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Monday, December 19, 2016

Saturday's Heroes: A college football 'dramedy' from 1937

Saturday's Heroes is an odd little film.  It's one of those that, if not for Turner Classic Movies, zero people living today would have ever seen, instead of the 20 that have.  I am one of those 20.  It was the first film showing on star Van Heflin's birthday lineup on TCM last Wednesday and while I didn't catch it live at 6:15 AM, the handy DVR saved it for me.  While there are a number of reasons it's odd, which I'll get to, it illustrates why watching old films is so fun for me -- it's a snapshot of another time, that, while having certain things in common with today (the obsession America has with football, and college football in particular), it's so quaint in showing all that is changed -- from the uniforms, the way the game is played, the press, and simply how Hollywood chose to portray American culture of the time.
College Football is serious business.
This film was released in 1937 by RKO Studios as clearly a 'B' picture, as demonstrated by its 60 minute running time and the use of relative as-of-yet unknown, Heflin, as the star.  Directed by journeyman Edward Killy, it tells the story of how Val Webster (Heflin), the star quarterback of fictional 'Calton U.', struggles with how universities abuse their players by underpaying them to make money off the sport, and ultimately takes a stand with the help of a sympathetic sports editor (Richard Lane) of the local paper.  There is also the requisite romance, on-again-off-again with lovely Marian Marsh, conveniently the daughter of Calton's head coach.

Frank Jenks as Dubrowsky
For a film that attempts to deal seriously with a serious subject, incorporating into the narrative no less than a suicide of a character, the tone is inexplicably lightened frequently by the use of a number of running gags:  1) The football star and the sports editor repeatedly threaten to knock each other out, and sometimes do; 2) Alliterative insults -- "why you dirty double crossing double dealing descendant of a dipsomaniac!"... "you pusillanimous piece of painted poison!" 3) The character of football pal Dubrowsky, portrayed by Frank Jenks, whose eye-popping mugs for the camera and an extended sequence making deluxe banana splits would seem spliced in from another movie if there weren't these other slapstick elements; 4) Silent comic and Buster Keaton pal Al St. John appearing as a slightly 'touched' water boy with a handle bar mustache.
Heflin & Al St. John discuss the big game.
Heflin, as usual, is reliably good and while a bit older (29) than a college student he has the build of a quarterback and looks comfortable in sports attire.  Marian Marsh doesn't have much more to do than wander in and out of scenes and spar with Heflin, while uttering lines like "I hope this means you aren't going to get into another mess!", but she's an agreeable and lovely presence with a certain degree of spunk. We know she and Heflin will eventually work things out.  Because, after all, she is willing to take a back seat to his career, and adjust his equipment (!)
Heflin & Marsh
The football scenes seem to be staged amateurishly, and guys on the field rib each other about their attire (Really? Does this happen?) while the game is on the line.  Considering the small town aesthetic of the film's scenarios, the camera panning over enormous crowds of fans in the stadium is disorienting. Ultimately the plot wraps up too nicely by Webster defecting to another university, by sheer force of personality convincing their administration to treat their players more honestly, and proves the value of that by coaching their team to win one game -- against his old team.  Somehow, no one from Calton U realizes he's even there, much less the driving force behind their defeat.
Heflin and Lane in one of their episodes of fisticuffs
The film was presumably meant to be a statement against these questionable practices.  And football was a topic of controversy as early as the 1930s, if not earlier.  As Frank Nugent pointed out in his NY Times review of the film, "College football pictures hardly ever vary by so much as one esthetic milligram in either plot or intellectual weight from year to year, and another thing which binds them together with a certain timelessness is the way all of them are tinged with a rather melancholy note of cynicism and disillusionment concerning college football. This probably means that there is some truth to the rumor that commercialism is rampant in the athletic departments of our higher educational institutions."
The stadium for the big game: Calton U. vs. Weston U.
All in all, this film succeeds at the most basic purpose of the movies -- to entertain.  It had a bit of everything: classic Americana, a romance, a point of view, and low-brow comedy with a happy ending wrapped up in a tidy hour.  Heflin labored for a few years at RKO at the beginning of his movie career, but according to his biographer (Derek Sculthorpe, Van Heflin: A Life in Film), became frustrated at the parts he was assigned in mostly B pictures, and took a break from film not long after Saturday's Heroes to go back on the stage -- playing Macaulay Connor in an extended run of  'The Philadelphia Story' opposite Katharine Hepburn and Joseph Cotten.  He eventually made it back to Hollywood, getting better and better parts until his stardom was secured.  Despite her auspicious beginning in the early 1930s, by Saturday's Heroes Marian Marsh's career years were behind her, as she drifted away from acting, making only the occasional appearance.

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