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All-girl school Mar Brynn tries to get more pupils and publicity by making fun of the Quincton college. For revenge, the boys there sent Bob Sheppard to Mar Brynn, dressed as a girl, to give them a slight scandal. But he falls in love with Virginia, the girl who is putting on a show there. Now Bob has the problem of getting revenge for Quinceton and not loosing his girl, especially when Quinceton hears about his relationship and decides to sent him support... Written by
Stephan Eichenberg <firstname.lastname@example.org>Bob>
The joke in this film's title was too subtle for me, but a Yank friend explained it: "All-American" formerly designated a group of male collegiate athletes, and a "Co-Ed" was a female college student ... so "All-American Co-Ed" is a sexual oxymoron. Here's a musical comedy about transvestism which (except for some unpleasant racial humour) manages to maintain at least a surface appearance of innocence. But under that surface ... whoops!
The late choreographer LeRoy Prinz was openly gay: Max Wilk's book 'The Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood' contains an hilarious anecdote about Prinz working for "Aunt Sam" during WW2. Prinz usually subordinated his talents to other film-makers' vision. When Prinz decided to make his first movie as a director-producer, 'All-American Co-Ed' was the result. I can't help wondering to what extent this cross-dressed story struck a personal chord with Prinz. I'm aware that homosexuality and transvestism are two different phenomena, but there's inevitably some overlap. Considering that 'All-American Co-Ed' is almost entirely about cross-dressing, there's surprisingly little homosexual content here ... and most of it is sapphic rather than male.
Every culture has its cross-dressed traditions. We Brits have got panto dames and principal boys. For some reason, the Americans have got Hasty Pudding clubs with college males in frocks and wigs. I normally dislike American college movies, since they're always about the Big Game or the Big Dance. (Classes? What classes?) 'All-American Co-Ed' gets a free pass for that crime with its witty disclaimer: 'Any similarity to actual college life depicted in this picture is purely coincidental.' Prinz starts out dangerously during the opening credits by showing a chorus line of shapely gams, inviting us to find them attractive ... then tilting upwards to reveal that these are college boys in drag. Good job for me I'd spotted the male kneecaps.
There are some weird musical decisions here. Johnny Downs, in full drag but male voice (like Danny La Rue) warbles 'I'm a Chap with a Chip on His Shoulder' while tapping his shoulders. Why would a female impersonator deliberately call attention to his shoulders? (Elsewhere, some genuinely female chorines sing about 'The Crack of Dawn' ... is there a pattern here?) The 1940s seem to have been some golden age for drag, since women's fashions in that decade favoured padded shoulders, enabling transvestites to get by with linebacker clavicles. During one scene in this movie, Frances Langford's outfit has wider shoulders than Johnny Downs's! Some of the clothes on the (real) females in this movie are extremely attractive. However, Johnny Downs's stunt double (likewise in female garb), who shoulder-flips Noah Beery Jnr, is even less convincingly feminine than Downs.
Considering that Bob Sheppard (Downs) is trying to pass for female, he makes some weird decisions ... such as choosing the tomboy name 'Bobbie' rather than a genuine female alias. (Femalias?) Even more fatally, he fakes a dainty swoon in the presence of Noah Beery Jnr and Alan Hale Jnr ... but deliberately falls into Beery's arms, letting Beery find out how heavy 'she' is. Oh, and Downs gets to speak that line (mandatory dialogue in every drag comedy) about how it 'sure feels good' to get out of those female clothes ... so we don't get any, erm, ideas.
Johnny Downs was apparently unable to speak in a convincing female register, so 'Bobbie' pretends to have laryngitis. Downs should have used the trick that professional female impersonators use: practise speaking with only the upper half of his vocal cords, so that his voice will be in the female range and timbre with fewer overtones.
There are quite a few double entendres in the dialogue and lyrics. Somebody comments that Johnny Downs (in female disguise) looks like 'orchids covered in dew'. Did anyone connected with this movie check the origin of the word 'orchid'? The women's school is cried Mar Brynn, an obvious parody of Bryn Mawr. I wonder if anyone realised that 'Bryn Mawr' is Welsh for 'big breast'.
Harry Langdon has his best role (and gives his best performance) of his talkies career here, as a glib publicist, while Esther Dale is lumbered with the role of the headmistress who doesn't twig that "Bobbie" (with male jawline and falsetto voice) is a male, even when 'she' goes to bed in full make-up. Memo to all headmistresses: when a female student shows up at your boarding school with only one piece of luggage, she's no female.
Downs (in male garb) and Langford 'meet cute' in a surprisingly erotic scene with a bellrope. (He ain't done right by our knell.) I could have done without dialogue like 'A girl doesn't want to live in a mind; she wants to live with a husband.' Also annoying are Kent Rogers's alleged impersonations of celebrities, including (just before the fade-out, in voice-over) Jerry Colonna. Black performer Dudley Dickerson is stuck in a 'yassuh' role but at least he gets to cut loose with some dance steps. Less pleasant is a scene in which Downs 'haunts' black laundress Lillian Randolph.
Somehow, this impoverished all-female college devoted to 'horticulture' (oh, dear) manages to stage an elaborate musical with plenty of invisible musicians on the soundtrack, some wince-worthy lyrics, plus Downs doing some surprisingly graceful pirouettes. However, the photography and lighting throughout the film are excellent, especially during Langford's big number ... which contains a patriotic reference, possibly leading audiences in 1941 to wonder why all these big strong college boys are in frocks instead of uniforms. 'All-American Co-Ed' gets my rating of 8 out of 10. Now put your trousers on, lads.
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