Tuesday, October 13, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'College Holiday'

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

Chances are pretty good that you haven’t seen “College Holiday” (Paramount, 1936) on TV lately. Chances are at least as good that you won’t see it there any time soon.

The film is for the most part a typical example of a kind of movie that seems to have been very popular then: the college musical. (Given that these movies were made during the Depression, I can’t help wondering whether these fake campuses were far more populated than the real ones.)

But two things set “College Holiday” apart, and they are not good things.

The focus of the plot (to use the word loosely – so loosely that it almost fell apart as I was typing it) is a plan to carefully mate college students so that the next generation will be a superior population. Yes, folks, we’re talking eugenics – a cute idea for an innocuous musical in 1936 (maybe), but a less than innocuous idea for a series of terrible events a few years later.

The other thing is a minstrel show at the end of the movie. At first it doesn’t seem that offensive; most of the performers aren’t in blackface.

But then a couple does a dance in blackface.

And, more to the point, there’s the Martha Raye number.

For those of you too young to remember, Martha Raye was kind of like Bette Midler without the irony. She could be very funny. Touching, even.

But here she sings a song in blackface – not the result of makeup, but of lighting.

And as she is singing the lighting changes, she turns white. And (as I recall) black again.

If my enunciation isn’t all it should be right now, it’s probably because I still haven’t mustered the strength to lift my jaw off the floor.

And it’s really too bad that the film has these strikes against it, because otherwise it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half, with some appealing songs and mostly likable performers, including Jack Benny (in his early, smartass mode, before he became a professional miser) as the lead, with Burns and Allen in top form. (Was there ever a more perfect actress than Gracie Allen, at least in the sense that she never went out of character? She was beautifully consistent all through her career.)

But one particular treat is an early performance by Marsha Hunt.

Hunt was one of those performers who was always dependable but never achieved top stardom. One major reason: She and her husband were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Although she plays a major role here, I suspect this film didn’t do much for her career; she eventually moved to MGM. Perhaps one thing that held her back was the co-star she is saddled with here: Leif Erickson, later known as the crusty old guy on TV’s “The High Chapparal,” but in this film a leading man who is, to perhaps put it most charitably, stiff, the kind of guy who is buttoned down even while wearing an undershirt. In terms of restraint, Leif Erickson is perhaps the only performer in history who makes Nelson Eddy look like Jerry Lewis.

Despite all this, Hunt is her usual charming self. And I’m happy to report that, from all accounts, she is still charming – one of the few 1930s film performers who is still alive today. At last year’s Bouchercon – the international get-together for mystery writers and fans – I saw her in a chilling short film, “The Grand Inquisitor,” made just last year. Catch it if you can – but don’t expect another “College Holiday.”

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