Posted by David Kalat on July 9, 2016
College students are coming to the Hotel Casa Del Mar–in pairs they come, two by two. It’s a veritable Noah’s Ark for young scholars. Why they have come is a matter of some debate, however. The new manager of the Casa Del Mar (Jack Benny) has told the coeds that they are going to be the summer entertainment for the hotel, a promotional gimmick to help rope in some tourists. And sure enough, he gets them to put on a show, full of elaborate song and dance numbers. But that’s just a ruse–the hotel’s deep in debt to a socialite (Mary Boland) with a fixation on using eugenics to engineer a new super-race, and the students are going to be her unwitting guinea pigs.
If that sounds like an unlikely and unwieldy premise for a 1930s comedy, it is already a superficial summary that glosses over such things as: Gracie Allen as Mary Boland’s allegedly psychic daughter, Ben Blue as a gangly dance-obsessed student, Martha Raye as a violent and virginal hayseed who defends her honor with knockout punches…
(Seriously–if I didn’t tell you, would you assume all these screen grabs came from the same movie?)
College Holiday is the scattershot thing that it is because it belongs to a subgenre of early talkie comedies that based their content and style on vaudeville and the variety-show performances that evolved out of that scene. Most of Jack Benny’s motion picture work fell into this category–and together with the same writers, production team, and co-stars of this film Benny would make a number of similar films including Artists and Models, Artists and Models Abroad, and The Big Broadcast of 1936. These films may posit a basic plot scenario, but largely eschew any narrative coherence in favor of draping a series of unconnected comedy scenes and musical numbers over the rough skeleton of the premise–building up to some elaborate “let’s put on a show” finale. In other words, these were the 1930s equivalents of sketch comedies.
In the case of College Holiday, however, there is a curious departure from form. Most of these vaudeville-inflected talkie comedies develop around fundamentally theatrical set-ups: a fashion show, a stage play, making a movie, or so on. Using a theatrical premise helped justify the frenetic anything-goes ethos of letting a bunch of talented, funny people wander in front of the camera and do their thing. College Holiday, by contrast, is built on the premise that a wealthy woman wants to selectively breed beautiful young people as a eugenics experiment.
At no point do the filmmakers feel compelled to define the term “eugenics,” and the script by JP McEvoy, Harlan Ware, Jay Gorney and Henry Myers makes frequent reference to various eugenic concepts then in vogue, confident the audience will catch the allusions. And of course, this is precisely why they felt so confident: at the time, eugenics was a popular and faddish idea. When Gracie Allen sets out to find the perfect model of Apollo, she does so by taking the measurements of every man she sees. The joke is that somehow, every measurement she takes miraculously comes out at the ideal number of “32;” the number “32″ refers to the waist size of Charles Atlas. The film never mentions Atlas, but it doesn’t need to. As “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” his measurements were widely known, and officially cataloged at the New York Public Library.
Eventually, Hitler’s Germany would put an entirely different face to the concept of eugenics, discrediting the idea forever. This film hails from a more innocent age. Around the time College Holiday was made, the popular press had spent many years of collective hand-wringing over the nation’s falling birthrate (which had dropped below the replacement level in the 1930s) and urging healthy, middle-class (and yes, white) adults to pair up and breed like rabbits to fix the problem.
Despite the cultural prevalence of these ideas, for the puritanical censors behind the Production Code, anything to do with eugencis was altogether too much to do about sex. Joseph Breen and Will Hays exchanged many telegrams between them, discussing the extent to which College Holiday‘s lightweight satire stayed on the “safe” side of this potentially problematic subject matter. In the end, their greatest concerns had to do with one of Gracie Allen’s big scenes, in which her increasingly orgasmic reactions to “vibrations” helped her decide which couples should pair off.
Surviving studio documentation does not indicate that Breen or Hayes had any censorial objections to Martha Raye’s performance of “Who’s That Knocking at My Heart.” For modern viewers, this sequence is controversial because Raye performs part of it in blackface.
Crucially, though, she performs part of the song in blackface makeup, and the rest without–alternating between them suddenly, as Ben Blue changes the lighting on her. As scholar Karen A. Keely notes, Raye’s character is a poor, rural girl with the name “Daisy Scholggenheimer.” She’s been scooped with the rest of the perfect human specimens in Mary Boland’s eugenics experiment, but she doesn’t seem to belong. Not only is she unladylike in her rowdiness, but now she appears to be perhaps biracial–capable of being either white or black but committing to neither. This is the sting in the tail of this satire on eugenics–our comedy heroes undermine the idea of a racially pure super-race by introducing subversive elements into the formula.
Gracie Allen finds her perfect Apollo–he’s George Burns, of course. That the wiry, weak, sarcastic George Burns is probably nobody’s idea of the prefect man is the whole point: he’s the one Gracie wants, and since everyone is a perfect “32″ she might as well go for the one she likes. <br><br>
College Holiday was produced for Adolf Zukor by Harlan Thompson, who turned to his old friend Frank Tuttle to direct. Tuttle was impressed by the “crazy-quilt plot” and “the greatest collection of comedians ever assembled on the Paramount lot.” In addition to Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, there’s Mary Boland, specialist in playing pixellated matronly women. Alongside Martha Raye and Ben Blue there were Spec O’Donnell and Mischa Auer in smaller supporting roles.
During production, Cecil B. Demille was escorting a VIP through the Paramount studios, and brought his important guest to the set of College Holiday. Tuttle overheard DeMille explaining with ostentatious grandeur how the cinematographer was lighting the set the way a painter works with paint. Unable to listen to such grandiose puffery any longer, Tuttle added, “What he is painting, sir, is Miss Gracie Allen smacking actors in the puss with marshmallows!”
Motion pictures were not the best medium for the comedy of Jack Benny. His film career faltered and sputtered, but on radio (and later television) he was one of the hottest performers of his generation. A savvy businessman, Benny leveraged his top-rated radio program to cross-promote his films. Between November 1936 and February 1937, he made frequent mention of College Holiday in his radio show, including featuring some of its songs.
College Holiday was never destined to be a critical favorite, but it didn’t need to be. It had some enormously popular comedians doing some topical, risque humor. As New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent admitted, the film benefitted from a “good-humored informality which protects the piece against too biting a review.” The film “demands nothing of the beholder but unlimited patience or an appetite for the ageless rudiments of vaudeville.” Fast forward 80 years or so, and the same still holds true.
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