Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sorority House (RKO, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Sorority House, which I recorded from Turner Classic Movies last September as part of a program they were doing to commemorate the beginning of the academic year through a series of movies about college. It was made by RKO in 1939 and featured a quite formidable list of behind-the-camera talents for a 64-minute “B” youth movie: the director was John Farrow (Mia’s dad, a sporadically interesting filmmaker who did a lot of hack work but in 1948 turned out two back-to-back film noir masterpieces, The Big Clock and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes); the screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo (adapting a play called Chi House by Mary Chase); and the cinematographer was Nicholas Musuraca, who’d been with RKO since its early days but was clearly warming up for his fine work in many of the great RKO noirs of the late 1940’s. The physical “look” of this film, especially in its nighttime scenes, is rich, dappled, making the campus of the fictional “Talbot University” come alive as a rich, pastoral environment against which the intrigues of the human characters are beautifully and vividly contrasted. Not that the intrigues of the human characters are that much to write home about: Sorority House is a pretty familiar tale about the young woman from a working-class background — her name is Alice Fisher (Anne Shirley, a specialist in these good-young-woman types back then) and her dad, Lew Fisher (J. M. Kerrigan, a marvelous character actor featured better here than in most of his parts), owns a small grocery store that looks so much like the one featured in W. C. Fields’ marvelous 1934 comedy It’s a Gift you’re going to wonder why you don’t see Fields himself as the proprietor as well as blind Mr. Muckle and the kumquat man. He takes out a bank loan to fund his daughter’s college education and tells her he’s already enrolled her at Talbot — which I couldn’t help but joke must have been endowed by the father of the Wolf Man — it’s not clear from Trumbo’s script (with Gladys Atwater and Aleen Leslie credited as “contributors to treatment”) whether Talbot is an all-girls’ school or has male students as well (there are male college students featured in the dramatis personae, but they could be from a neighboring all-male university looking for dates among Talbot students the way Harvard students got their dates from a women’s college named Vincent nearby until Harvard itself went co-ed).

In fact we never see an actual class at Talbot — ignoring the “education” part of higher education was pretty common among filmmakers making college films in the 1920’s and 1930’s, though the script for this film justifies it by telling us that Alice Fisher has arrived at Talbot one week before classes start and while the school is in the middle of its most important extracurricular ritual: the annual sorority rush. It seems that everyone who wants to be “anybody” at this campus has to be in a sorority, and of course the sororities are picky about whom they admit — often for the most arbitrary reasons. Alice’s roommates at the boarding house where the campus administration has arranged for her to stay, Dotty Spencer (Barbara Read) and Merle Scott (Adele Pearce, later known as Pamela Blake), explain to her how the sorority system works. Dotty is a mousy little sophomore girl with glasses who can’t stand the sororities but Merle has her heart set on getting into the most prestigious of them, the Gammas. When Alice hears how the sororities pick their members and thereby determine who will and who won’t succeed in the campus’s social life, she says, “That doesn’t sound democratic,” marking the first of several points at which Trumbo stuck his Leftist politics into the script (something he delighted in doing even though it’s hard to imagine how anyone, especially someone of Trumbo’s intelligence, thought that inserting a few mildly critical lines attacking the class system into a schlocky youth-movie script was going to hasten the Communist revolution in the U.S.). Alice’s social success at Talbot is assured when she has a meet-cute with Bill Loomis (James Ellison, as dull and callow here as he’d be four years later in the hapless role of Alice Faye’s leading man in The Gang’s All Here, in which Faye, Carmen Miranda and director Busby Berkeley’s production numbers totally overshadowed him — though at least in this film dull and callow fits his character), big-man-on-campus at either Talbot or the neighboring all-male school from which Talbot students grab their dates.

Bill sends all the sororities letters stating that Alice Fisher’s dad isn’t the owner of just one grocery store but owns an entire chain of them, which convinces all the sorority leaders (including one woman who isn’t identified in the cast list but bears a striking resemblance to the young Katharine Hepburn — according to the American Film Institute Catalog, she might actually be the young Veronica Lake, acting under the name Constance Keene and wearing her hair in the Hepburn style instead of the falling-over-the-eye look Lake cultivated during her brief period as a Paramount star in the 1940’s) that Alice is rich and therefore would be an asset to any of their houses. Meanwhile, back home Alice’s dad decides to take the offer of a real grocery chain to buy him out so he can get the money to finance Alice’s sorority dues — his idea is to find a location near the campus and open what would now be called a convenience store to cater to the student population so they can be near each other — and the story builds to the climax: the end of rush week, at which there’s a series of big parties at which the sorority girls and the sorority wanna-bes bring their parents so the “sisters” can check them out. Alice makes a series of excuses as to why her dad can’t be there, but of course he turns up after all, driving a rattle-trap old car and telling off the sorority girls as well as interrupting and foiling the suicide attempt of Merle, who once she learns that Alice has been invited to join the Gammas and she hasn’t decides that she no longer has anything to live for. Alice, Dotty and Merle decide to turn the boarding house where they’ve been staying into a sort of anti-sorority for all the students who’ve been rejected — only Alice’s dad tells them off, saying that in their own way they’re being as snobbish as the sorority girls they’re rebelling against. And the final shot is of Alice and Bill Loomis in a clinch.

Sorority House is an odd movie because Trumbo’s bits of social comment and Musuraca’s lovely images seem to deserve a better story — though as Charles pointed out, its comments about youth snobbishness seem to ring true now even though the overall portrait of life at a college seems to have been anachronistic even when the film was made. When Bill Loomis and the frat boys from wherever drive by the boarding house and court the women students en masse, they’re in what’s either a wagon or a flatbed truck and they’re singing a song called “I Must See Annie Tonight” which, though it appears to have been written for the film (Benny Goodman recorded it around the time the movie was made), sounds like something from the late 1920’s. There’s also a boy trying to learn the ukulele — another college reference that seems to belong more to the 1920’s than the 1930’s. Overall, Sorority House is an hour and 4 minutes of pretty painless entertainment, brought to life by the photographic beauty, Farrow’s O.K. staging and Anne Shirley’s sincerity in the lead (it seems inexplicable that Shirley quit the movie business forever following her greatest film, the 1944 film noir classic Murder, My Sweet), which brings strength and dignity to what in other hands might have been a hopelessly flat and saccharine part.