' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Saturday's Heroes (1937)

Friday, September 04, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Saturday's Heroes (1937)

“Saturday’s Heroes” opens with a couple folks trying to buy tickets to the big Calton college football game only to find they are all sold out. Not to worry as an unscrupulous scalper with a suitably thin mustache immediately approaches and offers them a couple tickets at an extraordinarily higher price. Nevertheless, these eager fans accept, and in the next scene we see with whom the unscrupulous scalper is in league: none other than Val Webster (Van Heflin), star quarterback of the Calton team! Egads! Not that it matters, really, since we see his coach, Doc Thomas (Minor Watson), see his star with the scalper and shrug it off as just one of those things while the puffed up news reporter, Red Watson (Richard Lane), hanging around promises Val more problems with what he puts in print about the cock of walk’s quarterbacking than these sorts of pesky illegalities. These interconnected opening scenes deftly set up college football’s ecosystem, then and now, revolving around a big game generating a pretty profit that doesn’t go to the players, causing them to find other ways to get their share of the pie, while the media – pardon me, The Media™ – wields influence over the whole ethically questionable stew. Rather than continuing along this track, however, dramatically rendering the game’s corruption and transgression to lay it all bare, director Edward Killy and his trio of writers combine a pronounced anti-pigskin PSA in the manner of so many 1930s anti-reefer films (don’t play college football, kids!) with elements of a lighthearted college football comedy also emblematic of the era. If the result is short, running not quite an hour, “Saturday’s Heroes” still feels both ham-handed and leaden.

In his early scenes, Val has a cocky gleam in his eye, getting his, selfish and proud of it. This selfishness does not go unnoticed by Red, who writes it up in the papers, leading to a fistfight between reporter and player, the glory days when such disagreements were settled by fists rather than Tweets. Val, of course, must get called on the carpet for his sins and so he does, both by his girlfriend, Frances (Marian Marsh), and his friend, Ted (John Arledge), two relationships evocative of the tonal split in the movie. The former tries to impress upon him the need for working hard to get by rather than scamming the system; she is also the coach’s daughter, setting up rom com machinations that never take flight. (It also made me envision an alternate universe where ex-Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron dated Kristen Saban instead of Katherine Webb.) Ted, on the other hand, is a sadsack, pressed into service against his wishes as a ringer for another college football team, found out and then left to take the fall himself. He commits suicide, which feels slightly at odds not just with Val and Frances’s will they/won’t they but with the dumb comedy on the side, like Val’s slow-witted teammate repeatedly suffering as the butt of semi-funny jokes.

“Saturday’s Heroes” might have worked better by carving out time to see Ted’s story. As it is, he’s hardly in the movie, just a tragic martyr invented to get offed so Val has some inspiration to go on the offensive. Likewise, Frances is mostly just a scold, there to stand in the way or help him along, inadvertently underlining the notion that Val puts himself on a pedestal; he’s the only character the movie really sees. Though Heflin excels in his moments of smug justification, the two-dimensional screenplay hems him in as he becomes a crusader, never quite able to let his dueling qualities properly bleed into one another. What’s more, his character’s scheme for exposing the system’s corruption is to get a role coaching another team, all leading to a showdown on the field, allowing “Saturday’s Heroes” to end with a big game even as it ostensibly calls out the game’s hypocrisies, hypocrisy in and of itself, perhaps a fitting end for a movie about a sport that can never reconcile its own failings.

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