As a Brit who isn’t a great sport fan, I’ll admit I’m in difficulties when watching any movie about American football – since, as soon as the players head for the pitch, I can’t really work out what on earth is going on. Nevertheless, I was pleased to track down a copy of this William A Wellman pre-Code starring Pat O’Brien as a college football coach – and featuring a 23-second appearance by a very young and uncredited John Wayne! I’m just editing this posting (on October 6) to say that this title is now out on Warner Archive. (This was actually his second football-themed film – the first, Eleven Men and a Girl (1930), a comedy starring Joe E Brown, was also issued on Warner Archive recently.)
Anyway, back to the rules of American football, and my failure to understand them. I know that a touchdown is similar to a try in rugby, but that’s about as far as I’ve managed to get. I did try looking up the Wikipedia page about the rules but found it impenetrable. Therefore, I’m afraid my review of this satirical comedy-drama will be lacking – but, even though I found the action on the pitch bewildering, there was plenty to enjoy regarding the politics and corruption behind the scenes, much of which seems all too relevant to modern-day sport too. There is also some enjoyably sharp hard-boiled dialogue - as well as some startlingly amoral pre-Code plot twists.
Dick Powell was given top billing in this movie, presumably because his star was riding high after three smash hit Busby Berkeley musicals – but his role is in fact fairly minor, as Phil Sergeant, a preachy, self-righteous chemistry major torn between his love for science and his talent for football. He doesn’t have very much screen time, and I don’t think he is ever on camera at the same time as leading lady Ann Dvorak. Powell does have one song, but it is instantly forgettable – and for my money he is outshone by Lyle Talbot as big-headed but likeable football star Buck Weaver, who tries to steal Claire (Dvorak) from her neglectful husband.
Talbot was 31, Powell 29, and neither of them really looks like a sporting college boy, though Talbot is hugely enjoyable to watch. (John Wayne really does look like a college football player in his very brief appearance – as indeed he was.) The main star of the film, though, is third-billed Pat O’Brien, as cynical, fast-talking football coach James Gore, hired to change the fortunes of the struggling Calvert college, which is losing money.
At the very start of the film, the college’s directors are shown discussing how to bring in money – and the first time I watched this scene I could hardly believe my eyes, as one of the directors appears to turn on a large flat-screen TV showing coverage of a football game. My husband pointed out to me that, in fact, he is turning on a large free-standing radio, and a picture of the game they are listening to is superimposed – but it does look spookily like a television set of today. In any case, this scene is a characteristic Wellman touch, like the moment in his early silent film The Boob where a picture of galloping horses on the wall comes to life – again looking strangely like a TV set to a modern viewer. I didn’t spot many other trademark touches in this movie, except for the surprising camera angles Wellman always favoured, such as a scene showing just Ann Dvorak’s feet walking to and fro. He was working here with cinematographer Arthur L Todd, who also worked on Wild Boys of the Road, which features many such shots.
The college directors, led by the saintly Dr Phillip Sergeant (Arthur Byron), father of Powell’s character, decide to make some money by cashing in on the popularity of college football. This means bringing in a top coach and allowing him to hire players who are professionals in all but name – despite supposedly “studying” various subjects. “What do you think you are, amateurs?” snarls Gore in one scene – before remembering a split-second later that this is exactly what his players are supposed to be. Some of the film’s best and sharpest scenes involve the outrageous breaking of various rules – contemptuously flouting amateurism and even allowing star players to pass exams without writing a word. For good measure, as well as ignoring the true sporting spirit, Gore also gets involved in a dodgy land deal (which he gets away with) and neglects his devoted wife, Claire (Dvorak), throwing her into the arms of his star player Buck (Talbot).
Worst of all, in one sequence where the dark comedy turns into melodrama, he orders his players to stop a rival by any means possible – and they end up felling him by a foul, leading to his death. But they win the game, so it pays off. (The film claims that dozens of players were killed in college football every year.) As some of the interesting comments on this movie at the imdb point out, this means that in effect Gore gets away with murder – something he wouldn’t have been able to do once the Hays code was enforced the following year. However, I don’t agree with the suggestion from some of the commentators there that the film is necessarily endorsing the corruption it shows. It could be equally argued that allowing Gore to get away with everything makes the satire all the more pointed.
I did enjoy this film, but for me the main problem, apart from my lack of knowledge of American football, is that I don’t warm to Pat O’Brien enough in the role of Gore. I think his character is supposed to have the sort of amoral charisma which the stars of the great gangster films of the period have – and which O’Brien himself has as the ace reporter in The Front Page (1931). But for me this time he doesn’t quite pull it off, somehow. This may also be because Ann Dvorak is one of my favourite actresses of the period and he neglects her so outrageously! All the same, an enjoyable, fast-moving movie – and the football scenes look exciting, probably with real-life footage woven in, even if I can’t understand the changing scoreline.