'The College Widow' is an obscure comedy which is notable for inspiring a much better-known (and much funnier) comedy. The Marx Brothers' classic 'Horse Feathers' is largely a parody of this movie. 'Horse Feathers' (1932) featured much dialogue about Thelma Todd's character being a 'college widow', but did not offer to translate this term: audiences in 1932 were expected to know what a college widow was ... because of this movie, and because of the original stage play by George Ade, who invented the term.
George Ade (1866-1944) would now be completely forgotten, except for the fact that his surname keeps turning up in crossword puzzles. In the first two decades of the 20th century, he was an extremely popular American author, best known for writing fables combining fairytale-like characters with cynical narration and dialogue rendered in Jazz Age slang.
The action of 'The College Widow' takes place mostly at Atwater College, which could more accurately be called Jerkwater College. This is an American movie about college, so of course everyone in this movie -- including the college faculty -- are only interested in football. (Classes? What classes?) Vivacious young Jane Witherspoon is the daughter of the college's president. Atwater's football team isn't winning many games, so Professor Jellicoe persuades Jane to vamp the gridiron stars of other colleges -- especially rival Stanley University -- and seduce them into enrolling at Atwater. Her father has no discernible objection to pimping his daughter for the sake of a football trophy. Star athlete Billy Bolton is about to enrol at Stanley, his wealthy father's alma mater. Jane seduces Billy, and -- bob's your uncle -- he's soon wearing Atwater strip. Of course, the climax of the film is the big game between Atwater and Stanley. (How did Ade's play manage this on stage?) Several scenes in 'The College Widow' are clear templates for specific scenes in 'Horse Feathers', notably a scene in which Jane purposely falls out of a canoe to attract a burly football player. I suspect that S.J. Perelman -- principal scriptwriter on 'Horse Feathers', whose fondness for college humour is well known -- takes the credit for the parody. If 'The College Widow' were a drama, it might be able to withstand the scathing parody of the Marx Brothers. But this movie is a (very weak) comedy, and I can't help noticing that the Marx boys' parody is much funnier than the comedy they were sending up in the first place.
In the later scenes, when Jane Witherspoon is stigmatised as a 'college widow', Dolores Costello seems to be playing a role that would have been better suited to Clara Bow ... who typically played a virtuous girl who (through misunderstandings) was publicly perceived as a slut.
I keep expecting a revival of interest in silent-film actress Dolores Costello, if only because she's Drew Barrymore's grandmother. If a Costello revival ever arrives, it shouldn't centre on 'The College Widow': Costello is quite pretty here, but vapid. Her energy seems forced, as if she feels a need to signal the audience that she doesn't *really* want to come the slut for these brawny linebackers. Buster Collier is much better as her forward-passing swain. The 'Robert Ryan' who plays a footballer in this movie is not the famous actor of that name. Guinn Williams, whom I'm always glad to see, is quite funny here as a befuddled Stanley steamer, I mean a Stanley teamer. If I had never seen 'Horse Feathers', I might have rated 'The College Widow' 6 out of 10. Under the circumstances, I won't go higher than 4 points.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?