Wednesday, September 28, 2011

College Coach (1933)

At the beginning of November 1933 Warner Bros. released a picture hoping to feed off of the sport that would be at the pinnacle of its season, football, in College Coach. The film would primarily be a testosterone driven picture about the sport, natural male rivalry, and the crookedness of the game that most young to middle aged men would be watching at that time of year. As just another factory produced picture off the lines of Warner Bros.’ machine, the film would neither reach out to female audiences, nor be a great success in the box office. If there is anything the film provided, it was the peak into the dirtier side of college athletics, something the innocence of spectators overlooked then and still casts a suspicious shadow in today’s modern game.

College Coach is a drama about a university trying to make more money for their academics by building a football program to generate revenue, in doing so results in a crooked program of hiring players. Set within the fictitious Calvert University, a board of academic officials are worried about the lack of funds (as was an issue in the Great Depression) and decide that popular athletics will win them some interest and revenue to aid struggling academic programs. The university hires the infamous and wildly successful coach Gore (Pat O’Brien) who actually achieves his triumphs in hiring his talent with monetary value, a rule strictly forbidden in amateur athletics, building Calvert into a powerhouse football program. The film follows the journeys of Gore and two of his star players, the squeaky clean Phil Sargeant (Dick Powell) and the his rival teammate Buck Weaver (Lyle Talbot). Despite the inner quarrels between them, including the affair Buck has with Gore’s wife Claire (Ann Dvorak), the university becomes a one of the greatest football programs in the nation. In an unusual immoral ending, Calvert’s team wins the big game and Gore wins back the affection of his wife despite his crookedness and stronger love he has for football over her. Not much ethically can be taken away from the film.

Simply said, this is an awkward picture. You think going into it that it will be the normal sports film. As the story turns to the dirty side of the amateur sport, you start thinking that Gore will pay for his deeds in the end. But no, Gore gets away with it, not learning very much at all in the process. The once clean Calvert University allows this to happen. Buck, who carried the affair with the lovely Claire, doesn’t get punished in the end for that or his selfish play on the field that upsets the film’s hero, Sargeant, played by the biggest star in the picture Dick Powell. The film is somewhat unsatisfying. There is no sense of resolution. It simply manifests the crookedness of the game of college football, which happens in big name football programs numerous time throughout history. There is not much to say about this lack of solid resolution.

To direct this picture is the well respected William Wellman, famous for directing the award winning epic Wings and gritty James Cagney crime drama The Public Enemy. Despite being used as just another one of the studio’s line of directors, Wellman was heavily skilled with creating a visually pleasing picture and concise stories. The storyline in this case would not his fault, as it would be a writing issue in my humble opinion. The film does capture, as a time capsule, a more simple game of football that existed in the early 1930s, providing some excellent stock footage of a packed Los Angeles Coliseum for games from that era. The Coliseum was then coming off hosting the 1932 Olympic Games, but was best known for college football, homes then of both USC and UCLA, major institutions in Los Angeles.

Dick Powell would headline the picture. Usually known for his musical roles, such as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, this shows how the studio was pushing him as a possible leading man. Warner Bros. wouldn’t pass up their chance to let him do what he did best as there is one scene where Powell plays the piano and sings for us. Ann Dvorak would be given second billing, serving as the only female character. Despite being a popular used leading lady by the studio, by this time she was having contractual issues and Warner Bros. would begin to phasing her out as a star. Third billing was Pat O’Brien as the title character. O’Brien was a very busy actor in his near three years in Hollywood, best known for his work as the lead character in 1931’s The Front Page.

If there is anything to really take away from this picture it is that it’s a time capsule of the period it was made. It shows an interesting look into the world of football in a less scientific time in the sport where men wore simple leather pads and soft helmets. Also the picture is a portrait of how movies were freer before the Hay’s Office introduced the production code in 1934. Here we see the evil deeds go unpunished and not much is actually learned. In the future characters would have to pay for their misdeeds and a moral would be clear by the end of the film. What can I say? Maybe it is the transformation of the way movies are made, watched, or presented, or perhaps the change in the sport of football, but this movie lacks the edge that could make this a good motion picture. Wellman did a fine job directing, but the film is nothing of great merit. If you want to see a football movie from 1933, this is it. It is a picture about the immorality of what people think is pure sport.

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