Saturday, December 12, 2015

So This Is College (MGM, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was So This Is College, also known as College Days, and was released November 8, 1929. Story-wise it was a pretty typical college movie of the period, with the shadows of Harold Lloyd’s masterpiece The Freshman and the “serious” tales of college athletic heroism Lloyd had vividly and devastatingly parodied hanging heavily over it. But the movie, which I recorded from Turner Classic Movies a couple of months ago when they did a program of college movies to celebrate the start of the new school year, certainly was packed with “A”-list talent both behind and in front of the cameras. The director was Sam Wood, who in the silent era had had such prestigious assignments as Beyond the Rocks (1923) with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, and who’d have a long career well into the sound era (he was one of the “ghost” directors on Gone With the Wind, which he took over when Victor Fleming had a nervous breakdown and, with the schedule getting tight, producer David O. Selznick kept Wood on the project even once Fleming was able to work again and had them both shoot simultaneously) even though he’s probably best known today for A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers. The screenwriters included Joseph W. Farnham (the man who emasculated Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and is probably in the same circle of hell as Channing Pollock, who performed a similar “service” on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) and two considerable talents who went on to bigger and better things later, Al Boasberg (the comedy writer who had already co-written Buster Keaton’s The General and would later become a radio gag man for Jack Benny and would also work on A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) and Delmer Daves (who’d eventually become a director himself and work on serious projects like the Bogart-Bacall Dark Passage and other, similarly melodramatic Westerns and noirs), while at least one of the stars, Robert Montgomery — whom I had difficulty recognizing at first because he looks so young and callow (it’s hard to tell from his rather gawky performance here that just two years later he was superb in Noël Coward’s sophisticated comedy Private Lives) — went on to a major career (including starring in and directing an important if flawed film noir, The Lady in the Lake, based on a Raymond Chandler novel).

So This Is College is your standard plot in which University of Southern California (and yes, it’s startling to see the name of a real college instead of a fictitious one in a 1929 movie) football stars, fraternity brothers, roommates and best buds Eddie (Elliot Nugent) and Biff (Robert Montgomery) find their friendship on the rocks when they both fall for the same girl, flapper-type Baxter (Sally Starr), whom because they find it hard to say “Baxter” they nickname “Babs.” At first it looks like Biff and Babs are serious about each other and it’s Eddie who’s the one who’s horning (in more ways than one) in on them — the two men play a series of nasty tricks on each other, including stealing each other’s pants so they can’t go out to the big dance, and in one bizarre scene Biff and Eddie stage a caterpillar race (they’re on a field trip as part of an entomology class, which is the only actual education we see in this portrait of “higher education”) to decide which will get to take Babs to the next dance, which Biff wins because he drugs Eddie’s caterpillar with formaldehyde (I’m not making this up, you know!). For some reason these stories of two men playing all these nasty tricks on each other to compete over one woman were popular for many years — it’s the main reason why I find the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire musical Holiday Inn almost totally unwatchable between the great Irving Berlin songs — and instead of the payoff I was expecting, which was that Babs has her fling with Eddie but decides that Biff is more serious, more grounded and more in love with her and ends up with him, the writers chose the payoff that Babs isn’t serious about either of them because she’s already got an off-campus fiancé who shows up with her at the big football game that ends the movie and she flashes the fancy engagement ring (much fancier than either Eddie or Biff could have afforded — we know Eddie and Biff are broke because Max Davidson appears as a stereotypical Jewish tailor they keep stiffing for the money they owe him) he’s bought her.

But though the plot may be hackneyed, the execution certainly isn’t; the script is peppered with Boasberg’s wisecracks and director Wood totally avoids the stiffness of many early talkies. With its sometimes offbeat and oblique camera angles, its fast pacing and, above all, its natural delivery of dialogue — the actors talk like normal people, they step on each other’s lines and they completely avoid the mind-numbing pauses between their cues and their own lines that make many early talkies almost totally unwatchable today (can you say Behind That Curtain?) — So This Is College looks more like a film from 1935 than 1929. The only things that “date” it as a late-1920’s instead of a mid-1930’s product are Sally Starr’s flapper costume (this was a product of the brief intersection between the flapper craze and talkie films) and the music. So This Is College isn’t really a musical but it does contain a few songs, and they’re charming and add to the action — we can accept these people singing to entertain themselves, which is what they’re doing in the musical scenes, and during the college dance the band is being led by a conductor wearing a black-and-white beanie which at first looked to both Charles and I as if he’d done something really weird with his hair — but they also date it. The film also artfully uses stock footage of the real football game between USC and Stanford in 1928 (and thereby gives us a look at the Los Angeles Coliseum before it was remodeled for the 1932 Olympics), though since the game was filmed with silent-speed cameras the action looks unnaturally fast when projected at sound speed. Still, the junctures between stock and new footage to get Eddie and Biff into the big game — need I tell you that they play poorly in the first half but rally in the second and lead USC to a big come-from-behind upset once they overhear Babs and her real boyfriend and realize she’s not worth fighting over because she doesn’t love either of them? — are artfully done, as indeed so is the entire movie, proof that a plot that was clichéd even then could still be made into a genuinely charming and entertaining film.