreading of a Films of the Golden Age article, I’d thought they hadn’t married until much later) and band singer Harriet Hilliard, who in this film played characters creatively named “Ozzie Norton” and “Harriet Hale.” In the script by Robert Hardy Andrews (for some reason billed with the wrong middle initial, “D.”) and Edmund L. Hartmann, “Ozzie Norton”’s featured attraction is dancer Betty Blake (Ruby Keeler), who’s in love with him. They’re about to open at a club near the campus of Lambeth Technological Institute — too near, as it turns out, since Minnie Lambeth Sparr (Kathleen Howard, a Margaret Dumont type), who’s the heir of the college’s founder, is determined to drive it out of business by closing down the athletic program, arts and music, and anything else that might draw students by making their Lambeth experience fun. She takes advantage of a local law that says a nightclub can’t be located within five miles of a college to have the place padlocked by the local sheriff (Don Beddoe).

Harriet Hale (Harriet Hilliard), apparently the one decent human being on the college staff, works out a plan to save the livelihoods of Betty, Ozzie and their bandmates by enrolling them at Lambeth as students and having them stage their show inside the college gym. She gets them past the entrance exam by teaching them the answers by rote — the college’s education director, Dr. Bailey (Byron Foulger), gives the same test again and again — and “Ozzie Norton” stages a weekly experimental television broadcast over the college’s station, WOO. (It’s interesting that the television equipment — both the cameras and the receiving sets — look like what’s familiar to us now, though by the time this movie was made TV stations and sets already existed — NBC had started TV broadcasting in New York City in 1939 but the program was put on hiatus due to the U.S. involvement in World War II. So the filmmakers could show actually existing TV equipment instead of the preposterous-looking sci-fi gadgetry in mid-1930’s films like Murder by Television and Columbia’s own Trapped by Television.) Sparr, who’s determined to close Lambeth so she can turn it into a girls’ seminary, is incensed that as the only female student among 300 males, Betty Blake is making Lambeth popular and helping the school reach their quota of 300 students, which it needs to stay in business under the terms of John Lambeth’s will. She has Dr. Bailey give a really tough set of final exams to flunk out as many of the new Lambeth enrollees as possible — including a group of football players who’ve been working the college circuit for up to 12 years (yet another film that jokes about the practice of colleges then of hiring professional “ringers” to beef up their football teams — a scandal depicted in several serious dramatic films in the 1930’s and hilariously spoofed in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers) — but Ozzie and Betty are able to keep their broadcasts going even as Betty gets an offer from a Broadway producer and opens on the Main Stem as a huge overnight star. Alas, Betty loses Ozzie to Harriet Hale — she even laments how often she hears the words “Ozzie and Harriet” (“you say it like they go together, like ham and eggs!”) three years before the couple started their Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet radio sitcom that eventually transferred to TV in 1952 and made them TV stars for real 11 years after this movie. I joked about the former Mrs. Al Jolson taking the present and future Mrs. Ozzie Nelson aside and telling her, “Being married to someone more famous than you are isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” 

Sweetheart of the Campus is one of those films from the studio era that isn’t a world-beater but does achieve a nice level of entertainment — it’s certainly better than Keeler’s last film for Warner Bros., Ready, Willing and Able in 1937 (in the intervening four years she made just one other movie, the RKO non-musical Mother Carey’s Chickens in 1938, which I’ve heard so many ghastly things about I haven’t been able to bring myself to sit through it) — and one of the nicest things about it is it gives us a chance to see what a good dancer Ruby Keeler really was. In her most famous films at Warners she’d been surrounded by Busby Berkeley’s platoons of choristers, who had got in her way; also, according to one report I’ve read in 42nd Street she’d been doing something closer to clog-dancing than tap-dancing, wearing wooden (or at least wooden-heeled) shoes which required her to stomp on the floor hard to make an audible tap sound — which may explain why she looked jerky in the solo bits. Here she’s doing normal tap dancing and doing it spectacularly well, especially in the boogie-woogie number that was obviously put into the film to show the audience that Ruby Keeler (and Ozzie Nelson) could swing, and she’s at least a serviceable actress and sometimes better than that, especially when she has to play her disappointment that Ozzie is going to end up with Harriet instead of her.