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Just a few minutes into 1933's College Coach, bright-faced chemistry student Phil (Dick Powell) is greeted by a very familiar voice in the Calvert University locker room. A youthful John Wayne steps in, shakes Phil's hand and abruptly exits the picture. It's only the first of the film's many small surprises.
An energetic Warners picture with a top cast and a fast pace, College Coach has a few things to say about college sports. A Pre-Code picture that doesn't trade in risqué dialogue and dicey sexual situations, this show instead sets up an interesting tale of campus corruption that hasn't dated in the slightest. Director William Wellman averaged six or seven movies a year in these early Depression days, and almost all of them are pictures of distinction.
Escapist movies about campus "daze" had been around for at least a decade; the musical comedy Good News spoofed the cliché of the football dunce being coached to pass French so he can lead the team to victory. College Coach makes room for its star Dick Powell to sing some songs, but it doesn't try to generate a feeling of campus spirit. It's exposé of campus politics isn't supposed to be satirical.
"Times being what they are", Calvert University faces financial disaster. . A winning football team will bring in desperately needed revenue, so the board votes to hire the newsworthy Coach James Gore (Pat O'Brien) away from another school. Gore cruises over to Calvert U. ready to implement his tried & true strategy: he hires four mercenary players, gets the school to register them as students, and proceeds to mow down the opposition on the gridiron. Gore's new publicist J. Marvin Barnett (Hugh Herbert) talks up this murderous first squad as "The Four Aces" that never let Calvert down.
But a rivalry on the team begins to cause trouble. Honest player and team captain Phil Sargent (Dick Powell) becomes disillusioned by the bad sportsmanship all around him. To win he must neglect his chemical engineering studies with the kindly Professor Glantz (Herman Bing). But the school will have to let Glantz go if the team doesn't bring in the moolah. Buck Weaver (Lyle Talbot), the cockiest of Gore's Four Aces, makes fun of Phil's dedication, which leads to a fistfight. Buck then begins a romance with his coach's neglected wife Claire (Ann Dvorak). The coach is too occupied with celebrity engagements to know what's going on ... just as his winning team begins to crumble around him.
College Coach is routinely compared to Warners' huge college football hit Knute Rockne All American made several years later. Pat O'Brien played Rockne as a beloved tower of virtue and principles, at a time when American sports still represented the country's best and finest qualities. As conceived by screenwriters Niven Busch and Manual Self, O'Brien's Coach Gore is completely unprincipled. The college wants to win and Gore delivers a cheated lineup of ringers to get the job done. The players are paid off and Gore sees that the faculty gives them passing grades even if they can't read or add. The fascinating thing about College Coach is that Gore isn't a villain, but a guy who knows the score and plays the cards as he sees them. His unhappy wife Claire has no problems with his ethics. She's just miffed that Gore doesn't spend any time with her.
Coach Gore even becomes a party to a crooked real estate deal, buying land with another board member, which can then be resold to the University at an enormous profit. This damning character complication is presented without irony or judgment.
The film's opening scene shows the school making a cynical deal to effect its rescue; various board members are played by actors noted as Depression-era villains: Arthur Byron, Berton Churchill. Director Wellman must also keep College Coach on track as a Dick Powell vehicle. The handsome Powell is good casting as a bright-faced student and puts across a few unmemorable songs in acceptable style. But as a football star ... that's a harder sell. Fifth-billed Lyle Talbot makes a fine impression as the utterly corrupt Buck Weaver. He sneers at the goody-goody Phil, tests Coach Gore's patience and boasts to Claire about his finesse on and off the field.
Football in college movies of the time could get pretty silly, but College Coach acknowledges that a team with overqualified players will easily prevail, and the press and public will consider them champions. Buck repeatedly refuses to play by Phil's team rules, and consistently makes touchdowns on his own. A film produced under the Code would likely insist that "cheaters never prosper"; Buck would be disgraced and his philosophy proven false. Not here. Powell's "good" student resigns the team in disgust when he finds out how the racket works ... and more or less drops out of the film until the final reel.
In fact, the moral resolution of College Coach's conflicts goes totally haywire. The team, the school and Gore's real estate swindle are poised to go down the tubes when the Four Aces break up. Realizing what's at stake, Claire maneuvers Buck away from their hotel room rendezvous and back onto the field, just as Phil suits up again in hopes of saving the day. What seems shocking is that things turn out okay -- for the school, the crooked players, the cheating wife and the corrupt coach. Nobody gets hurt and the dirty world of college sports can continue on as before. And for all we know, Coach Gore gets to clean up with his real estate swindle. Ain't America swell? Prosperity is just around the corner. Hooray!
The lesson, I suppose, is that the candid nature of Pre-Code movies doesn't necessarily make them any nobler than compromised, censor-tweaked pictures produced under the Code.
All the principal players are good, with the dreamy Ann Dvorak (those eyes!) doing extremely well with a character one would think difficult to make sympathetic. Pat O'Brien does his characteristic fast-talking act. It's typical of William Wellman to do interesting things when handed an actor like Hugh Herbert. Instead of poking holes in the movie with his typical irrelevant clowning, Herbert's character is given some intelligence. He even comes through for his boss in the final act. Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Joe Sauer (Sawyer) are on hand as burly linemen.
Three years after his belly flop starring gig in Raoul Walsh's impressive but calamitous The Big Trail, John Wayne appeared in bits in a number of Warner pix while building a career in lowly B westerns. His USC football buddy Ward Bond has a bigger part as Coach Gore's assistant. We wonder if the Hollywood club of tough-guy directors (Walsh, Hawks, Wellman, Ford) frequently helped each other out by trading favors, like keeping certain young actors working.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of College Coach doesn't say that it's restored, but it might as well be. Both picture and sound are in great shape. A vintage trailer gives us a hint as to what the studio thought was the important element in the picture - star Dick Powell.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
College Coach rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.