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:

Puttin’ On The Ritz: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (20th Century Fox 1939)

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The cult of the Three Stooges is as strong as ever. The Marx Brothers are studied in universities as artists. Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” fan club grows daily. Yet the modern world ignores the Ritz Brothers, and that’s a downright shame. Harry, Jimmy, and Al Ritz were multi-talented comic anarchists who  influenced a generation of funnymen from Mel Brooks to Jerry Lewis. Signed to a 20th Century-Fox contract in 1936, they lent support to big budget musicals like ONE IN A MILLION and ON THE AVENUE before being cast in a series of starring comedy vehicles highlighting their rapid-fire banter, madcap musical routines, and slapstick humor. They’re at their best in THE THREE MUSKETEERS, a musical comedy take on the Alexandre Dumas classic with Don Ameche as the dashing D’Artagnon.

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The Ritzes are three dumb clucks who we meet plucking chickens at the Coq D’Or Tavern in Paris. Brash young D’Artagnon, a new recruit in the King’s Musketeers, has summoned veterans Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to duel with him and prove his mettle. The Musketeers arrive early, and wind up losing a drinking contest to the Ritzes. The brothers put the Musketeers to bed and don their uniforms to impress some damsels when D’Artagnon comes in. Mistaking the Ritzes for the real thing, the four end up battling Cardinal Richeleau’s guardsmen, then get entangled in a political plot involving royal court intrigue, romance, and plenty of swordplay interspersed with wacky Ritz bits and songs like “Voila”, “Milady”, “Song of the Musketeers”, and of course “Chicken Soup (the Plucking Song)”.

The Ritz Brothers handle all the comedy, and their slapstick shenanigans and precision dances are letter-perfect. Harry Ritz could mug with the best of them, and Jimmy and Al are equally silly. Their cymbal routine while trying to cover for D’Artagnon is a masterpiece of comic timing:

Ameche is fun as D’Artagnon, cutting a handsome figure and wooing lovely Pauline Moore (Lady Constance). Villainy is taken care of by none other than Lionel Atwill (DeRouchefort), aided and abetted by Miles Mander (Cardinal Richeleau) and Binnie Barnes (Lady DeWinter). Joseph Schildkraut, Oscar winner for 1937’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, stands in as King Louis XIII, with Gloria Stuart a fetching Queen Anne. The Familiar Face Brigade in this one includes John Carradine, Douglas Dumbrille, Lester Matthews, and Gino Corrado. Alan Dwan had been directing movies since 1911, and kept steady at it for the next fifty years, amassing an impressive list of credits. He’s in fine form guiding the Ritz Brothers through their frenetic paces, as he also did in that year’s THE GORILLA. Some of his more popular films were the Shirley Temple REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, SANDS OF IWO JIMA (with John Wayne), and the feminist Western CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA.

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The Ritz Brothers films went downhill after this, with Fox’s B-unit producer Sol Wurtzel taking charge of their careers, causing Harry to quip, “Things have gone from bad to Wurtzel”. They left the studio and moved on to Universal, where the quality of their films did not improve. Leaving Hollywood behind in the mid-40’s, the boys became headliners in Las Vegas and nightclubs across the country. Their impeccable timing, incorporating music and dancing into their slapstick repertoire, kept the Ritzes active until Al’s death in 1965. Harry and Jimmy made a last appearance together in Al Adamson’s sex farce BLAZING STEWARDESSES. Harry, who was considered a genius by his peers, did a cameo in the Mel Brooks comedy SILENT MOVIE. He died in 1986, a year after brother Jimmy. The Ritz Brothers are gone, but their creativity shouldn’t be left to rot away in dusty film cans. The zany trio deserves to be rediscovered by lovers of slapstick humor, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS is a good place to start.