Last year, Brandie found a cheap collection of random classic musicals (mainly from the 1940s) and gave it to Carrie as part of her Christmas present. Though the collection features a number of well-known classic Hollywood stars, most of the films are relatively obscure, and the prints are admittedly not the best quality (considering all of the movies have lapsed into the public domain, this is not really surprising). The most well-known film in the collection is probably the Fred Astaire-Jane Powell musical Royal Wedding (1951).
A few months ago, Carrie started working her way through the discs, and when she came across one 1941 film in particular, the unadulterated WTF-ery filling that movie led to a very entertaining series of text messages between Brandie and Carrie. When the True Classics crew gathered in Birmingham recently for a movie-filled girls’ weekend, Carrie brought the DVD along and we all marveled at its utter strangeness.
In the spirit of last year’s discussion on the equally WTF-ery-filled musical Cinderella Jones (1946), Carrie and Brandie bring you All-American Co-Ed: A Viewing Experience.
Brandie: So. This was an … interesting movie.
Carrie: To say the least. You should have been ME the first time I saw it.
Brandie: I already know the answer to this question, but for the sake of our readers–what were your initial impressions?
Carrie: “Oh, my God, what is this?” When I first started watching, I didn’t catch that it was about cross-dressing. I was just paying slight attention to the “showgirls” in the opening scene—I was getting ready for bed at the time. I knew from the description on the DVD case that it was about a girls’ college—the names of the schools, “Mar Brynn” and “Quinceton,” were listed. But it took me a moment to notice that the “girls” looked rather manly … and that the lead singer wasn’t even trying to sing in falsetto.
Brandie: Before we go any further, I guess I should interrupt you here so we can set up the plot so folks know what we’re talking about. Although even with a plot synopsis, it’s pretty hard to see where the movie’s going, because it moves so fast and character development is nil. But would you like to explain what’s going on in this film, Carrie?
Carrie: Damn it. I knew you were going to ask me to do this part. Okay. In a nutshell, the headmistress of Mar Brynn, Mrs. Collinge (Esther Dale) is trying to increase her enrollment. She and her press agent, Hap Holden (Harry Langdon) hatch a plan to offer twelve scholarships to “twelve unusual girls.” By “unusual,” they mean “twelve beauty queens,” which I found very weird. Being a horticultural school, they choose “queens” of various agricultural industries. To top it off, they publicly insult the Quinceton Zetas (who are noted for their musical revues, which they perform in drag). Reading this, the Zetas devise a plan to humiliate Mar Brynn by sending in a female impersonator as a scholarship recipient. So Bob (Johnny Downs) “wins” and is admitted to Mar Brynn as “Bobbie,” the Queen of the Flowers. Unfortunately, Bob almost immediately falls in love with the headmistress’ niece, Virginia (Frances Langford). What ensues is a misguided courtship attempt, silk pajama sing-alongs, and possibly the most disturbing agricultural pageant ever conceived. For the rest, you just have to watch the movie and see for yourself.
Brandie: Yes. We didn’t call this an “experience” for nothing. For only being forty-eight minutes long—yes, forty-eight minutes—this film packs a lot of insanity. It is one of the more entertaining B-musicals of the 1940s, if only for its outlandish plot. Out of all the movies in that DVD collection, what drew you to this one to watch first? Is the girls’ school element what first attracted you to the film?
Carrie: Well, naturally, that was a big part of it. Then I saw that they were also making fun of “Quinceton,” and the thinly-veiled references to those real-life schools were entertaining. What were your initial thoughts?
Brandie: When I received your text messages during the movie, I thought, “Surely she is exaggerating.” But then again, you are not prone to over-exaggeration, so I started to wonder what the hell kind of rabbit hole I’d sent you tumbling through by giving you this movie. And when we finally watched it together—oh, holy hell, this movie is weird and wonderful.
Carrie: I really love the scene in the beginning when they hatch their plot in the frat house, and you meet all the brothers. Especially the one who does impersonations for no reason whatsoever—
Brandie: Other than the fact that he’s played by notable impressionist Kent Rogers. [Rogers was a Warner Bros. voice-over artist who was the original voice of Beaky Buzzard and Henery Hawk. He died in 1944 while in flight training for World War II, weeks before his 21st birthday. All-American Co-Ed marked Rogers' final onscreen appearance.]
Carrie: Right! But there’s no reason for him to be imitating Gary Cooper there! They crafted the scene around that, just for the sake of having it. It’s really strange.
Brandie: The cast as a whole is not particularly well-known, but some familiar faces pop up throughout the movie. Langford was primarily known as a popular radio star who worked with Rudy Vallee, Dick Powell, Bob Hope, and Don Ameche. Downs was mostly known for his role as Johnny in the Our Gang series in the mid-1920s (which, incidentally, was produced by Hal Roach, Sr., the father of this film’s producer).
Carrie: Unfortunately, he didn’t make for a very attractive woman.
Brandie: The leads may not be well-known, but some other familiar faces pop up throughout the movie. For instance, Noah Beery, Jr. and Alan Hale, Jr. both appear in minor roles (each of them later found their own measure of fame in character parts on popular television shows–the former was the title character’s father on the 1970s series The Rockford Files, while most people today remember the latter as the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island). And Esther Dale plays the headmistress–
Carrie: Who was pretty obsessed with the size of her girls’ “tomatoes.”
Brandie: Disturbingly so. Dale is probably familiar to some folks for a number of dowager roles she played in movies like The Awful Truth (1937), Curly Top (1935), and Margie (1946). And then there’s Harry Langdon, the former silent movie star who plays the overeager press agent. At one point during the silent era, Langdon rivaled Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton for popularity, though he has not enjoyed the same level of longevity as his three counterparts.
Carrie: That character wore some very dreadful ties.
Brandie: Yeah, and they were actually some of the more tasteful accessories in the movie. Let’s just talk about those pageant costumes, huh?
Carrie: I felt so bad for the people who had to wear them. I thought that was just cruel. I think they picked the actors they liked the least to wear them—I can’t even decide which one was the worst because they were all awful. And that horrible song they had to sing about the farmer’s daughter …
Brandie: Those girls had giant pieces of fruit in places no self-respecting fruit should go.
Carrie: Pretty much.
Brandie: The actress who plays Bunny, Marjorie Woodworth, was probably the most appealing female character. It’s a shame she didn’t have a longer-lasting career. She had some entertaining moments of mild slapstick, especially the scene where she somehow manages to contract measles and then tries to escape quarantine.
Carrie: She really is the brilliant hysteric. She manages to make it funny as opposed to over-the-top. And it cracks me up to realize that everyone is essentially chasing a “bunny.”
Brandie: It does seem rather deliberate. Although I have to say, the scene where she and her fellow students are lounging on the lawn in silk pajamas during a singalong is highly unrealistic. We went to a girls’ school and never once did that. It’s like a male fantasy brought to life on film—that girls’ schools are like dens of hidden sex. Like the idea that all the girls have naked pillow fights in the dorm every night, when everybody knows we only did that on Thursdays. [Editor's note: KIDDING!]
Carrie: Well, Bob needs to be enthralled by something while he continues his masquerade.
Brandie: Most of the humor comes from the cross-dressing elements—the filmmakers seem to take particular pleasure in forcing “Bobbie” to extricate “herself” from the clutches of amorous men—one of whom is a fellow Zeta (albeit from another university).
Carrie: Some elements of this film reminded me so much of Mel Brooks’ type of humor. Like the sign on the campus bell: “Pull rope and release. Bell will ring automatically.” Well, duh. It’s a bell rope. And the fact that bell “hasn’t worked in years”—how can it not work? It’s a BELL. The entire logic of the situation is skewed in a really funny way. The whole thing reminds me of the sign on the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous in High Anxiety: “Keep In” instead of “Keep Out.” It’s that same weird sense of humor.
Brandie: All I can say is, I think everyone should see this movie. It’s available in its entirety on YouTube. And, conveniently enough, TCM has scheduled All-American Co-Ed to run TOMORROW (July 18th) at 1:30PM EST! Set your DVRs, kids–you’re not going to want to miss this glorious bit of strangeness.
Carrie: This film—though it may be scarring for a vegetarian—pairs very well with a mellow pinot noir or zinfandel. Or beer. Definitely beer. Whatever you can get your hands on, really.
Brandie: Agreed. If ever a movie cried out for booze to accompany its viewing, it’s this one.