Campus Kooks: The Ritz Brothers in LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE (20th Century Fox 1937)


I haven’t posted anything on The Ritz Brothers since January of 2016 , so when TCM aired a trio of their films this weekend, I chose to review what I consider their best solo effort, 1937’s LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE. This was their first name-above-the-title movie, and features Harry, Jimmy, and Al at their zaniest, with the added bonus of comedienne Joan Davis as a kooky coed with her sights on Native American football hero Nat Pendleton.

Collegiate musical comedies were a popular sub-genre in the 30’s: COLLEGE HUMOR, PIGSKIN PARADE, COLLEGE SWING, COLLEGE HOLIDAY, et al, so it seemed the perfect milieu for the Ritzes to showcase their peculiar brand of nuttiness. The story is typical campus corniness, as George “Little Black Cloud” Black arrives at Lombardy College (crashing his motorcycle for an entrance) wanting to join the football team, and immediately developing a rivalry with football team captain Bob. There’s Coach O’Hara, in danger of losing his job after three losing seasons, and his daughter Janet, a love triangle with Janet, Bob, and Southern belle Cuddles, and of course the Big Game against Midwestern, where it’s revealed George is ineligible to play because of his pro past.

However, the plot is strictly secondary to the Ritz lunacy. They’re a trio of tailors who’ve been working their way through college for seven years, without much success (they’re lousy tailors!). They befriend George, who suffered a hazing by Bob and his jock friends early on, and find out the kid’s loaded (Oklahoma oil wells), which he doesn’t want the other students to know about. The brothers act as a “front” and give the dean a huge endowment ( driving him crazy in the process!), with the provision that Coach keeps his job and they get to play on the team (they’ve been sitting on the bench those seven years!). This is all an excuse for the boys to show off their precision timing in some nonsensical song-and-dance routines (a hilarious ‘Latin’ number with Harry in drag, an ‘Indian’ number with them as not-so-brave braves, the fan favorite ‘Spirit of ’76’), and the physical and verbal clowning that made other comedians green with envy! Of course, they get into the Big Game in the final two minutes, and almost blow it before making one of the most ridiculous winning touchdowns in the history of these college football moves!

Gloria Stuart  makes a pleasing Janet, and even gets to sing “Why Talk About Love?” (though I think she’s dubbed), but Dick Baldwin as Bob is dull as a butter knife. Nat Pendleton talkum like Tonto as George, but his comic timing is solid and he’s believable as an athlete (he won a Silver Medal in wrestling at the 1920 Olympics). Joan Davis was a fine clown in her own right, and performs a solo number highlighting her limber slapstick moves. Tony Martin’s on hand as a band leader, though he doesn’t get to do much except introduce the tune “Sweet Varsity Sue”. Veteran Fred Stone is the Coach, and among the Familiar Faces you’ll find two very young actors: a pre-noir Elisha Cook Jr. as the team manager, and a pre-horror Lon Chaney Jr. as one of the football players!

But LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE is all about The Ritz Brothers, and as you watch, you’ll find out where comics like Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, and Jerry Lewis learned their schticks. No less than Mel Brooks called Harry Ritz “the funniest man ever” – high praise coming from a comic genius like Mel! If you’ve never experienced the comedy of The Ritz Brothers, this film’s a good place to start. OR…. you can start here, with this rare clip of Harry, Jimmy, and Al’s appearance on the 1961 TV series JACKPOT BOWLING, hosted by another of their admirers, Milton Berle:

Halloween Havoc!: Abbott & Costello in HOLD THAT GHOST (Universal 1941)

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Before they met Frankenstein, The Mummy, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first foray into scary territory in 1941’s HOLD THAT GHOST. This was the boys’ third released film that year, and one of the team’s all-around best. Bud and Lou are two relief waiters at a swanky nightclub (is there any other kind in theses 40s flicks?). Ted Lewis (“Is everybody happy?”) and his orchestra provide the entertainment, along with singing sensations The Andrews Sisters. Of course the boys get fired because of Lou’s bumbling, and return to their regular jobs as gas pump jockeys. Along comes gangster Moose Matson, and clumsy Lou accidentally fires a gun he finds in Matson’s back seat. This gets the cops attention, and they chase down Matson with Bud and Lou in tow. Matson is killed by the police and, according to his will, the boys (being “the last people with me when I die”)  inherit his roadhouse, the Forrester’s Club.

Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.
Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.

Crooked lawyer Bannister and his associate Charlie Smith are trying to get ahold of Matson’s hidden loot. They set Bud and Lou up with a ride from a disreputable bus service. But the greedy driver books some other fares,including professional radio “screamer” Camille Brewster, pretty young Norma Lind, and nerdy scientist Dr. Jackson. The driver strands them all at the Forrester’s Club, a spooky, cobweb-infested, rundown hotel. That’s when the fun begins, as they encounter dead bodies, hidden rooms, clutching hands, and the usual things one finds in “old, dark house” movies. The boys end up finding the hidden money and chase off the villians. Dr. Jackson discovers the waters at the roadhouse have “miraculous therapeutic powers”, and the duo turn the old place into their own swanky nightclub, complete with Ted Lewis and company. The Andrews Sisters swing out to their hit “Aurora” and ‘everybody’s happy’ at the end.

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Abbott and Costello were at their peak in this entry, and their incredible wordplay still astounds me. I especially enjoyed the “figure of speech” routine, aided by funny girl Joan Davis (Camille). Davis, a veteran of radio and vaudeville, more then holds her own with Lou in the slapstick department, almost stealing the film. Their comic dance sequence is hysterical, as is the old “moving candle” routine (later reprised in ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, on top of Dracula’s coffin). Joan Davis went on to star in the early 50s television sitcom I MARRIED JOAN, and passed away in 1961.

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A Universal cast is worth repeating, and this film’s no exception. The studio’s resident “Scream Queen” Evelyn Ankers plays Norma, and shows a comedic side not usually seen in her fright films. Richard Carlson (Dr. Jackson) was just beginning his picture career, which would take him to sci-fi fame in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and It Came From Outer Space. Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, Marc Lawrence, Milton Parsons, and Thurston Hall all add to the fun. The animated title sequence may (or may not) be by “Woody Woodpecker” creator Walter Lantz (I can’t find any info on this….does anyone out there know?). HOLD THAT GHOST holds its own in the spooky deserted house creepstakes and it’s a funny showcase for stars Abbott & Costello and comedienne Joan Davis. Watch it with the kids this Halloween!!

And now here’s a link to The Andrews Sisters singing their hit song “Aurora”!!

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