' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: College Coach (1933)

Friday, September 06, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: College Coach (1933)

To get things off to a low key start I will simply say that "College Coach" is the best film about college football I have ever seen. And it is important to note that I say this as a devout patron of collegiate football, someone who believes it to be the single greatest sport on this here Earth. Is it "dated"? Well, sure. It was made eighty years ago. It's got that rat-a-tat-tat dialogue favored by the times in spades. The action on the gridiron is filmed via hand crank camera which gives it that in-fast-forward sensation.

It also possesses more bite and satire than the majority of jejune mush posing as lampoonery in this day and age. The final scene, scored to the sounds of the film's fictional college's fight song, is as strong a shot across the bow as anything the famed irritant Charles Pierce has ever written about the grandest game.


College, after all, is nothing more than a business, and business at Calvert University is on the verge of bankruptcy. Thus, the President and his faithful board hatch a scheme. They will bring in the best college football coach in the country, James Gore (Pat O'Brien), to punch up their hapless squad, turn them into champions and thereby draw massive crowds that will help fund a new stadium that will draw even more massive crowds and go from spiraling debt to soaring profit.

Gore, however, is sort of like a Depression-era Urban Meyer. He plays the part for the press really well and says all the right things. "It's not the score that counts, but the spirt in which you play the game." Heck, he seems so upstanding he is named Grand Woodcraft Chief of the Campfire Boys Of America. Not even Pop Warner earned that honor, one of his sycophants tells him.

But Gore is less a football strategist than a strong-armed, button-pushing con artist. He imports several players from his previous squad, like Buck Weaver (Lyle Talbot), who plays the football real, real good but can't make the grade. It doesn't matter if he can't make the grade, naturally, because Gore simply ensures everyone makes the grade by assigning them majors like "Aesthetics" (the Underwater Basket Weaving of '33) and forcing powerless Professors to present passing grades even if the players hand in completely blank sheets of paper. (Ah, college. Don't change, you.)

This doesn't sit well with the team's captain, Phil Sargeant (Dick Powell), son of the University President, who came to school to play football and learn Chemistry. If football is to be his overlord, he won't play. This is apparently problematic for the squad's chances, though I have no idea why since it is explicitly referenced that the three previous Calvert teams - for whom Sargeant would have played - did not win a game. But no matter.

"College Coach" is the perfect college football movie because it does not compromise. College football coaches merely compromise their public recitations of playing the right way all the time while not really compromising their true core values at all - core values which boil down to the word winning.

And that's the only lesson that "College Coach" imparts in the end - winning cures all ills. Oh, the lesson is presented in that classic aw-shucks manner of the Golden Age, but read between the lines and this movie is wicked through and through. The coach's wife (Ann Dvorak) wants her husband home more regularly, away from the game more often, acting like a real husband. Until poor play threatens job loss and financial trouble at which point she is willing to roll up her sleeves and get just as nefarious as the next guy. Sargeant's chemistry professor stands for all that is good and righteous with the University. Until he is on the verge of losing his job at which point he'll willingly pass a dunce with a zero IQ and root, root for dear old Calvert.

Why an opposing player even dies on account of an injury sustained via Coach Gore's mean-spirited (if admittedly successful) halftime order. That might seem melodramatic until you consider that deaths from football injuries in the 1930's was still very much a real thing. The film just sort of glosses over it without so much as a staged apology from the Coach.

You keep expecting the movie to finally cop out, to finally concede to a mandated lessons, right up 'til the very end when it comes so damn close to doing just that and then.....doesn't.

Tom Osborne, former head coach of my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers, titled his first autobiography "More Than Winning." And it's not inaccurate. There is totally more than winning. Like, you know, money and greener pastures.

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