The Bing Crosby Collection: ‘College Humor’

The oldest film in Universal’s The Bing Crosby Collection is 1933’s College Humor, which I would hardly call a real Bing Crosby movie.

college humor

College Humor, as one might expect by the title, is a college comedy with Hollywood stars who are far too old to believe that they are college kids. Thirty-year-old Jack Oakie is the real star of the film, as an eager, privileged student. He is paired with Richard Arlen, 44, who plays the star football player who gets drunk when Jack’s sister (played by Mary Carlisle – who is probably the only one who legitimately looks like a student) runs off with professor Bing.

Sadly, Bing doesn’t have much to do other than drag Richard out of prison in the climax. He only gets to sing a few songs in the film, specifically “Learn To Croon,” which he sings… a lot. We also get two short Gracie Allen & George Burns segments, but they are way too short.

College Humor was directed by Wesley Ruggles, who goes down in cinematic history as the director of Cimarron. There’s a couple of funny bits, but this is a really creaky movie. It’s really surprising that this came out on DVD at all.

Check out my review of the second film in the set, We’re Not Dressing.

Western Wednesday: ‘Colt .45′ starring Randolph Scott & Zachary Scott

If you couldn’t get John Wayne, the best alternative was Randolph Scott. He just looked like a guy who walked right out of pictures of the Old West. Scott could have fought alongside Wyatt Earp and chased after Jesse James or Billy The Kid. He was tall, handsome and could ride horses without a problem.

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Scott really came into his own in the 1950s in Westerns and that string of success may be attributed to 1950’s Colt .45. Directed by Edwin L. Martin, Colt .45 isn’t exactly a top-shelf Western – especially since they use Colt .44‘s in the movie – but it is far more unique than you would expect.

Scott plays Steve Farrell (could writer Thomas Blackburn have come up with a more boring name?), a Colt salesman who has the bad fortune of trying to sell a sheriff on the new Colt .45s while outlaw Jason Brett (Zachary Scott) is in the jail cell. Brett manages to break out, steals Steve’s pistols and goes on a four-month criminal rampage through the West. Steve gets mistaken for a Brett gangmember and is thrown in jail, where he sits for all four months. (Hey, he’s a good guy and good guys don’t break out of jail.)

Since this is a 74-minute movie, it doesn’t take Steve long to catch up with Brett’s “Colt .45s Gang.” (apparently, they didn’t get very far in four months.) He finds the gang wreaking havoc on Bonanza Creek (wait… so Blackburn can come up with a cool name for the town, but not his hero? What?), where the sheriff is in Brett’s pocket and cowardly mine owner Paul Donovan (Lloyd Bridges) is hiding them out. Now it’s time for Steve to gather up the local Native Americans and Paul’s suffering wife Beth (Ruth Roman) to get Brett and his gang out of town.

Randolph actually gives his standard performance here, so let’s get to the juicy stuff. Zachary Scott (no relation) is incredible as the villain. There are parts where his performance borders on parody (he has a particularly funny way of lighting up his cigarette at one point), but for the most part, he is chilling and disturbing. There is a particularly shocking moment during the final fight where he sticks his finger in the bullet hole in Randolph’s shoulder. It’s particularly gruesome for a film in this era.

Kudos also go to the vastly underrated Ruth Roman, who seems to impress me in every movie of her’s I see. Maybe I’m tricked by her beauty, but she’s very good here.

Colt .45 is definitely worth checking out, but is sadly only available in two DVD collections of Randolph Scott films. Warner Bros. released it in a Triple Feature with Forth Worth and Tall Man Riding and in a 4-Film Favorites set that adds the incredible classic Ride The High Country. It all depends on whether you have Ride alone or not, but it’s worth it. (Well, it’s worth the $5 I spent for the 4-pack.)

Stats:

Warner Bros. Pictures Presents

Randolph Scott and Ruth Roman in Colt .45 with Zachary Scott, Lloyd Bridges

Written by Thomas Blackburn

Directed by Edwin L. Martin

74 minutes, 1.33:1

The Bing Crosby Collection: ‘We’re Not Dressing’

Last week, I picked up Universal’s The Bing Crosby Collection, which features six movies Crosby made for Paramount Pictures. The first four are form 1933 through 1935, so very early in his film career. That last two are from 1938 and 1947.

we're not dressing

Although it’s the second film in the set, I rushed to see 1934’s We’re Not Dressing, since it co-stars Carole Lombard, one of my favorites. The film, directed by Norman Taurog, also has a great selection of supporting players, including Ethel Merman and the comedy duo George Burns & Gracie Allen. There’s also an incredibly young Ray Milland – credited as Raymond Milland.

The plot is pretty simple, since Paramount has to squeeze in as much Bing songs as possible. Bing is sailor Stephen on a ship owned by heiress Doris (Lombard) and they get shipwrecked. They wash up on a deserted Pacific island, where scientists George and Gracie (well, Gracie is just there to annoy George) are studying. George and Gracie let them know that that someone’s coming to rescue them and, while they wait, Stephen convinces the lazy Doris that they love each other.

Unless I missed something, I don’t quite see what the title has to do with all this. Several times, the film veers off in bizarre directions, since there’s a bear on the ship (whose presence is never quite explained). There’s also a curiously dark moment towards the end where it looks like Bing is about to have his way with Carole after tying her up. Of course, he doesn’t because he’s too good a man to do that, but it made me raise an eyebrow.

The film is in amazingly good shape and the only extra feature is a trailer (which makes sure you know the names of all the songs). I have never even seen any of the other films in this set, so this will be an interesting journey through an ignored part of Bing’s career.

Western Wednesday: King Vidor’s ‘The Texas Rangers’ starring Fred MacMurray & Jack Oakie

There is this stigma outside the film community that there were no good Westerns made in Hollywood during the 1930s before John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach. However, that is clearly incorrect. Yes, Ford did bring the genre out of B-movie hell, just like he did for John Wayne, but A-list directors still made Westerns in the ’30s. One of these was the great King Vidor, who made The Texas Rangers for Paramount in 1936. 

The film is very episodic in nature, despite its short running time. A young Fred MacMurray is paired with Jack Oakie, who play two criminals who decide the best way to make some fast money is to join the Texas Rangers, with the eventual goal of leaving. But when one of their former cohorts returns to crime,  Jim (MacMurray) and Wahoo (Oakie) stay on to free Texas from criminals. Of course, there’s also a lady involved, Amanda, played by the beautiful Jean Parker. 

Vidor directs the film with vigor, putting together a string of fantastic action sequences. A climactic battle with Native Americans should be remembered as one of his best sequences. 

Clearly, The Texas Rangers isn’t a movie made with lofty ambition – far unlike Vidor’s best films – but it is more enjoyable than you might expect. Oakie (best known today for his role as Chaplin’s Mussolini stand-in in The Great Dictator) gives a particularly poignant performance as Wahoo. MacMurray is also pretty good, before he would really meet stardom. However, it’s clear that he lacks a certain punch that Western stars like Wayne, Henry Fonda or even Randolph Scott had. 

The Texas Rangers is currently available on DVD in a Universal four-pack, thrown together with three sub-par Westerns. (The pack includes Raoul Walsh’s sadly awful The Lawless Breed with Rock Hudson, although Jacques Tourner’s Canyon Passage is decent.) It alone was worth the $5 I paid for the set. 

Stats:

Adolph Zukor presents “The Texas Rangers”

Starring Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker

Written by Louis Stevens, Based on the book by William Prescott Webb 

Produced and Directed by King Vidor

98 minutes, 1.33:1

‘Confidential Agent’ with Lauren Bacall & Charles Boyer

Quick post here… I finally watched Herman Shumlin’s Confidential Agent, which Warner Archive first released back in 2010. I just got it  few weeks back after Lauren Bacall’s death. (I also picked up Bright Leaf, which I thoroughly enjoyed.)

Confidential Agent is famous for more or less derailing Bacall’s career at Warner Bros. briefly, calling into question her acting abilities. Indeed, while Howard Hawks could make the 19-year-old Bacall look and act much older opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, Shumlin was not able to do that. She just looks far too young and has no chemistry with her co-star, Charles Boyer. I also think Boyer might have been miscast here, since it’s hard to buy him as a Spaniard with his thick French accent and he just doesn’t do well outside of romantic stories. Graham Greene’s story is also over-reliant on his McGuffin (Boyer’s mission to buy coal for the Spanish Republicans) and the romance is too weak to draw our attention away from it. 

The film’s not a complete loss though. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is simply beautiful and Peter Lorre has a really fun bit part. 

Thankfully, Warner Bros. had enough faith left in Bacall to team her up with Bogart again in The Big Sleep and the rest is… history.

“Hollywood Hobbies”

This awesome short is included on the Warner DVD for Boom Town. The inclusion of shorts like these are reasons why I really love those old Warner DVDs from the height of the DVD era. Thankfully, these do get included on Blu-ray upgrades, but aren’t upgraded themselves.

Boom Town DVD cover

Hollywood Hobbies is particularly interesting since it was directed by George Sidney. Curiously, some non-MGM stars are even seen in the baseball game sequence, including James Cagney (of Warner Bros.) and Tyrone Power (of 20th Century Fox). Check it out for a laugh:

Pre-Code fun begins with ‘Frisco Jenny’

This month is going to be a total blast. Every Friday, TCM is airing Pre-Code films – the movies made in Hollywood from the late 1920s through 1934, when the production code was not being enforced.

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I knew of the Pre-Code films and had seen several of them before April’s TCM Classic Film Festival, but I honestly never knew that these movies have such a rabid fan base. Every Pre-Code movie screened was packed and I just barely got in to see the two I saw – Employees’ Entrance and The Stranger’s Return.

I’ve recorded a bunch today already and just watched William A. Wellman’s Frisco Jenny, which features a real heartbreaking performance from Ruth Chatterton. She plays the titular character, who planned to marry a piano player against her father’s wishes. But just as she’s about to make a stand, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 strikes, killing him. Since she slept with her beau the night before, she’s also pregnant. (Now, that’s where the “pre-code” aspects of the film kick in.)  After the earthquake and learning that her man is dead, Jenny falls in with the crime world of San Francisco, rejecting an annoying priest.

During her time without money, she gave away her son, Dan. When she gets money, she wants her son back, but ultimately lets Dan grow into a respectable college star. But they soon clash in an unexpected way.

Frisco Jenny was far more interesting that some other pre-codes, probably because of Wellman’s directing. You get the sense that Wellman isn’t doing risque things to tantalize the audience, but he’s just telling a story, one that he wouldn’t be able to tell a year after making the film.

I am incredibly excited to see some more pre-codes that I haven’t checked out before. My favorite aspect of these films is how the screenwriters and directors managed to tell stories in 80 minutes or less. Frisco Jenny covers decades, but is over in 70 minutes.

If you are interested in my other writing, check out today’s Film Friday post at TheCelebrityCafe.com on Woody Allen’s “Interiors.”