The Bootleg Files: Let’s Go Collegiate

BOOTLEG FILES 642: “Let’s Go Collegiate” (1941 comedy with Frankie Darro, Keye Luke and Mantan Moreland).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube and other video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright doomed this to public domain hell.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Wouldn’t it be nice if The Criterion Collection offered it as a digitally restored presentation?

During the 1940s, the low-rent Monogram Pictures reigned as the king of the second features. Back in the day, this studio churned out scores of B-movies that helped support the major studios’ prestige productions. (In that era, you didn’t just go to the theater and see a single flick, but you got a main feature plus a second feature and an assortment of newsreels, cartoons and short subjects.)

The Monogram fare was never artistically provocative or intellectually intense, but it was consistently entertaining – sometimes for the wrong reasons, especially with the zany cheapo horror efforts starring Bela Lugosi. One the lesser known gems of the Monogram canon was a 1941 comedy called “Let’s Go Collegiate.” Running a tight 62 minutes, it offered an amusing farce with a few peppy songs, an attractive cast and some surprising twists to the on-screen depiction of racial minorities.

Set at the fictitious Rawley University, “Let’s Go Collegiate” focuses on two student athletes on the rowing team: Frankie the coxswain and Tad the stroke. Tad is also president of the Kappa Psi Delta house and conductor of the fraternity’s orchestra. The guys are ecstatic because the rowing team is going to welcome Bob Terry, a young athlete who has the potential to bring Rawley a rowing championship title. Bess and Midge, the girlfriends of the young men, coordinate a party to welcome Bob to the school.

Alas, Frankie and Tad learn that Bob has been drafted and is going into the Army. Rather than break the bad news to their teammates and girlfriends, they conspire to hire a ringer to pose as Bob for the party. Yeah, that makes no sense – but, then again, no one ever watched a Monogram film expecting logic. While in town, the duo spies a burly guy loading a safe on a flatbed truck. They introduce themselves and convince the guy – named Hercules, but nicknamed Herk – to pose as Bob for the party in exchange for a $10 fee.

During the party, however, Herk enjoys the attentions of Bess and Midge and takes a liking to the college environment. Taking control of the situation, Herk blackmails Frankie and Tad into staying with them at the fraternity and attending the university as Bob. Unfortunately, Herk needs endless tutoring to maintain a decent grade level and a lot of coaching to become a champion in rowing – no mean feat, as Herk gets seasick easily. Herk keeps himself entertained with Bess and Midge, and proposes separately to each. Both girls break up with their boyfriends after Herk agrees to marry each of them. Needless to say, there are a lot of loose threads that need tying up before the final credits.

Admittedly, “Let’s Go Collegiate” is flimsy, even by the low standards of 1940s campus comedies. But the film moves along at a brisk pace thanks to expert direction by Jean Yarbrough, an underappreciated filmmaker who is best known today for helming several Abbott and Costello films plus the duo’s beloved sitcom. The film is further is enhanced by the charm of the young leads: Monogram contract players Frankie Darro and Jackie Moran as Frankie and Tad, and Marcia Mae Jones and Gale Storm as Bess and Midge. Darro, Moran and Jones were former child stars who found steady work in the 1940s as juvenile leads at Monogram, while Storm (in her first Monogram feature) would become the studio’s lead musical attraction. Storm performs a couple of songs and exudes a pleasant charm that helped fuel her career through the decades and into the 1950s, when she became a major television star.

Most of the fun in “Let’s Go Collegiate” comes from the antihero insouciance of Frank Sully as Herk. The hulking Sully rarely got a chance to shine on screen – he was best known as Henry Fonda’s brother in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but mostly played bit roles, often uncredited. In this little effort, he is aces as the happily loutish Herk, who is unapologetic in his uncouth manners and seems to delight in twisting the ridiculous situations to his favor. (His complaint about the absence of alcohol in the frat house party’s punch bowl is hilarious.) It is a shame that he never truly found a niche in films, because Sully had great charisma and a flair for low comedy.

By contemporary standards, “Let’s Go Collegiate” is unusual in presenting nonwhites. Chinese-American Keye Luke, playing a character called Buck Wing (you need to know about vaudeville dancing to appreciate the punny character name), was given a quasi-equal role as one of the fraternity brothers. Granted, he was on the receiving end of a couple of unkind racial jokes and is absent from the party with the white sorority chicks, but Luke also had the last laugh on his white foes by couching his schemes with the facetious prefix “Old Chinese proverb say…” At 37 years old, Luke was a bit mature to be a college boy, but he gave the role a level of dignity and wry humor that was rarely seen in that era’s Chinese-American characters.

Also on hand was Mantan Moreland, the delightful black comic actor. Although shoehorned into a stereotypical role as the fraternity’s chauffeur and valet, Moreland was given a great deal of screen time and he stole his scenes with a delightful popped-eye befuddlement and air of woeful exasperation. A scene where the diminutive Moreland is asked to double as the boat for the massive Sully’s rowing lesson is wonderfully bizarre. Moreland gets his own romancing in with Margueritte Whitten as the none-too-impressed sorority maid. Moreland and Whitten had a great chemistry and their exchanges are the best moments in the film.

Monogram promoted this production as “an uproarious musical comedy of campus life,” which is a bit of an exaggeration. The studio also prominently featured Luke and Moreland in the advertising for this film, which was progressive for that not-enlightened era. Industry trade reviews were supportive and audiences didn’t object to the joyful nonsense stirred up here, which encouraged more films from Monogram with this talent line-up.

Sadly, the film’s copyright was not renewed and the film slipped into the public domain, where it enabled budget-minded distributors to dupe endless copies of well-worn prints. Today, “Let’s Go Collegiate” can be found on numerous public domain labels and a large number of online video sites, usually in less-than-pristine prints.

The likelihood of a digitally restored version of “Let’s Go Collegiate” seems weak, but maybe someday a label like The Criterion Collection can rescue this and many of the other Monogram films in the public domain. It would be smashing to be able to see these films with the same crisp visual quality that 1940s audiences got to experience.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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