College Coach (1933)

Pat O'Brien and Ann Dvorak

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.

So who's that extra with Dick Powell?

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.

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18 thoughts on “College Coach (1933)

    • Thanks for that, Jason – I was feeling slightly thick since I couldn’t even understand the Wikipedia page, which presumably must be just the basic info!

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  1. “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.”

    Hahaha! Love it Judy!

    Well, I confess I know the game inside and out, but can fully understand Jason’s indifference, as there are times you wonder why you een both wasting your time. It comes down to touchdowns and the extra point being good for 7 points, while the “field goal” is good for 3. Getting to that position is where it becomes more complicated, but I would feel the same way if someone tried to teach me cricket.

    Irregardless Judy, your incomparable love for Wellman has overwhelmed any self-professed technical inadequacies, I assure you, as you have again unearthed a relatively obscure Wellman (it’s incredible how prolific he was1) and given it top-drawer treatment!

    This is promising:

    “There is also some enjoyably sharp hard-boiled dialogue – as well as some startlingly amoral pre-Code plot twists”

    …but the undistinguished performance by O’Brien sadly is not. I see you point of comparison with his gangster work. And great comparisons throughout, including to Wellman’s other work like the silent THE BOOB. I understand it’s a mixed bag here, but you clearly enjoyed it still.

    I’m intrigued Judy, and hope Warner Archives will release it soon.

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    • Thanks very much for the detailed comment, Sam – as you are a fan of American football you would probably get more out of the movie than I did! I’m thinking maybe I was a bit hard on Pat O’Brien if I gave the impression his performance was undistinguished – he does bring plenty of fast-talking energy to the role, but for me he doesn’t make the character quite as compelling as I suspect he ought to be. I would have thought Warner Archive would notice John Wayne in the cast list and release it for the guaranteed sales, even though it is a blink and you’ll miss it role!

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  2. Have not seeen this but like Sam, I do hope Waners Archive releases this. I will watch anything wih Ann Dvorak (lol) and I love the shot of Wayne and Powell, an odd combination.

    Do they show show much American football on your side of the ocean? I would think not.

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    • Thanks, I think Ann Dvorak is great too, John – don’t you love the scene where she sings ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ in ‘G-Men’! She’s also great in ‘Three on a Match’. I had to do a lot of freeze-framing to get that shot of Wayne with Powell, as he is only in the movie for such a tiny time.

      You’re right that they don’t show American football much over here, but the Superbowl was shown live on the BBC this year and there seemed to be more interest than I remember in the past. My own home area used to have a big American air base, until it closed down 17 years ago, and as a result there is still an American football team based in my town, the Ipswich Cardinals, though the players are all Brits now – I don’t think they get very big crowds, though.

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  3. And don’t forget Dvorak in “Scarface”, for me that was the first film I ever saw her in. I need to rewatch “G-Men” again, have not seen it in a few years.

    interesting about the American football team still playing there. Soccer has grown tremedously here in popularity though it still cannot compete with baseball and football (American Style) but in schools, kids teams are all over, boys and girls. I suspect when they grow up the popularity of the sport will even grow more here.

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    • I agree she was great in ‘Scarface’ – I also like her performance with Cagney and Blondell in Hawks’ ‘The Crowd Roars’. An underrated actress in general, I’d say! Interesting about soccer catching on among younger children in the US – here not that many girls play soccer, netball is still the main sport.

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  4. Pingback: ‘Late Spring’, ‘The Tingler,’ ‘When Strangers Marry,’ ‘An Error of the Moon’ and Labor Day on Tuesday Morning Diary (September 7) « Wonders in the Dark

  5. Judy, I have a DVR copy of this movie but haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. I’m moving it to the top of my list. Didn’t realize a young John Wayne had a bit part in the film. He was so cute in those early days. The plot of COLLEGE COACH kinda sorta reminds me of The Marx Bros’ HORSE FEATHERS. Looking forward to watching CC, and thanks for another excellent piece!

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    • Thanks, CagneyFan – I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this movie! John Wayne is only in the film for less than a minute but does have a line to speak. I’m not sure if I’ve seen ‘Horse Feathers’ (if so it was ages ago) but interested in what you say about the plot similarity – I need to watch more of the Marx Brothers!

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  6. I have no idea how American football works either. I hazard a guess I’ve never seen it put on our TV by Jim; my father never watched it either. Ellen

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    • Thanks for commenting, Ellen. I would find it useful to have a vague grasp of the rules for watching movies like this one, but I’m not sure I will ever manage it.:)

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  7. Judy, I watched CC and enjoyed it. I generally like Warner’s 1930s movies, and this was no exception. A few plot holes? Yes. An unresolved plot device (as in the little black book)? Yes, again.

    Still, it was worth watching. It was more of a Lyle Talbot and Pat O’Brien vehicle than a Dick Powell one. I like all three actors (yeah, I like Dick Powell, no matter what anyone says) and enjoyed seeing them together. But I can easily see why you didn’t warm to Pat’s performance. Like you, I enjoyed the film. Not the greatest I’ve seen, but certainly watchable and entertaining. The scene near the beginning which in the corner of the screen shows the f’ball game while the Board is listening was pretty advanced for its day.

    BTW, don’t feel too bad about not being able to follow the football game scenes. They coulda/shoulda been shot better than they were.

    And as far as HORSE FEATHERS goes—only a couple similarities: Nat Pendleton and the fact that college f’ball has long ruled American university campi.

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    • Thanks, CagneyFan – glad to hear you enjoyed this one too. I thought you would.:) Yes, I’d forgotten about the little black book, a satirically amusing scene, but something which, as you say, is never actually resolved, just forgotten about! I should really watch Dick Powell in a noir as everyone says he is at his best in those – maybe I’ll get round to ‘Murder My Sweet’ soon. Thanks for the kind words about my failure to understand the football scenes!

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  8. The line about deaths on the field was, in fact, true in those days, the stretcher gags in many college football comedies then only hint at the mayhem.

    Whenever someone I know asks me what American football is, I just tell them it’s a mix of rugby and the old Roman Colosseum entertainments.

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  9. Pingback: ‘College Coach’ now on Warner Archive « Movie classics

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