Monday, June 3, 2013

College Swing (1938)

What happens to a major institute of higher education when a complete nit-wit comes to control it? That is the premise of Paramount’s latest picture in the series of “College…” features, College Swing. Keeping somewhat in the line of their previous films College Humor, College Rhythm, and College Holiday, as well as the studio pushing out variety films with loose plots, College Swing provides a silly plot with a variety of musical or humorous acts, somewhat with the theme of swing music. Much like its predecessors College Swing was a mere B-production with a hope of finding an A-type star talent, and it would feature some of comedy’s all time icons in the earliest years of their careers.

College Swing is a musical screwball comedy of an airheaded girl who by passing through college would inherit the institution, doing with it whatever she may please, much to the delight of the student body. The picture begins with the backstory of how Gracie Alden (Gracie Allen) can inherit the college started by her ancestors from hundreds of years ago by being the first woman in her family to graduate, she being the final women that can qualify for the inherited prize. Being very careless about education she hires Bud Brady (Bob Hope) to coach her for final examinations, but he and his eager pocketbook decides that cheating is the only way to help her. Much to the chagrin of strict professor Hubert Dash (Edward Everett Horton) and his secretary George Jones (George Burns), Gracie passes the many tests and gains control of the school, hiring a new silly lot of professors teaching various pointless subjects. All this is played as the loose plot to the various humor and musical acts that surround the picture until Gracie no longer cares for running a college and gives it back.

The picture is essentially overall meaningless with a plot that really does not capture the attention of the audience. What people would be really watching for is the variety of acts that enter and exit throughout the feature, seeing what actually entertains or makes audience laugh. Gracie Allen’s character becomes very annoying very quickly, allowing for Bob Hope to really become the scene stealer for the primary storyline, but not to be forgotten are the humorous straitlaced characters played by Edward Everett Horton and George Burns.

Director Raoul Walsh at one point was one of the industry’s leading filmmakers. A former actor with credits including A Birth of A Nation, Walsh would go on to direct major films including The Thief of Bagdad and the Academy Award winning In Old Arizona. Since signing a contract with Paramount the quality of material given to him was severely diminished. Despite his skill as a director he is handed this variety comedy picture that though he still contains talent behind a camera that skill cannot be manifested with such weak material.

The picture in a ways was a vehicle for the vaudeville duo of Gracie Allen and George Burns. Comedians and dancers on the stage, Allen and Burns had made various shorts in the movies together recently. In this feature they do not spend too much time around each other outside of Gracie’s “exams” much to the chagrin of Burns’ character’s reaction. This married comedy team does not seem to hit on all cylinders in this picture as the script is very poorly constructed and lacks focus.

Though the picture’s plot surrounds that of Gracie’s character, Bob Hope tends to steal the attention of the audience with his brand of straight man humor. This young comedian was just beginning to be put into features by Paramount, which included the most recent “Big Broadcast” picture, The Big Broadcast of 1938. Once again he plays romantically opposite of Martha Raye. Raye was a musical and comedy veteran of these cheap Paramount variety films, making a decent goofy character opposite the Bob Hope straight man role where he quickly and openly makes fun of her, despite his somewhat infatuation with her.

For those with a keen eye they will spot two characters played by memorable talent, featured primarily in the opening number “College Swing.” Dancing together in this youthful energetic number is Betty Grable and Jackie Coogan. Coogan would be best remembered at this point as a child actor, famous by his role as the title character of Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Kid. He would not reach near the accolades he had since his Chaplin appearance, but he would marry the beautiful woman that was his dance partner in this feature. Grable would both sing and dance, presenting innocent eye candy in this film. Her looks kept her in bit parts through these years, before she separates from her first husband and becomes the pin-up icon that would be idolized in the years of World War II.

College Swing is a rather simple feature with some laughs, but nothing of noteworthy merit. Other than watching much younger George Burns, who is rather forgettable with his poor role, and Bob Hope, before he would become an American icon of comedy, not much can observed from watching the picture. Paramount was simply producing quick and cheap films in this era perhaps waiting to find the next Astaire and Rogers-type attraction to build a franchise around. Obviously Paramount earned enough money to make many similar films though the 30s, but they would come to an abrupt end as much better money would be made in better quality features.

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