' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Pigskin Parade

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Pigskin Parade

Long before - like, 55 years before - Paul Blake led upstart Texas State University to a memorable collegiate football upset, Texas State University pulled what was arguably an even more memorable collegiate football upset on the silver screen when they slayed the fire-breathing Yale dragon. "Pigskin Parade", a musical from 1936 centered around college football ("A capitalistic device of the exploitation of the masses fostered by meat packing barons to promote the sale of pigskin"), is both a cringe-inducing document of its time and something that more fascinatingly and quite possibly unwittingly looked ahead to a time that would become different and, yet, in many ways, remain the same.


The film opens on Yale's New Haven campus where the powers-that-be are attempting to select an opponent for their Armistice Day game. They want a credible opponent but not necessarily a good opponent. "What about Nebraska?" says one dude. (Hey! That's not funny! Why don't you schedule "us" now, you monocle wearing cuckolds?!) Eventually they settle on the University of Texas. Alas, through a stunningly avoidable bit of movie happenstance, they mistakenly invite Texas State University, bearing a team so down on its luck they have just hired a new coach Slug Winters (Jack Haley, who you likely recall as one Tin Man* in a itsy bitsy movie released 3 years later).

Winters arrives on campus with his wife Bessie (Patsy Kelly) just in time to learn his new team has set a game with mighty Yale. Gulp. But with a more than a little aid from his better half (more on this in a minute) he installs an offensive attack ahead of its time - imagine the Ol' Ball Coach's Florida Fun-n-Gun with rugby tendencies - with skilled Biff Bentley (Fred Kohler Jr.) at the controls. Double alas, Bentley suffers a serious injury weeks ahead of the Yale showdown and all hope looks lost - that is, until Texas State recruits an Arkansas hayseed, Amos Dodd (Stuart Erwin, who earned an Oscar nomination suggesting Oscar nominations didn't used to be all they are cracked up to be now), who can literally throw the ball a country mile? But will he have the necessary grades to qualify?! And even if he does, will a snowstorm - gasp! - prevent this decidedly southernly squad from pulling the upset of the century?!

Make no mistake, what I have just described accounts for about sixty minutes of "Pigskin Parade's" ninety minute run time. So what's the other thirty minutes, you ask? Why, musical numbers, of course! But this was no lavish MGM musical, mind you, this was Fox attempting to mimic an MGM musical with (too) much assistance from the Yacht Club Boys who keep popping up just when you didn't want to see them again ("Do we have time for one song?" they ask before the train taking them north is about to depart and, dang-nabbit, they do have time) to break the fourth wall and look right into the camera as they croon another watered-down diddy about one thing or another. The film also makes use of a young Judy Garland, on loan from MGM, who, God bless her, at least had a little more spunk than these boys from the Yacht Club.


More intriguing is the recruitment of ultra-talented but slow-witted Amos Dodd - that is, they use the unwitting but zealous new student Herbert Van Dyke (Elisha Cook Jr.) with the top-notch grades who - double gasp! - considers football a waste of a school's resources as the patsy in a scheme to get Dodd enrolled by assuming Van Dyke's identity. Thus, much like, say, the Texas A&M Aggies (whose 1936 uniforms were echoed in the uniforms of "Pigskin Parade's" Texas State) who in 1955, 1988 and 1994 were hit with NCAA recruiting violations or like a recent NBA MVP who may or "may not" have had someone else take the SAT for him, this just goes to show that illegality in collegiate sports is as eternal as ESPN and fans (like myself) turning a blind eye to it. If you have a problem with that, fine, no hard feelings, go donate your time to a more aboveboard cause like politics......wait a second......

But most intriguing is the relationship of Coach Winters and his wife Bessie. Did the six writers (yes, six) realize what they were doing? Probably not. They craft a marriage very much molded in the sexist stereotype of "All In The Family." Never does Coach Winters say "Why I oughta" while miming the threat of backhanding his wife but half the lines he says emit that very sensation. They bicker. They whine. They, frankly, seem to hate each other, yet failingly remain loyal to one another. And this is quite likely because "Pigskin Parade" does not hide the fact that Bessie might very well be the brains of this entire football operation.


She convinces her scaredy-cat husband not to quit when he learns they are playing Yale. She invents the forward(pass)-thinking strategy that takes Texas State to new heights. And while, yes, it she who, in fact, injures Biff Bentley, it she who discovers Amos Dodd and concocts the scheme to get him enrolled. And when the going gets tough during the Yale game and then the tough seems so insurmountable that her scaredy-cat husband literally passes out, it is she who designs and calls the final play that leads to victory (spoiler alert!). Were these six writers and director David Butler implementing sexist stereotypes specifically to subvert them? Uh, probably not. And if they weren't, that makes it even more fascinating, and makes me wonder...

Is Kathy Miles actually the one running things down in Baton Rouge?

*There is a scene where Bessie harshly advises her husband "You haven't got a brain either" and her husband sadly agrees. "I haven't got a brain," he says. Which is to say that, yes, 3 years before "The Wizard of Oz" the Tin Man was lamenting that he doesn't have a brain. Meta.

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