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This is an old-fashioned curiosity, a charming comedy for those who do not mind rather corny comedies set in 1904 and dealing with social situations so far removed from our own days that they border on the incomprehensible. It could therefore be called 'an antiquarian piece'. It is entertaining for viewers who are not demanding and like nostalgia which is so far back that no one alive today could possibly remember it. (Such nostalgia might be called 'imagined nostalgia'.) But, as the film was made in 1940, only 36 years after the story's supposed setting, we can be confident that much of it was realistically portrayed, because it was easy to remember that far back then. The film features lead performances by the 22 year-old William Holden (his third credited appearance on screen) and the 17 year-old Bonita Granville, who the previous year had completed the last of her Nancy Drew movies. The film also features the 27 year-old Alan Ladd in a bit part, though he is barely glimpsed early on in the film in a university fraternity house, and he has no lines. He does stand out, however, and just by being there he exudes 'presence', especially with his body language. He is instantly recognisable. The original title of this film was THOSE WERE THE DAYS, but as that was probably viewed as being too vague, the film was retitled to emphasize that it was about university life. The film is based upon a series of stories published in 1911 by George Fitch (1877-1915, died prematurely of complications following appendicitis) about a fictitious university which he called Siwash (pronounced in the film 'sigh-wash'), but which was based on Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, which he had attended. Probably there are elements of truth in the tales. It is interesting that Fitch's time at university was really considerably earlier than 1904, and that explains the distinctly 'Gay Nineties' flavour to the stories, since they are really set in the 1890s, and moving the film forward to 1904 was evidently an attempt at modernisation! The charm of Bonita Granville sparkles throughout this film, and anyone interested in her film performances will enjoy this one. I found William Holden only partially convincing. He also does not at this stage really look like William Holden, and in fact he looks rather uninteresting, and his makeup seems to have been laid on too thick, as his face looks unnaturally pasty. He blusters his way through the part of a rather wild and unruly freshman, has numerous adventures and vicissitudes, and learns to be less callous towards others. It is not a brilliant performance, but is acceptable. Vaughan Glaser as Bonita's father over-acts, but as the whole film is a bit over the top, that seems appropriate in the circumstances. Ezra Stone is somewhat amusing as Holden's nerdy roommate. People who do not come from America or who have no familiarity with university fraternities and sororities (other than the sorority portrayed in LEGALLY BLONDE) will be puzzled by the setting of the film. The university itself gets very little attention, as everything is focused on the fraternities, which are independent student houses (to which the students pay fees to become 'brothers' or 'sisters' and live in the houses) known as 'frat houses'. Fraternities have names based on Greek letters, and members are given 'fraternity pins'. They then bestow these upon the girls of their choice, and such a girl is said to be 'pinned'. In this film, the couple are thus said to be 'engaged', but by the 1960s this sort of thing had softened within the Ivy League to 'going steady'. Jokes, which in 1940 were still considered funny, were made about one girl who was 'pinned' by a boy from every frat house. This is so anachronistic now that it raises no laughs, but that is not the film's fault, it is the fault of Old Father Time. When freshmen arrived on campus, they were 'rushed' by the fraternities who rushed to recruit them and strove against one another to gain the new recruits. Freshmen in this film are often called 'freshers'. You have to know the lingo and understand the background concerning how that all works in order to make any sense of the film at all. I suppose this film therefore has value as a social document for the history of education in America, and people interested in what a university was like in the 1890s should see it for that reason. It is a co-ed university. The girls are all demurely dressed in their Gay Nineties dresses down to their ankles, and wear their hats in the chemistry lab. The naivete and innocence of all the students on matters of 'life and love' may seem incredible to us today, but is certainly accurate. As for the story itself, it portrays the outrageous antics of Holden and elevates university 'pranks' to an art form. As I once participated in some pretty wild and woolly 'pranks' or 'stunts' myself at university, I can assure viewers that nothing is impossible in that department, as the audacity of a prank is limited only by the imagination of the perpetrator, and one just has to hope that nobody gets hurt. (Holden really goes too far in crashing a street trolley into a house with a little old lady aboard. Tsk. Tsk.) What fun it all is being young and crazy. Alas, sober imaginative stunts at university seem to have given way nowadays to shootings by maniacs and drug-induced comas. Such lack of taste and such tawdry decadence! I would thus have to agree with the original title of this film and say of what I myself remember: 'those were the days'.
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