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Friday, May 20, 2016

Was Football A Dirty Game?

Precode Takes The Field in College Coach (1933)

Precodes could be frankly amoral, part of their charm, as in this gritty forerunner on coaching job Pat O'Brien would reprise as Knute Rockne for scrubbed-up games overseen in 1940. Compare the two and know tight wire all of Hollywood walked under enforcement's heavy hand. Football as shown in College Coach is pure racket, everyone from players to faculty to school trustees on the make, or take. I figured Pat for serious comeuppance, if not jail time, for what he pulls here, but 1933 imposed little such for screen scoundrels, so off he goes to another and more lucrative spot where we may assume a new fix will be in. O'Brien instructs his team to disable a rival player scoring in a game's first half. They end up killing the guy, for which Coach Pat feels no shred of guilt. Neither is he really called to account for it. Precode is all well and good except where we side with victims, and here is instance of that. I don't necessarily begrudge this coach his happy fade, but do confess to mixed emotions.

College Coach posits corruption of higher education as fait accompli. Where football is played, learning is forfeited. Teams are so many dumb gorillas that hold classes in contempt, their instructors bludgeoned into giving grades for no effort at all. Faculty is bought merchandise; only Donald Meek as a chemistry prof has a conscience and expresses it. His department colleague, clownish Herman Bing, is more representative of teachers as a whole. Members of instructing profession must have hated, or ignored, College Coach. Indifferent stance might have worked as well, this a mere programmer in and out of towns in a day or three at most. Besides, precode got round to insulting every group, race, belief, ethnicity, eventually. And there's what we love about it, after all. Fun is mining good or even outstanding characters and performances from College Coach and precode lot. Lots excel here: O'Brien, Dick Powell getting good dialogue and making most of it, with just one song shoehorned in ... Ann Dvorak, husband O'Brien leaving her alone nights, a real stretch to credulity ... Lyle Talbot, a lunkhead grid star, and Hugh Herbert less annoying than usual. Re Dvorak: Note how, in ad at right, she's billed as "The Girl Who Ran Away From Stardom," interesting reference to contretemps Dvorak was having with WB brass at the time.

Just how ruthless was the game where played for high dollar stake? It's flat out said that football was the only way schools could raise revenue. I'm told that's still the case, only more so. We just had a scandal at an NC university involving students not showing up at all for classes and still getting credit (some graduated with honors). The College Coach twist of a boy being liquidated on the field for playing too well weighed heavy on me for not realizing such stuff went on. There are also players given cash and automobiles for dressing out. Do schools even bother hiding such conduct anymore? Again, it's me taking an eighty-three year old movie too much to heart, but certain truths don't date, and college football is a bigger-than-ever business, so ...

William Wellman directed College Coach, thus its helping of guts. Was he a ball fan? I checked the recent bio by Bill Jr., but it doesn't say. Game scenes are robust and as much big-time grid action as audiences outside newsreels, or attendance to the real thing, were likely to get. Movies liked sport as a theme, because with action plus romance tacked on, you could please all of a family. We're shown that there's big money for coaching, as in $40K a year as O'Brien is here offered, and that alone would excuse lots of bad behavior for Great Depression viewers. Quick look reveals John Wayne as a student trading single line dialogue with Dick Powell, but why doesn't Duke show up in the many locker room scenes that follow? One reason may be actual All-Americans of the day used for background. Various grandchildren must still seek this show to spot them. I really liked College Coach, put off watching for too many years, and would give it pennant as best of 30's football pics. There's a DVD from Warner Archive, which was what I watched, quality just fine.


Blogger Donald Benson said...

Wondering how 30s audiences viewed college. Seems like it was almost always a Hollywood fantasy setting for rich people and lucky strivers, like luxurious resorts, country clubs always hosting parties, and estates welcoming armies of weekend guests? "College Coach" sounds wildly atypical.

Here and there higher education was the Holy Grail, the ticket for a hard-working tenement kid to Be Somebody, but I can't recall many (any?) films that centered on that kid actually in college. But the primary impression I get of movie colleges is that of insulated, carefree worlds where attractive young people partied, mated, and sometimes battled for social status. Finance was usually a matter of writing to Dad or being a soda jerk. Actual academia was comedy relief (eccentric professors and bespectacled nerds) or a plot obstacle (passing an exam to play in the game).

Occasionally a film would focus on a working/middle class kid versus the trust fund babies. Lloyd labored as a salesman (how old is he supposed to be?) to afford it; high school grad Keaton tries to work his way through various jobs. Both effectively abandoned studies; Lloyd to seek peer acceptance (on their terms) and Keaton the girl (on her terms). Their struggles were played for laughs, but the formula carried over to romance and sometimes drama (college boys loves -- gasp -- non-student!).

Were there other 30s films like "College Coach" that offered a darker take? Or was higher education a semi-sacred cow, part of the promise of upward mobility?

5:59 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"Horse Feathers" showed college football to be pretty crooked, too, even if it was a comedy.

3:15 PM  

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