REVIEW: Varsity Show (1937)

William Keighley’s 1937 musical Varsity Show is not going to make anybody’s list of Hollywood classics, but it is a perfect example of what the genre was doing in its earlier years. Produced by Warner Bros, it offers a chance to see early musical star Dick Powell before he transitioned to more serious fare – as well as gifted dancer John W. Bubbles, literally the man who taught Fred Astaire.

When drama professor Sylvester Biddle (Walter Catlett) announces that Winfield College’s annual varsity revue will be a heavily anodyne affair akin to the shows of his youth, the student body work around him to find a replacement director. They hone in on Winfield alumnus and Broadway showman Chuck Daly (Powell) – not realising that his career is in ruins after a string of expensive flops.

It is one of the dominant tropes of early Hollywood musicals for the protagonists to be in desperate need of money for some promising endeavour, and to decide to put together a musical show all by themselves. Over at MGM, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland as good as made their careers out of it, typified by their popular hit Babes in Arms (also 1937). Varsity Show does not quite fit the exact formula, but it is incredibly close. There is still fundraising to be done, but the put-together show is the point and the money is to afford putting it on. Still, the plucky young undergraduates certainly fit, while everything culminates in their own climactic revue.

You could claim it is a sign of the times that the film has no qualms about making a romantic pairing between Chuck Daly (played by 33-year old Powell) and student Babs Steward (Rosemary Lane), or indeed between Daly’s partner William Williams (41 year-old Ted Healy) and another young woman nicknamed Bubbles (Mabel Todd). The only problem with that claim is that in the decades since Hollywood hasn’t done much better in terms of age disparities between male and female leads; indeed from time to time it has done much worse. There is simply something about the women being students that makes the difference feel so much more egregious. Todd is woefully underused too: she seems a gifted comic talent, and is all but thrown away in her stereotypical pursuit of Williams. Sterling Holloway fares much better as class clown Trout; if his voice seems familiar it is because he subsequently became one of Walt Disney’s most celebrated voice actors playing the stork in Dumbo (1940), the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (1951), and most famously Winnie the Pooh.

Fans of entertainment history will appreciate seeing stage performers John W. Bubbles and Buck Washington as a pair of janitors at Winfield College. It’s a typically problematic representation typical of the time, but they are gifted with a song-and-dance routine during the film’s climax that makes up for it. A noted and groundbreaking duo, they were later the first black artists to perform on American television. Bubbles in particularly of note, having been widely seen as the creator of rhythm tap – an art he taught to Fred Astaire in 1920.

It is after the Buck and Bubbles number that the film’s climax takes an unreal turn, as music director Busby Berkeley expands the scope to a typically massive extended sequence of synchronised marching, flag waving, and dance. By the end it seems markedly separate to the film that preceded it, but – like the storyline – is very typical of the time in which it was made.

A treat for old-time musical fans, Varsity Blues is perhaps too deep a cut for general movie viewers, who are likely to be better entertained by late musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. As a slice of filmmaking history, it is a worthwhile experience.

This was the 1,000th review to be published at FictionMachine. Thank you for reading.

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