Comedy Oddities: College Swing aka Swing, Teacher, Swing

college swing indexA musical from Raoul Walsh that Preston Sturges did a bit of uncredited work on, College Swing doesn’t really have much of a narrative, there is a vague storyline involving a young woman cheating on an exam and so becoming the new owner of a university who hires a number of normally quite rubbish teachers, but it’s mostly just an excuse to throw some sketches and songs together involving Bob Hope, George Burns, Betty Grable and Gracie Allen.

The quality is highly uneven throughout the film, though it does at least start strongly with a scene set two hundred odd years ago with the old school song being suddenly sung in a jazzy manner much to the horror of one of the teachers, who exclaims “What devilish invention is this?”. After what passes for a plot is set up we’re suddenly in the present day, and get to hear the title song, which amusingly contains the lyrics “Teacher, Teacher, show this stupid creature” at one point but elsewhere is only mildly entertaining.

Then there’s a sequence with Bob Hope where he mocks Gracie Allen and goes on and on about how stupid she is, all of which is a bit mean and not that funny, before he persuades her to cheat in a forthcoming exam. But just as you think the storyline is about to kick in we’re off for some daftness with a college initiation stunt which involves making Mr Martin Bates (John Payne) dress as cupid and singing to a girl, Ginna Ashburn (Florence George), which contains lines like “You hoo hoo come out for a stroll in lover’s lane”, and at one point becomes a duet until mean old Dean Sleet (Cecil Cunningham) interrupts and angrily describes what’s happening as “A semi-nude initiation stunt” just because Martin’s in shorts.

Once again the film lurches to a different location and another song sung by a different character, where a waiter complains of being “Tired of carrying trains around this joint” which then leads to a vaudeville style variety act ensues with lots of slapping and hat swapping which is actually quite funny. Then we’re back with Bob Hope and Gracie cheating in the exam as she gets the answers right completely by chance, which is sort of amusing but only that, and then Bob has a scene with Mable (Martha Raye), who appears to be a weird French woman who annoys him.

The film carries on in this fashion jumping from character to character, scene to scene, seemingly not caring about establishing a story or telling it in any standard fashion, as we’re introduced to some of the other teachers including Professor Volt (Ben Blue) the Gym teacher who can’t stop running all over the place, as Martin Bates gets to moan about being forced to go to Oxford during a bland song. Meanwhile Hubert Dash (Edward Everett Horton) pops up to be woman-phobic a few times and George Burns has a dull role as his secretary, there’s some more farcical nonsense involving Gracie and Dash, some more songs and a big dance number involving most of the cast, before it wraps up with Gracie being found out as a cheat, and it comes to a close with Mable singing the theme tune again.

If I sound a little dismissive of the second half of the movie that’s because it sees a fairly large drop in quality. The first half is mostly charming but the second half sees the film run out of steam and the physical comedy is lacklustre and lacking in invention. The way they try to tie everything together at the end feels forced, and the big dance number is fine but nothing you won’t have seen before.

If you’re an enormous fan of the cast then you might get some pleasure from seeing so many big names gathered together here, with some making a fairly early appearance film wise, but otherwise it’s not a film which is in any way essential viewing. I don’t regret watching it, but even at eighty six minutes it felt like it went on for far too long, and if all memory of it was removed from my brain than I’d definitely be left none the worse.

★★1/4

Alex Finch.
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