The Arthur Freed MGM musical unit gives this 1927 musical remake the old College Try! It’s a vehicle for the wartime sweetheart June Allyson, aided by Peter Lawford, who is quite good if not real musical material. The fun original tunes are joined by a couple of new ones, including an all-time terrific song & dance number staged by Robert Alton and performed by the incredible Joan McCracken. The new restoration does wonders with the 1947 Technicolor and the WAC adds hilarious, eye-opening musical excerpts from the crazy 1930 early talkie version with Penny Singleton. Good news indeed. With Patricia Marshall, Mel Tormé and Tommy Rall.
Warner Archive Collection
1947 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 93 min. / Street Date January 26, 2021 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Joan McCracken, Patricia Marshall, Ray McDonald, Mel Tormé, Robert E. Strickland, Donald MacBride, Tom Dugan, Clinton Sundberg, Loren Tindall, Connie Gilchrist, Morris Ankrum, Tommy Rall, Jimmy Thompson.
Cinematography: Charles Schoenbaum
Film Editor: Albert Akst
Dance director: Robert Alton
Songs by: Ralph Blane, Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, Roger Edens, Ray Henderson, Hugh Martin
Written by Adolph Green, Betty Comden from the musical play by Lew Brown, Lawrence Schwab, Frank Mandel, B.G. DeSylva, Ray Henderson
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed by Charles Walters
What price nostalgia? When I screened American Graffiti for some folk more than half my age, I found that they didn’t at all relate to the teen rites and rituals that seemed so absolutely correct for my generation. Well, the world depicted in Graffiti is now sixty years in the past, not eleven. When MGM revisited an early talkie musical comedy from a smash Broadway success, the time frame depicted was only twenty years old.
But the world changed enormously in those two decades, with the Great Depression and a World War placing the Roaring Twenties way back in the dark ages, relatively speaking. In the 1920s attending college was just becoming something that kids below upper Middle Class might reasonably aspire to do, if private college was mostly still for the genuinely entitled. What more success could a nation have, than making higher education available to more of its children? Broadway and the movies of course were quick to glamorize ‘College Life’ as a Utopia of healthy values — plus singing, dancing and illegal alcohol.
The 1927 stage hit Good News became an all talking / singing / dancing MGM musical in 1930. Almost forgotten now, the college musical subgenre was a mainstay of Hollywood filming even before sound came in. Although modern audiences are likely not to understand, college musicals were meant to be free-for-all parodies of themselves. The stock situations and rituals were rigidly observed: will the football hero pass a critical class, and be allowed to play in the big game? The liveliest examples arrived in the middle thirties, where one might find Joe E. Brown (of the BIG mouth) carrying on. Brown was still attending UCLA football games in the early 1970s, and clowning and waving in the bleachers. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz may have first met on an RKO college musical. One big star that came out of the craze was Martha Raye, an endearing loudmouthed ditz who sang and danced up a storm.
MGM’s revival of the musical Good News is big, loud and nostalgic. The original score by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson was augmented with three new songs including ‘Pass That Peace Pipe’ by Martin & Blaine, which ended up being nominated for an Oscar. The screenplay was rewritten by Comden and Green, their first assignment in a string of hits that would lead to Singin’ in the Rain five years later. It was also the first directorial job of Charles Walters, a dancer who worked his way through choreographer to dance director before being given this break by producer Arthur Freed.
We’re told that the Good News remake was originally prepared for Garland and Rooney, to be an extension of their unofficial series of backyard musicals. A synopsis is hardly necessary. Tait college co-ed Connie Lane (June Allyson) falls for football star Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) while helping him pass his French class, in order to (sigh) play in The Big Game. Tommy’s outgoing main squeeze, the sultry Pat McClellan (Patricia Marshall), schemes to keep her man but is no match for Connie’s sweet puritan allure. With enough songs, dances and wholesome smiles, all turns out fine.
Good News was a big hit for MGM in 1947. That year was the apex of movie attendance, where there seemed to be no end to the hopes for postwar prosperity. This was the film that cemented June Allyson as an enduring star: bright & smiling with crinkly eyes and a husky voice, people thought she was the cutest thing in crinoline. She’d keep the iron virgin persona going for at least ten more years of successful movies — dramatic pictures, mostly, holding up the Cold-War front as the dutiful wife of James Stewart. Not a great singer but a reasonable dancer, Allyson survived by sheer personality. She tried for a comeback in a late ’50s musical, a remake of The Women called The Opposite Sex. But one year later what remained was mostly supporting roles and TV.
MGM’s wet mop prettyboy Peter Lawford also came out of the war years. He’s at his most charming here in the college hunk role, dancing equally as well as Allyson. Most everyone else is just campus context. Patricia Marshall has the definitive thankless role. Her Pat McClellan is a brunette to Allyson’s blonde, so never poses a competitive romantic threat. The fine singer Mel Tormé is in for a single song and reportedly gained a boost in popularity. Tormé appeared in movies for twenty years but even when he did reasonably well the timing and mood were never right to angle him toward film stardom.
A conviction that June Allyson is the cutest thing on earth is a big help when watching Good News. If anything the story development is a bit on the dull side, without many big laughs or really strong characters. Tait College is a magazine photo-layout fantasy where every girl is an MGM starlet in a perfect color-coded dress. The boys drive modest and shiny hot rods. Since everyone seems to be about 28 or so, it’s a wonder how the ‘youth’ of 1947 related to it unless colleges really were stuffed with older veterans on the G.I. Bill. There aren’t that many songs, and among them there are only two production numbers of any consequence — but those two are killers.
‘The Varsity Drag’ swings with a feeling of epic college spirit. The snappy delivery by Allyson (nice legs) make the song’s enthusiasm infectious, and we are won over long before the number grows into a hundred spinning dancers moving in tight patterns on the basketball court. We’re told to look for a couple of dance flubs during the trumpet break in the song, but I never seem to catch them — Robert Alton’s choreography is like a finely tuned dance machine. Although Allyson’s singing voice is an excellent match ( it has the same slight rasp) we’re told that singer Pat Hyatt was her uncredited singing double. Hyatt performed uncredited in a score of films, and reportedly sang for Allyson in her first film, Two Girls and a Sailor … perhaps Hyatt got involved to hit certain notes that Allyson couldn’t? I will risk to presume that Allyson sang ‘The Best Things in Life are Free’ for herself — and there’s no denying that she exudes positive personality.
Why am I so cautious about June Allyson? The co-ed brides of 1947 became the mothers of the daughters I dated twenty years later … and still had cheerleader spirit to go with their protective mama bear instincts. They often talked much more than my dates did, with prying games of twenty questions…
The second main dance number ‘Pass That Peace Pipe’ is even better, and one of this viewer’s favorite dance sequences of all time. It features Joan McCracken, who in the rest of the film mostly waits in the margins and offers occasional comedy relief. McCracken is the best thing in the picture and it’s a crying shame she didn’t work more. There’s real life in her eyes, which communicate an ‘I know what you’re thinking’ look better than even Bettie Page. James Agee thought Good News would have been better with the old 1930 song arrangements, but also fell into a spell over the film’s star dancer: “Joan McCracken makes me think of a libidinous peanut.” That’s a baroque compliment if ever there was one.
Anyway, for ‘Pass That Peace Pipe’ the live wire McCracken is at the frenetic center of at least thirty dancers, in a malt shoppe too small to hold half that many. The choreography constantly shifts into new patterns of movement syncopated to McCracken’s wild gyrations; it’s a delight to watch. The camera catches a riot of color and geometry — McCracken wears bright angled stripes & the floor is a checkerboard. During a drum solo a Power Truck down the soda fountain crackles as a new sundae is slammed onto the counter with every beat. Kicking, stretching and spinning, the dancers are in such a tight formation on the floor that it’s a wonder they aren’t putting each other’s eyes out. Savant doesn’t consider himself a fine connoiseur of music or dance, but this explosion of talent makes up for any deficiencies in the rest of the show.
The only drawback is that the ‘Indian’- based theme — lyrics, motions and funny tribal names — almost certainly make the song questionable in these PC days, maybe even cancellable. I sincerely hope not.
It’s hard to believe that Joan McCracken was only 5’1″ tall. I’m not given any explanation for the brevity of her screen career, but am told that she was married for a time to Bob Fosse. She died at the young age of 43 from medical issues that modern medicine might have easily managed. Some say that Jessica Lange’s character in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is based on McCracken.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Good News is one of a happy batch of desirable musical restorations arriving in the last couple of months, with more to come. The brilliant new scan renders the color more accurately than the not-bad DVD from 2001. Reds were overly boosted in that earlier transfer, with the result that red zigzag stripes on Joan McCracken’s dance costume sometimes seemed to be floating in space. Everything is sharp and detailed here, from the texture of clothing to Joan’s freckled complexion.
The main extra is the deleted musical number ‘An Easier Way’, another song added for the movie but then dropped. Back in 1999 and 2000 I helped a Warner Home Video producer edit five or six ‘orphaned’ musical numbers that existed only as raw dailies and playback audio recordings. Figuring out how to edit them together was wonderful — and we could boast of ‘finishing’ work by Charles Walters and Vincente Minnelli. A trailer and a radio promo are included as well.
Especially fun are two musical excerpts from the 1930 early talkie version, ‘Good News’ and ‘Varsity Drag’. I’m beholden to correspondent Doug Bull for identifying some of the talent on view:
“The supercharged frenetic singer & dancer in both numbers is indeed Penny Singleton of later Blondie fame, then performing under the name Dorothy McNulty. The male dancer with the crazy leg movements is Al ‘Rubberlegs’ Norman. The old laserdisc Dawn of Sound Volume 2 features more excerpts from the original Good News including a brief number from Cliff Edwards and a comic song & dance from Bessie Love and Gus Shy, the only cast member from the original Broadway production. The insipid leads playing the Allyson & Lawford roles at the beginning of the ‘Good News’ clip are Mary Lawlor and Stanley Smith. Cliff Edwards, Bessie Love, and Delmer Daves are in the movie but nowhere to be seen on the Blu-ray excerpts.”
Penny Singleton is simply indescribable, an hilarious cross between Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. All Savant can say is that comedy styles have come a long way since then. Her long-legged, purposely (?) awkward dancing steps are surely surely authentic, but some of them look as if she’s trying to wring out her skirt, or pound out a cramp in her foot. The ‘Rubberlegs’ guy is also a show-stopping sensation, a deadpan clown whose legs and body seem to be bending like boneless rubber.
Doug Bull also informed me that Joan McCracken began as a ballet dancer and was in the original Broadway show of Oklahoma! She understudied Celeste Holm’s Ado Annie and later took over that role when Celeste Holm left the cast. Joan had problems with diabetes all of her life — treatments for the disorder had not yet been developed.
Literally every available image from Good News appears to be a frame grab — the new Blu-ray looks far, far better than any of the graphics seen here.
Written with assistance from correspondent Doug Bull, January 29 2001.
Supplements: Deleted musical number, Radio promo, trailer, two excerpts from the 1930 talkie version (see above).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 8, 2021
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson