Friday, December 25, 2015

#1,957. Varsity Show (1937)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: Dick Powell, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, Ted Healy


Trivia: This marked the film debut of actress Priscilla Lane

A “Let’s put on a show” plotline?

Singing and dancing?

Dick Powell?

Must be another Busby Berkeley-inspired musical, and while 1937’s Varsity Show isn’t one of the best films to feature Berkeley’s unique style of choreography, it has enough charm to carry it through until the eye-popping finale.

It’s time for Winfield College to put on their annual song and dance show, but to the student’s dismay, tightwad professor Sylvester Biddle (Walter Catlett) is once again calling the shots. With his preference for the classics over more contemporary music, everyone knows that, if Biddle has his way, this year’s production will be a flop. So, with the (unofficial) blessing of music teacher Ernie Mason (band leader Fred Waring, who appears with his group The Pennsylvanians), a contingency of students heads to New York City to convince the college’s most famous alumnus, Broadway big-shot Chuck Daly (Powell), to help organize their show. After working out the details with his shifty manager Willy Williams (Ted Healy), Daly (whose career is on the skids) agrees to assist, but when Biddle and the rest of the faculty hear the students went behind their backs, they hit the roof, threatening to cancel the show. Will Biddle and his cronies have their way, or will the kids win out in the end?

Varsity Show follows closely in the footsteps of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade, and as a result, the entire movie has a “been there, done that” vibe to it. Still, there’s plenty of music and comedy early on to keep things rolling at a decent clip. Most of the laughs come courtesy of Ted Healy (former frontman for The Three Stooges), who, as sly theatrical agent Willy Williams, talks circles around Professor Biddle (at one point, Williams even purposefully infects Biddle with a case of the mumps, which he himself caught from a lovestruck co-ed played by Mabel Todd). As for the first few musical numbers, the standouts include “On With The Dance”, sung by Fred Waring and co-star Priscilla Lane; and the swinging “Old King Cole”, performed first by cast member Johnnie Davis, but reprised by others a few more times throughout the film. And keep an eye out for a young Sterling Holloway (the voice of Winnie the Pooh), who plays Trout, one of the kids determined to make this year’s production a memorable one.

Like all good Busby Berkeley musicals, though, it’s the finale that makes Varsity Show such a rewarding experience. Choreographed, as usual, by Berkeley himself, the sequence begins with a tap-dancing / skat-laced routine performed by the duo of Buck (Ford Washington Lee) and Bubbles (John William Sublett). Next, we’re treated to a stunning, collegiate-inspired number, with a hundred dancers twirling batons, before moving on to an incredible tribute to some of America’s most prestigious universities, a sequence you’ll have to see to believe.

Even if you weren’t impressed with what went before it, this last 10-15 minutes of Varsity Show are guaranteed to bowl you over!

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