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It's always been a source of amazement to me how Jack Oakie was able to
keep playing dumb jock college students throughout the 30s. Yet he got
away with it as he does here and when all's said and done, he's a
pretty funny fellow.
In this one he has a coed sister played by Mary Carlisle who football jock and Oakie's fraternity pal Richard Arlen thinks he's got a claim on. But no, Carlisle has her eyes on music professor Bing Crosby.
This was Bing's second feature film and the first he'd make with Mary Carlisle. She and Bing were a perfect fit in those films.
This is also the second feature film that Crosby would make with Burns& Allen. They are personal favorites of mine and I only wish we saw more of them as a pair of caterers at a fraternity party.
Bing recorded three of the songs from College Humor, the biggest hit being Learn to Croon which immortalized his Buh-Buh-Buh-Boo for the ages. It's a nice number done as Bing teaches a music class as we learn that all the past music immortals would eventually been buh-buh-buh-booing it with Der Bingle.
He sings a nice ballad to Mary Carlisle entitled Moonstruck and no it has nothing whatsoever to do with Cher's film two generations later.
For once Paramount gave Crosby a Busby Berkeley like production number in Down the Old Ox Road which apparently was the slang term back in the thirties for the local college passion pit. The number travels all over the campus showing the students singing about the glories of Ox Road with Bing in the finale.
I think this is one of the early movies that Crosby did that doesn't hold up as well as the others. But I think none of those college films from the 30s do, with rare exceptions. In this one I don't think anyone was getting an education. Especially Jack Oakie, just see what he does with his college degree at the end.
College life has undergone so much change in the over 70 years since this film was made. I can't identify with any of it from the 60s so God only knows what college kids would think of it today. Still it's a fine old chestnut and anything with Der Bingle and George and Gracie you can't go wrong with.
COLLEGE HUMOR (Paramount, 1933), directed by Wesley Ruggles, is one of
many college campus musicals made during the Depression 1930s,
highlighted with music and a football game finale.
Following his success in THE BIG BROADCAST (1932), Bing Crosby shows promise in his initial top-billed feature role, which is actually a second lead part as Frederick Danvers, a professor at Midwest University. In support are some over-aged college students, including Richard Arlen as Ralph, a football star whose career declines due to drunken disorderly conduct and jealous rages; Jack Oakie, the real star of the movie, as his football playing pal, Barney; Joseph Sawyer (billed Sauers) as a tough named "Tex", who excels in beating up on Oakie in one scene during a college initiation; with blonde and perky Mary Carlisle as Arlen's girlfriend who has a crush on her crooning professor; and Mary Kornman as Oakie's girlfriend, Amber. With the trials and tribulations amongst the students, the lighter moments go to the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, appearing in a few scenes as college caterers. They even take a moment out to sing an Irish song, "Colleen of Korlarny." Gracie manages to sing well, even in character. With music and lyrics by Arthur Johnson and Sam Coslow, the catchy tunes include "Play Ball" (sung by off screen singers during opening credits/re-prised in opening story by Crosby); "The Old Ox-Road" (sung by Jack Oakie/ students/ Crosby); "Learn to Croon" (sung by Crosby/ students); "Moon Struck" (sung by Crosby as he plays piano); along with reprises of "Learn to Croon" and "Play Ball" before the closing cast credits.
What makes COLLEGE HUMOR interesting in itself is seeing a young Crosby in an offbeat yet small role. He would return to college again in later years, most notably as a student in the then popular SHE LOVES ME NOT (1934). A real curio worth viewing if ever shown on television again.
*Warning: The 2005 video cassette copy distributed by Hollywood's Attic is not complete. Eliminated from the original 80 minute print are the introduction of leading players during the opening credits to the underscoring of "Learn to Croon" followed by Bing Crosby's opening number of "Play Ball." (**1/2)
The film is called College Humor, but there are very few truly humorous incidents. Some of the situations are downright poignant, especially those involving the two older football stars. The Burns and Allen appearance, predictably, is probably the lightest moment in what resembles melodrama with music. The frequent repetition of two songs suggests that many components of the film were just thrown together. All this being said, I have come back to the film four or five times and am engaged by it. The Old Ox Road sequence is terrific. (Crosby once commented that it was his personal favorite among his recordings.) Perhaps what draws one in is the attractiveness of the performers. In a "college musical" can one expect much more?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ambrose Bierce, that perceptive (if dark) critic of his fellow
creatures and (especially) fellow Americans, wrote a pair of
definitions in his DEVIL'S DICTIONARY. Academe (the ancient Greek term)
was a place where wisdom and ethics were taught. Academy (the modern
version) was a place where knowledge and football were taught. That
image, of college as a four year football game with the student body as
a big cheer leading squad, was probably ingrained into Americans in the
19th Century by dime novel hero "Frank Merriwell" of Yale who Burton
Standish made a paragon of sport and sportsmanship, and who always
scored the winning touchdown at the last moment of the game (isn't that
the way it always happens?).
The image persisted throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Films as diverse as the Marx Brothers HORSE FEATHERS (which actually probed the idiocy of this view to it's extreme - Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff's tenure as new President is shaky unless he gets Huxley a football victory) to GOOD NEWS (where June Alyson's expertise as a French Major is dragooned to assist the football hero with failing grades - Peter Lawford!) kept up this image.
COLLEGE HUMOR is no different from these. To a small mid-western college comes Jack Oakie, the son of a wealthy creamery owner. Oakie does not have to get a degree - he'd inherit the business. But his father sends him, and he was a high school football hero. So he intends to join the college football team. We watch as he is bullied by senior classmates Richard Arlen and Joe Sawyer in a process leading to his acceptance into the college fraternity, and his acceptance by his fraternity brothers. Their bullying does not prevent them cadging cigarettes and money from Oakie.
The college's teaching staff includes Bing Crosby, who naturally sings many of his lessons, but actually is teaching drama and singing. We see Jimmy Conlon and James Burke as two other faculty members, but the film does not explain what they teach.
Oakie is introduced to the sorority on the campus by Arlen, and meets his future girlfriend Mary Kornman (who is a feather head, but pretty), and Arlen is dating Lona Andre. We see that Sawyer, Arlen, and Oakie make up a great football team backbone, and then Sawyer leaves three weeks before he was supposed to graduate. More about this point later. The new school year begins, and Arlen meets Oakie's sister, Mary Carlisle. She is very sweet to him, but she falls for Crosby (who falls for her). This leads to Arlen's growing jealousy, and his increased alcoholism. He is arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior, and Crosby gets him out in time for the big game - which he wins. But college President Lumsley Hare expels him for unbecoming behavior. In anger Crosby quits the faculty (and tells off Hare as a pompous fathead). At that point I will leave off the remainder of the plot.
The music in this film is pleasantly sung, in particularly THE OLD OX ROAD, which is a more earthy version of such later melodies in other films as FLIRTATION WALK and THE KISSING ROCK. THE OLD OX ROAD is "talk-sung" (like Rex Harrison's style of singing in MY FAIR LADY), but I wonder if this method was used because of the current musical film work of Rodgers and Hart at Paramount (where COLLEGE HUMOR was produced). Crosby concludes it with suitably melodic singing. There is also a wonderful song and dance by Burns and Allen during a college party they are catering, centered on Gracie's Irish ancestry.
But though the film is pleasant enough it is actually fairly disjointed. The scene where Arlen meets Carlisle is described by Arlen, but we never see it. Was it shot but cut? Why were Crosby's three cronies on the faculty shown in the opening scene and rarely shown afterward. Arlen's incarceration and release was told to Hare by his sources - my suspicions here is that a bookish fellow who had also gotten drunk and was in a nearby cell (but escapes when Crosby got Arlen released) probably told the President of the College. Again this is a guess.
Then there is the interesting problem of Joe Sawyer. He tells Oakie that he has to leave school to earn a living three weeks before his graduation. What's the rush? When we next see him, about a year later, he has a wife and two children with him at the football game. In modern parlance, it looks like he knocked up a girl and felt obliged to marry her. This was still possible to show in 1933 before the tightening of the movie moral codes, but it opens up some problem. When did Sawyer, who was a terrifically good quarterback, find the time and energy to date and impregnate the girl?
But the film's biggest problem is the failure to show (really show) the interest in the college to teach it's student body. This is not too hard to understand. College, in 1933, was a rich person's prerogative - meant for the wealthy to prepare the next generation for it's role in ruling the world. Only gifted exceptions (scholarship winners or football/sports phenomenon) could get admission. An escape-seeking Depression audience seeing this film would not have cared to see the Lumsdale Hare version of college (the realistic classrooms). They could tolerate Crosby teaching his students to croon to win at love, or Groucho and his recalcitrant students Harpo and Chico turning a classroom into a vaudeville turn. This film is a fascinating brief antique - it has very little reality in it, except in showing what the 1933 audience expected regarding it's setting.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This college musical actually gets a bit of a serious theme here as it
deals in one of its plots with alcholism through a football player
(Richard Arlen) who is fighting his drinking problem and resents being
threatened with expulsion. In today's world of binge drinking games at
colleges, this 80 year old film is surprisingly timely even if it is
only a subplot of another "Good News" type film where music is the most
important class (and Bing Crosby is the instructor!) and a Friday night
is only complete if you take your best gal "down the old ox road".
Crosby in 1933 was at his cinematic height with three films, and while he is top billed, the real star of the film is Jack Oakie as another football hero who must, like Ruby Keeler in "42nd Street", step up to take over when the big star can't go on. He seems a bit long in the tooth for being a football hero, and even if there was a G.I. bill, he's not quite right on the mark for being a gridiron star. But where there's Oakie, there's always comedy, and it starts right from the beginning where he is trying to get the young dumb collegiate on that old ox road, which is the major production number here. The movie lacks in dance, but it does feature Crosby singing "Learn to Croon" (later sung by Alfalfa in the "Our Gang" series) and Burns and Allen doing their routine about Gracie's wacky family.
George and Gracie only have a small part here, as caterers at the big college dance where Gracie gets some delicious pre-code dialog in their routine, especially when talking about family members who just got married where only the wife got to go on the honeymoon. They pop up out of nowhere at the end where Gracie gets to throw in a few more delightful malapropisms before the game comes to its raucuous conclusion. Overall, this is an entertaining but familiar mix of what Broadway and Hollywood had been letting us know about college life, and the inclusion of some potent drama adds to the surprise power you might not find too often in other similar themed musicals.
If you can believe Jack Oakie, Richard Arlen and Joe Sawyer (billed as
Joseph Sauer) as college kids then what a vivid imagination you
have!!!! Joe Sawyer looked in training for his tough guy roles and
Arlen looked as though he'd be more at home on skid row than a college
campus. At least Jack Oakie was still in his "trim" period but all of
them looked older than they actually were (I thought). I know Jack
Oakie was in a couple of college films - "Touchdown" and "Sweetie"
where he played a vaudeville hoofer who followed Nancy Carroll to
college - but I don't know whether he actually played many "college
kids". Eddie Nugent, surprisingly, had a "blink and you'll miss him"
part as Whistler.
At least the girls were pretty and youthful, including a very cute Mary Kornman who played Amber. She had been leading lady in the original series of "Our Gang" and then the spin-off series from the early 30s "The Boyfriends". She had also co-starred with Bing Crosby in a couple of his shorts.
Bing Crosby (looking young and beautiful) plays the drama and music professor, Fred Danvers. The film doesn't really hold up that well and could have done with more of Bing and his singing. "Down the Old Ox Road" could have been done more like "Flirtation Walk". It is such a catchy song when Bing sings it but before that Richard Arlen has a go - and he can't sing!!!. Then Jack Oakie and Mary Kornman walk and sing - it is very disjointed. "Learn to Croon" again is a very catchy song that Bing sings to his students - "if you're looking for a sunny honeymoon, learn to croon!!". He also sings a few bars of some of his big hits - "Please", "Just an Echo in the Valley", "I Surrender Dear"
- as if audiences needed reminding that he was Bing Crosby!!! He also sang it again at a party. "Moonstruck" was a love song sung to Mary Carlisle, with Bing at the piano.
This was Mary's first film with Bing and she was beautiful and compli- mented him very well. She plays Barbara Shirrel, Barney's (Jack Oakie) sister, who is supposed to be Mondrake's (Richard Arlen) girl but has secretly fallen for Mr. Danvers. Arlen's character is not appealing - he is grumpy, a heavy drinker and just does not look like a college type. Another reviewer questioned Joe Sawyer's character leaving college - then turning up a year later with a wife and 2 kids!!!! - I think it was just the shoddy story line. In the scene where Mondrake goes with Barney to meet his date Barbara, Ginger comes down the stairs and they go out!!
Lona Andre was given a picture credit but she was completely under-used
- she had about 2 lines in the film. Likewise George Burns and Gracie Allen only had a scene - they looked like they were included as an after thought!!!!
6 out of 10.
I haven't seen this movie, but I just read an (unconfirmed) story about
The football game scenes of "College Humor" were filmed in Riddick Stadium on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC! The stadium has since been torn down, and the only remaining remnant of the site is the old field house (re-purposed several times since the 1950s when games moved to a new stadium), which is now used as a construction office. The building is due to be torn down and replaced by a parking garage in 2009.
Not sure if anyone can confirm this or not.
According to the story, the field house was so small that there was not enough room for the whole team to sit down for meetings!
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