' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Over the Goal (1937)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Over the Goal (1937)

Each autumnal Saturday afternoon, college football as a game takes center stage. Nothing is more glorious. And yet, the lead-up to that game is often fraught with misadventure. That misadventure comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be related to a star athlete’s recruitment or to the wooing of a particular coach or to an entire university and state governor run amok. (It can also have to do with entities like your friendly neighborhood Tallahassee Police Department. “We’re ready to believe you.”) There can be so many antics, in fact, that they are often worthy of a screwball movie. Yet modern day college football movies often prefer being solemn to points beyond all reason, whether it’s the sanctimonious golden domed flimflam of “Rudy” or the Sports Movie revisionist history of “The Express.” So perhaps it makes sense that to find a college football film truly doing before-game misadventure justice we must harken back to the Golden Age and director Noel M. Smith’s “Over the Goal.”

At barely over an hour, “Over the Goal” is rapid fire ridiculousness. It moves so quick it covers three years in about three minutes to open the film. Carlton College is down in the dumps, road kill for its mighty rival State, much to the chagrin of a loyal alumnus, sort of the T. Boone Pickens of ol’ Carlton who has an expensive wager with a State alum he keeps losing year after year. But through some backroom schemes, he gets an instant superstar, Ken Thomas (William Hopper), enrolled at his alma mater and voila! Carlton rips off two wins in two years. That third year, though, the loyal alumnus kicks the bucket and when he does it turns out that he’s left his entire fortune to Carlton provided they vanquish State three years in a row. And that’s where “Over the Goal” makes the jump to light speed, in advance of Game 3 with one heir’s fortune all on the line.

It’s no secret, of course, that boosters essentially run college football programs, feeding them money, sending them recruits and consequently getting their say. And so there is something particularly refreshing about this extremely old fashioned movie admitting that victory in the Big Game revolves not around any kind of athletic valor but in claiming monetary compensation. Carlton itself, it turns out, has fallen on hard times and to survive needs this cash infusion or else.

Of course, victory isn’t quite so assured. Ken Thomas, we learn, has sustained a significant injury and his doctor advises him not play. Ken’s on the fence, so the doctor convinces his daughter Lucille, who just happens to be dating Ken, to convince the gridiron hero to sit out the State game. Women-Be-Trippin’! But Ken won’t tell his coach that Lucille’s the reason why he’s sitting out and so the coach naturally assumes that Ken wants the alum’s fortune to go back to the family since Ken and the alum share a distant relative. And so coach enlists Ken’s roommate and the team’s water boy, a prankster named Tiny, to convince Ken otherwise.

I’m just describing plot, I know, but that’s what this movie is, yards and yards of plot, going, going, going. Its foremost subplot, adding music and pigskin-less comedy for the less gridiron-obsessed members of the audience, involves Tiny’s comical plight to steal State’s mascot, a real life bear. Hilarity ensues! And singing! After all, Johnnie Davis, who played Tiny, was a scat singer and you don’t cast a scat singer without letting him scat, even if is scat leaves a little something to be desired. You know Cab Calloway could’ve out-scatted him on a half-hour’s rest. Not unlike how you can tell that Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, portraying the bear’s handler, and his pre-“Gone with the Wind” Hattie McDaniel, playing his put-upon wife, clearly possess better comic timing than Davis or Hopper or any of the rest of ‘em and are nonetheless relegated to smaller and far more insulting roles.

That was the time, and all that rubbish, and their presence reminds us that even as baseball was clouded by an infamous color war, college football was less famously beset with the same plague. Jay Berwanger won the Heisman Trophy, sure, but Otis Troupe was at least his equal if not his better. Troupe was probably better than Ken Thomas too. And as for Thomas’s injury, well hell, what’s that got to do with the price of stadium parking? The player’s the thing, see, and “Over the Goal” reckons that so long as you get your star athlete in the game by any means necessary, you’ve done your job. He takes the field, wins the game and dear old Carlton gets the moolah to keep on keeping on. Whether or not he sees any of it, the movie never says. He probably doesn’t. He’s done his non-paying job, after all, and the booster, from beyond the grave, becomes the savior. Somewhere, Sherwood Blount smiles.

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