Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grey Market Cinema: College Humor (1933)

Back in October 2008, I wrote a review of a movie I had purchased from Vintage Film Buff.com entitled She Loves Me Not (1934), a breezy little musical comedy starring Miriam Hopkins as a cabaret dancer who witnesses a gangland murder and has to hide out in the college dorm room of a Princeton student played by Bing Crosby.  It’s an enjoyable little romp, though I did mention in the write-up that I couldn’t quite decide which element of the film was more fantastic: Miriam Hopkins’ masquerade as a male student (the movie’s sort of a blueprint for Some Like It Hot, only on the distaff side) or Der Bingle (who was in his thirties at the time of the movie’s release) as a collegiate resident in the hallowed halls of ivy.

After watching College Humor (1933) last night—a rah-rah, sis boom bah movie that casts the Old Groaner as a professor, not a student—it’s a pretty close race between the two films as to which one strains the most credibility.  Bing plays Frederick Danvers, a teacher at a fictional school of higher learning dubbed Mid-West College, but I’m not exactly certain what his field of instruction is there—he would appear to be some sort of fine arts professor, though he spends most of his time singing to his students in class (Learn to Croon) while making time with one particularly fetching coed named Barbara Shirrel (Mary Carlisle).

There’s not a great deal of plot in Humor, which is sort of typical of the many vehicles Bing did for Paramount in the 1930s (both feature films and the short subjects he appeared in for comedy legend Mack Sennett), but it basically revolves around freshman Barney Shirrel and his introduction to collegiate life at good ol’ Mid-West.  Barney is played by comedian Jack Oakie, who’s about the same age as Bing when Der Bingle was attending Princeton in She Loves Me Not—but oddly enough, I didn’t have trouble with Oakie being too old for college because he looks like the sort of guy who would have been held back.  Barney has pledged a fraternity (Delta Alpha) and as such is being hazed by two frat brothers, one played by Richard Arlen who answers only to “Mondrake.”  (Please…no magician jokes.)  The other goes by the handle of Tex Roust, and he’s dramatically brought to life by character great Joe Sawyer, who was being billed as “Joe Sauers“ at this point in his career (I’ll bet it would have been funnier if he had convinced Paramount to use “Joe (Whiskey) Sauers”).  Delta Alpha is the jock fraternity, and all three bros play for Mid-West’s football team…but at one point in the picture Tex has to leave to marry his sweetheart and so he leaves Barney his prized football helmet and some words of advice on handle Mondrake—namely, keep him away from booze and women.

Which is easier said than done—Mon has taken a shine to Barney’s sis Barbara, who as I mentioned previously is making goo-goo eyes at Danvers.  (Again, it’s sort of peculiar that no one is made uncomfortable by this arrangement.)  At a fraternity dance that Barney and Mon are restricted from attending (the football coach has a strict rule about carousing while they’re in training), Danvers sings Learn to Croon for those present and gets flirty with Babs but then Mon shows up unannounced and he’s got a bit of a snootful.  As coincidence usually has it in the movies, this is the night before a big game (they play Nebraska, which I thought was pretty hooty) and when Mon doesn’t show up the next day Danvers volunteers to look for him…and finds the star player suffering in the local drunk tank with a hangover.  Barney helps Mon to recover in time to play and even though Mondrake carries the day and wins Mid-West’s president (Lumsden Hare) is so shocked—shocked, I tell you!—that a college football player would actually party like it’s 1939 that he kicks Mon out of school, despite Danvers’ attempts to intervene on the player’s behalf.

Devastated that his pal can no longer attend Mid-West, Barney attempts to shoulder the burden of being the team’s savior but he’s being beaten badly on the field in the REALLY BIG game against Yarwood College.  (Yes, this is apparently a bigger draw than the Nebraska game.)  It’s not until Danvers and Barbara work the cheering crowd into a frenzy that Barney finds the inspiration to play his heart out and win, and as the film comes to a conclusion Barney has married his college sweetheart, Amber Davis (Mary Kornman), and gotten a job in his father’s butter factory (though he’s having to start at the bottom, loading boxes of the product onto a truck).  Barney and Amber listen to a car radio as Danvers entertains on a radio program (Bing sings Learn to Croon for the umpteenth time) with Barbara at this side; the implication being that he quit his position at Mid-West after his efforts to reinstate Mondrake failed.  (Though the pixie in me likes to think he was shown the door for macking around with one of his students.)

This was the part in Humor’s paper-thin storyline that I had difficulty buying into—I couldn’t understand why everyone wanted to go to bat for Mondrake because the character was kind of a jerk, to be honest.  You could argue, however, that this makes the movie a bit more realistic in that you have somebody who despite his athletic prowess isn’t particularly likable…I knew a few of these douchebags in high school.  Arlen does pretty well in the role, but then again the entire cast for the most part acquits themselves nicely; I was quite impressed with Oakie, with whom I’m familiar with in mostly comedic turns like Million Dollar Legs, Super Sleuth and The Great Dictator…though I did think he was positively aces in the 1949 film noir classic Thieves’ Highway.


It’s either a girdle or he was in fine physical form at this point in his career—you must ultimately make the call.

But there are a number of elements in Humor that I found disappointing, and one of them is that despite the presence of former Our Ganger Mary Kornman Mar doesn’t get much to do and her character is required to emote in this annoying sort of baby talk voice that appears to be the fashion today with comediennes like Sarah Silverman.  Kornman was a delight as a child actress because she had this sort of winsomeness and poise as a kiddie thesp but that sort of dissipated as she got older and moved into adult roles.  She still had a reservoir of charm to fall back on—I think she’s falling-down funny in a Boy Friends short entitled Mama Loves Papa (1931)—but after making this movie she was sort of forced to take the midnight train to appearances in B-movies and the jaw-droppingly awful chapter play Queen of the Jungle (1935).


By the way, for those of you who just now took a sudden interest in the blog I need to warn you that no such sequence of the kind depicted in the above photo appears in the picture.

And speaking of Boy Friends, you might recognize this young rascal…


…yes, it’s our old pal Grady Sutton—billed in the film’s credits as “Timid Freshman.”  My enthusiasm for Sutton is such that he doesn’t even have to say anything in a movie to get me guffawing, but he’s got a wonderful bit in which he brings Oakie’s character his laundry and ends suffering a bit of verbal abuse as a result.  I’ll admit that I may be a bit biased but had I been in charge of this production I would have made Grady’s part much bigger.

Two more role expansions I would have also undertaken would be that of George Burns and Gracie Allen, who get pretty prominent billing in Humor but who are only in the film for two scenes, the longest being the fraternity party sequence where the married duo play the caterers for the whole affair.  George & Gracie started out making one-reel comedies for Paramount in 1930 and soon graduated to specialty bits in many of the studio’s feature films—they did two with W.C. Fields (International House and Six of a Kind) but four with Bing: Humor, The Big Broadcast (which was both Der Bingle and the Burns’ feature film debuts), the delightful We’re Not Dressing and The Big Broadcast of 1936.  George and Gracie’s exchanges are among the comedic highlights of Humor:

GEORGE: Never mind…what about this food here?
GRACIE: Oh—you mean the little snobs on toast?
GEORGE: The…
GRACIE: The little snobs…the little chickens…snobs on toast…you put ‘em in…
GEORGE: Wait a minute…if that’s a snob, then what’s a squab?
GRACIE: Oh, don’t be silly…a squab is an Indian’s wife…

The other George & Gracie encounter occurs during the climactic football game and when Gracie is perturbed that one of the players has been tackled George tries to explain that the object in football is to score a touchdown.  “Well, they didn’t have to knock him down to tell him about it,” she replies.  I’ve always said that my favorite George & Gracie film appearance is in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress because they get to sing and dance with star Fred Astaire in addition to being the comic relief.  But they also get to strut their stuff in Humor in an all-too-brief bit where the two of them do a little song-and-dance, with Gracie singing in a delightful Irish brogue.

This is a little off-topic, but one of my favorite George and Gracie radio broadcasts is from December 1947 on a program in which Bing is their guest and Gracie tries to convince Der Bingle to retire from show business so that George can become the more popular singer.  In outlining her plan to George, she reminds them of when the three of them worked on College Humor and how Bing got to sing all the songs in the film, notably Down the Old Ox Road.  Gracie insists George should have been allowed to sing that because “after all, who knows more about that road than the old ox himself?”

In the entry for Humor at the always reliable IMDb, there is a note that reads: “When it premiered in New York City on 22 June 1933, the running time was 68 minutes and reviewers complained about the ‘choppy’ editing. As a result, missing sequences were restored and the running time was extended to 80 minutes, which is the version presently available on DVD.”  In watching the film last night, I’m not entirely convinced that restoring all those sequences helped the movie because there are still a few continuity jumps and the movie as a whole is sometimes a bit hard to follow (and it certainly shouldn’t be).  But the IMDb goes on further to say that Humor is one of 700 Paramount movies produced between 1929 and 1949 that were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 to distribute on television and as such are owned by that company—and the fact that College Humor is available on the DVD box set The Bing Crosby Collection would seem to indicate that Universal still owns the copyright, so why Vintage Film Buff is still distributing it is a question I can’t answer…I know that they have pulled movies from their inventory in the past (they used to offer the 1927 gangster flick Underworld on DVD but no more—I just happen to have one of them) when someone has raised this issue so it’s entirely possible they may just haven’t gotten around to doing so.  (I haven’t seen the Crosby Collection version of Humor but I’m going to gamble and say it’s a better print than the one VFB distributes, which is admittedly a bit rough in places.)

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3 comments:

mndean said...

I got to like Jack Oakie quite some time back, when I saw him in Million Dollar Legs and Murder at the Vanities. Later I got to see him in the amusingly wild Let's Go Native (he and William Austin make a good comedy team, as they did in Sweetie) and the Spencer Tracy film Looking For Trouble, along with a number of other, lesser films (one, Thanks For Everything, before a dud plot turn seems a near copy of Christmas In July, except it was done two years before). I don't think I've ever actively disliked him in a film (well, Super Sleuth did him no favors).

Matt said...

Love Grady Sutton! He always seemed a bit "light in the loafers" ... had a perfect deer in the headlight expression, too. I heard he got a lot of work playing Hitler later on, but I haven't seen any of those.

Stacia said...

I just saw Grady Sutton in The Story of Temple Drake -- and he was almost trying to hide his distinctive high-pitched drawl!