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Winfield College students who are trying to put together the annual varsity show come into conflict with their faculty adviser, a stodgy old professor whose ideas are hopelessly out of date, and who won't even let the new "swing" music be played in the show. They decide to get ahold of a former student who is now a big Broadway star and have him direct their show. What they don't know is that this "star's" last three shows were big flops. Written by
Fred Waring created an archive for his music library, recordings, photographs, films, correspondence and ephemera in the Special Collections department in the library at Pennsylvania State University. See more »
When the college kids arrive in New York to put on there show there are about 60 of them and they have only a few props. When they put on their show they have massive, elaborate sets and props, more than 200 actors and the stage is much larger than the whole theater. See more »
VARSITY SHOW (Warner Brothers, 1937), directed by William Keighley, is a college campus musical, in fact, Warners' only contribution to the college musical of the 1930s. Originally distributed in theaters at two hours in length, circulating prints are from the 1940s reissue at 79 minutes, with 40 minutes of material clipped from the original negative and lost since then. Considering this edition happened to be the only known print in existence today, this review is taken on the basis from the edited version.
The story begins with Ernie Mason (Fred Waring) and his fellow students of Winfield College rehearsing for the upcoming annual varsity show. Ernie, assistant to Professor Sylvester Biddle (Walter Catlett), the faculty adviser, finds he and the students aren't being given the freedom they need to put on a successful show. Biddle insists the show be done his way or none at all, in spite that his ideas are out-of-date and his refusal to allow swing music as part of the score. Janitors Buck and Bubbles come up with an idea in hiring Charles "Chuck" Daly (Dick Powell), a former alumnus now a successful Broadway producer, to help direct the show. Betty Bradley (Priscilla Lane), Buzz Bolton (Johnnie Davis), Johnny "Rubberlegs" Stevens (Lee Dixon) and Trout (Sterling Holloway) volunteer in coming to New York City to locate Daly. At first Daly refuses, but because Daly has just closed his latest Broadway flop (his third in a row), he and his assistant, William W. Williams (Ted Healy) decide to return to Winfield College where they not only agree to help direct the varsity show, but become part of the fraternity by staying in the dormitory run by Mrs. Smith (Emma Dunn), as well as finding themselves suitable love partners, Daly with Barbara Steward (Rosemary Lane) and gravel voice Williams with Cuddles (Mabel Todd), a buck-tooth, bespectacled blonde with a very peculiar laugh.
With the music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting, the good selection of songs from the 79 minute print includes: "The Varsity Show's Rehearsing Today at Three O'Clock" (sung by cast); "Old King Cole" (sung by Johnnie Davis); "We're Working Our Way Through College" (sung by Dick Powell); "I'm Dependable" (sung by Priscilla Lane and Fred Waring/ written by Tom Waring and Don Raye); "On With the Dance" (sung by Rosemary Lane); "You Got Something There" (sung by Dick Powell and Rosemary Lane); Tap dance solo act performed by Buck and Bubbles; "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?" (sung by Priscilla Lane); "Love Is on the Air Tonight" (sung by Buck and Bubbles); "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?" (tap dance by Buck and Bubbles); "On With the Dance" (sung by Buck and Bubbles); "Old King Cole" (sung by Johnnie Davis); "On With the Dance" (reprise); "You Got Something There" and "Love Is On the Air Tonight." If one looks very closely to the opening credits and to the list of songs, one tune, "Little Fraternity Pin," is listed but not heard in VARSITY SHOW.
As much the story may be as predictable as any college musical of that time, the majority of the songs for this production were quite standard. Forgotten today, VARSITY SHOW contains the most entertaining college finale ever presented. Choreographed by Busby Berkeley, it did get nominated for an Academy Award in the best dance direction category. Though it didn't win, VARSITY SHOW still demonstrates Berkeley's true ability in his creative staging techniques. With Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians orchestrating the finale, the real show stopper centers upon an individual co-ed throwing a football on numerous occasions across the stage over to a group of students to form themselves into spelled-out letters of well known universities as Yale, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Stanford. All these letters are used with color tiles with the underscoring to just about every familiar college song imaginable. It's an excellent production that makes up for whatever flaws the film itself contains. Buck and Bubbles shouldn't go unnoticed. They, too, contribute to several good dance routines. Not quite as effective and faster style of the Nicholas Brothers over at 20th Century-Fox, but a routinely style all their own.
The supporting cast includes: Halliwell Hobbes as Dean J.M. Meredith; Edward Brophy as Mike "Curly" Barclay; Ben Weldon, Robert Homans and Tom Kennedy. Lee Dixon, who was becoming a familiar face in the Warners musical starting with GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937 (1936), followed by taking second billing opposite Ruby Keeler in READY, WILLING AND ABLE (1937), and co-starring opposite Dick Powell in THE SINGING MARINE (1937), makes his final bow in VARSITY SHOW. In the edited version, he not only limited in his contribution to the story (though possibly had extensive scenes from the two hour edition), but had his name placed thirteenth in the closing cast credits. He later scored successfully in the Broadway musical, OKLAHOMA (1943), and appeared one more time on screen in the western drama, ANGEL AND THE BAD MAN (Republic, 1946), starring John Wayne, before his death in 1953.
VARSITY SHOW in present form is a pleasing musical with a bright score. (One can hope the missing footage will someday suffice and take the place of the chopped-up copy on TCM). As for the cast, Dick Powell, Ted Healy, Rosemary Lane, Johnnie Davis and Mabel Todd appeared together again in another large scale Warners musical, "Hollywood Hotel" (1937), that introduced the popular theme song, "Hooray for Hollywood." Directed entirely by Busby Berkeley, it lacked the great musical finish that highlights VARSITY SHOW so well. Rah! Rah! Rah! (***1/2)
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