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Almost forgotten now, the 'college' musical was a mainstay of Hollywood filming even before sound came in. The 1927 stage hit Good News became an all talking, all singing, all dancing MGM musical in 1930. Although 2001 audiences may not pick up on it, college musicals were meant to be free-for-all parodies of themselves. The stock situations (will the football hero pass a critical class, and be allowed to play in the big game?) were as rigidly observed as the form of a classic Yakuza movie. The liveliest are from the middle thirties, where one might find Joe E. Brown (of the BIG mouth) carrying on. We saw him at '70s UCLA football games, still a fun guy in the crowd. The biggest star to come out of the genre was Martha Raye, a wonderfully endearing loudmouth ditz who could sing and dance up a storm.
1947's MGM revival of the musical upped the ante. The original score by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson was augmented with a new song "Pass That Peace Pipe" by Martin & Blaine, which ended up being nominated for an Oscar. The 'book' was rewritten as a screenplay by Comden and Green, their first assignment in a string of hits that would lead to Singin' in the Rain five years later. It was also the first directorial job of Charles Walters.
A synopsis is hardly necessary; Tate college co-ed Connie Lane (June Allyson) falls for football star Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) while helping him pass his French class, in order to (sigh) play in The Big Game. Tommy's outgoing main squeeze, the sultry Pat McClellan (Patricia Marshall), schemes to keep her man but is no match for Connie's sweet puritan allure. Naturally, with enough songs, all turns out fine.
Good News was a big hit for MGM. 1947 youth loved it. This was the film that cemented June Allyson as a big star: bright, always smiling with her eyes crinkling up, and with that husky voice, people thought she was the cutest thing in crinoline. She'd keep the iron virgin persona going for at least ten more years of successful movies - dramatic pictures, mostly, holding up the cold-war front with James Stewart. Not a great singer but a reasonable dancer, she survived by sheer personality, and came back strong in a final musical in the late '50s, a remake of The Women called The Opposite Sex. (The present proposed remake seems to be ignoring the Allyson version.) Perrenial wet mop MGM prettyboy Peter Lawford actually does well here, dancing equally as good as Allyson in the college hunk role. Hardly anyone else gets much attention: there's never any real competitive threat from Patricia Marshall for Lawford - she's a brunette after all, and Allyson's a blonde, so forget it, sister. It's the definitive thankless role. Mel Tormé is in for a song. I've never understood his appeal of this popular singer so I recuse myself from venturing an opinion.
If anything, the story passages in Good News are a bit on the dull side, without many big laughs or really strong characters. Tate College is a magazine photo-layout fantasy where every girl is an MGM starlet in a perfect color-coded dress. The boys drive modest and shiny hot rods. Since everyone seems to be about 28 or so, it's a wonder how 'youth' related to it all in 1947, unless the colleges really were stuffed with older veterans on the G.I. Bill, as we are taught. There aren't that many songs, and among them there are only two production numbers of any consequence - but those two are killers.
'The Varsity Drag' actually expresses some of the feeling of college spirit that eludes the rest of the movie. The enthusiasm of the song and the snappy delivery by Allyson (nice legs) are fairly infectious, but once the number grows into a hundred spinning dancers moving in tight patterns on the basketball court, we've been won over. Even better is 'Pass That Peace Pipe', one of Savant's favorite dance numbers of all time. It features Joan McCracken, who in the rest of the film mostly meanders around the periphery doing odd comedy relief. She's the best thing in the picture, and it's a crying shame she didn't work more. There's real life in those eyes, which communicate an 'I know what you're thinking' look better than even Betty Page. James Agee called her the equivalent of "a libidinous peanut," a baroque compliment if ever there was one. Anyway, with live wire McCracken at the center, "Pass that Peace Pipe" is a frenetic number with at least thirty dancers packed into a malt shoppe too small to hold fifteen. The choreography constantly changes with patterns of movement syncopated to McCracken's wild center; it's a delight to watch. The camera catches a riot of color and geometry (McCracken wears bright angled stripes; the floor is a checkerboard) and a Power Truck down the soda fountain during a drum solo crackles as a new sundae is slammed onto the counter with every downbeat. Kicking, stretching and spinning, the dancers are in such a tight formation on the floor that it's a wonder they aren't putting each other's eyes out. Savant doesn't consider himself any fine connoiseur of music or dance, but this explosion of talent makes up for the slackness of the rest of the show. I'm not given any explanation for the brevity of McCracken's screen career, but am told that she later married Bob Fosse, and died in 1961 of Cancer at the young age of 38.
Warner's DVD of Good News is a winner, bringing out the Technicolor hues brightly and with a minimum of problems associated with that process, there are fewer misregistered colors here than in Annie Get Your Gun!, for instance. The sound is solid mono. There is the usual awful MGM trailer of the period.
The highlight extra are two musical numbers from the 1930 version mentioned up above, that are fun to contrast with the main feature. We get quick glimpses of the two leads, Bessie Love (The Lost World) and Cliff Edwards (the voice of Jiminy Cricket), and then an unbelievably hilarious 'Varsity Drag' performed by a wild actress for whom Savant could find no name. The disc prompts point out a young Penny Singleton (Blondie) in the crowd, but in the IMDB she's just listed as an uncredited dancer; Buster Crabbe and future director Delmer Daves are supposed to be in there too. Whoever this lead is, she's simply indescribable, a cross between Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, and all Savant can say is that comedy styles have come a long way since then. A second number, 'Good News,' brings her on again with some long-legged, purposely awkward stompin' dance steps. Another novelty dancer, a deadpan guy who makes it look as though his legs and body are bending like boneless rubber, does his thing too, in this primitive but lively excerpt. Also included is one omitted clip from the 1947 film, a not-particularly memorable June Allyson number sung to a roomful of girls. This and dozens of other 'orphaned' musical numbers were found in the vaults and rescued by editor/director Mike Sheridan during the evolution of That's Entertainment; Savant got the job of helping edit a few of them together for producer Peter Fitzgerald a couple of years back, a really fun job. They only existed as raw negative dailies (work prints had been tossed) and playback recordings; Fitzgerald did a great job of reverse-engineering and together we basically had the thrill of cutting big MGM musical numbers as if we were the original creative team!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Good News rates:
Movie: Good overall, with excellent Musical Numbers.
Supplements: Trailer, 3 extra musical excerpts
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 29, 2001
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