Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Campus Rhythm (Monogram, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles another in TCM’s recent tribute to Gale Storm: Campus Rhythm, a 1943 musical directed by Arthur Dreifuss from a script by the usual committee: screenplay by Charles R. Marion, Albert Beich and Frank Tarloff from an “original” (quotes definitely intended) story by Ewart Adamson and Jack White, that seemed to be riffing off some of those interesting early-1930’s musicals Ginger Rogers was making pre-Fred Astaire in which she played a radio crooner tired of the mold the sponsors, network officials and others around her were forcing her into and ready to rebel in whatever ways she could. In this version, Gale Storm plays Joan Abbott, teenage singing sensation whose program, sponsored by the Crunchy-Wunchy cereal company, has earned her the nickname “the Crunchy-Wunchy Thrush” — only Our Joan wants a break from radio stardom so she can go to college like a normal high-school graduate (she lists all the different high schools she attended while touring as a vaudevillian before she got her show). But her uncle Willie (Douglas Leavitt) is in debt for $5,000 to the show’s advertising agent, J. P. Hartman (Herbert Heyes), and Hartman will forgive the debt only if Willie — who’s still Joan’s guardian since she’s underage — signs Joan for another series of shows.

Joan has no idea this has happened until she hears it announced at the end of (what she thinks is) her last show that her contract has been renewed — the revelation is one of the most charming scenes in the movie, as she tries to hold on to a game face in public while seething with resentment inside — and naturally she’s upset, enough that she steals the identity of Hartman’s secretary Susie Smith (Marie Blake) and enrolls at Rawley College under Smith’s name. Desperate, the ad agency leaks the news that the whole thing was a publicity stunt and invites the radio audience to seek Joan out. Meanwhile, Joan falls in with the boys at a fraternity, including Buzz O’Hara (Robert Lowery), who leads the student band and is generally the B.M.O.C.; and comparatively nerdy “Scoop” Davis (Johnny Downs, top-billed and once again forced to play in a musical and watch other people do the numbers even though he was a superb tap dancer), who wears glasses, edits the school paper, thinks students should be concerning themselves with world affairs instead of dances and other trivia, and is horrified at the “news” of Joan Abbott’s publicity stunt even while he’s falling in love with her “Susie Smith” identity.

The writing committee does manage to put a few new spins on this ragbag of college-movie and radio-movie clichés — including a couple of marvelous scenes in which Uncle Willie comes to the town where Rawley is located, tries to trace Joan, and ends up being busted as a peeping Tom by the local policeman (Tom Kennedy, at least marginally less dumb than he usually played) — but the plot is little more than a pretext for eight, count ’em, eight songs: six listed on the official credits and two more, “Me, Myself and I” and “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” “sung” by Candy Candido in his trick voices. (On their own terms, these numbers are acceptable novelties — but I’m too used to hearing these songs done by great singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, respectively.) Even the ending is a bit of a cheat — we see Gale Storm giving her first radio broadcast of the new season after she’s been “outed,” with Buzz O’Hara’s band (winner of a nationwide contest for college bands sponsored by another company in the Hartman stable) backing her, and while we presume she and “Scoop” end up together (he’s in the audience at the broadcast with a sore ass from the paddling his fraternity brothers gave him to get him to stop being such a nerd and have some fun in his life), the fadeout is on Gale Storm singing, not clinching.

I could think of several other more satisfying resolutions the writing committee could have given this story — like having Joan Abbott continue in school and do her broadcasts as remotes from the campus, with Buzz’s band backing her — but as it is Campus Rhythm is a nice piece of fluff, benefiting from some well-honed performances by the women (who totally out-act the men in this one): GeGe Pearson as comic singer “Babs” Marlow (the joke is she’s been a freshman for eight years and Candy Candido, her boyfriend, has been one for 10, and he’s waiting for her to catch up), Marie Blake as (the real) Susie Smith and Claudia Drake as campus bitch Cynthia Walker, who’s out to destroy Susie because she’s afraid Susie is after her boyfriend, Buzz. There’s even a short scene that actually takes place in a classroom — most college movies of this period never bothered to show any actual education going on, but this one at least features a trigonometry class (and trig is as boring as I remember it from my own school days!), and director Dreifuss and cinematographer Mack Stengler (an old Monogram hand) get a few surprisingly atmospheric shots as the college boys and girls romance each other after dark. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gale Storm (best known for her early-1950’s TV series My Little Margie) is an appealing personality who deserved to be as big a star as Doris Day — who had a similar winsomemess and vocal skills — and probably would have been if she’d been at a major studio instead of Monogram. Intriguingly, this film opened with a Pathé logo — a real surprise — which I take to mean that Pathé distributed this film outside the U.S. and THAT was the source of the print that survived.