William Keighley’s Varsity Show (1937) is virtually void of a sustainable plot – its ‘hey kids, let’s up on a show’ variation from screenwriters Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Sid Herzig and Warren Duff so tired and out of step that it is mildly in danger of sinking the film’s entertainment value as a whole.
All the more reason to have faith in the inimitable talents of choreographer Busby Berkeley and his seamless staging of the grand finale ‘Love Is On The Air Tonight. Employing several hundred dancers on a massive sixty foot wide by fifty foot high series of steps Berkeley’s inventive choreography pays homage to some of the biggest college football teams; his overhead shots capturing this massive chorine in varsity letter formation.
The plot unravels with Professor Washburn (Roy Atwell) protesting the introduction of swing music to Winfield College’s annual varsity show. Students Barbara Steward (Rosemary Lane), Betty Bradley (Priscilla Lane) and Trout (Sterling Holloway), among others, protest the rigidity with which the college is being run. They appeal to the sensibility of Dean Meredith (Halliwell Hobbes) who backs up Washburn's decision. The students' next course of action is to contact, Charles Daly (Dick Powell); a local boy and Winfield alumni who made good as a Broadway producer. The students hope to convince Daly to stage their campus show.
Daly's stage manager, Willy Williams (Ted Healy) isn't so much sympathetic to the students' cause as he sees a way for he and Daly to get back on top and in good with both Broadway and a new deal to make a film in Hollywood. What none of the students realize is that Daly’s success on the Great White Way has long since turned to vinegar. He desperately needs a hit to prove to his backers that he is still a viable commodity. Meanwhile, the college’s precarious financial situation threatens cancellation of the show.
A rather perfunctory story to say the least, Varsity Show’s salvation is its musical program that frequently, and happily, interrupts its leaden plot conventions with oodles of talent showcased, arguably, to its best in song and dance. In her film debut, Rosemary Lane makes an extremely winsome heroine out of her fluff piece. Dick Powell is in good voice and spirits, still playing the half optimist/half cynic/all boy wonder that made his early career as a crooner at Warner Bros. so wildly popular with the bobby-soxer set. Sterling Holloway and Ted Healy deliver bits of welcomed comic relief. Varsity Show may not be a superior musical offering, but it has sparks of brilliance and a memorable cast who sell the whole contraption as though it were legit.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is most impressive; a very crisp, clean B&W image with solid contrasts and fine detail evident throughout. Occasionally, grain and age related artifacts intrude, but these are mostly during dissolves, wipes and fades. The audio is adequately represented. From a transfer perspective, there is absolutely nothing to complain about herein. Extras are limited to a few vintage short subjects and theatrical trailer.
*Please note: 2 sources consulted in the writing of this review list Varsity Show's running time at 120 min. and make special mention of the fact that it was one of Warner's most ambitious movie musicals of the decade. The DVD contains an 80 min. cut, meaning that roughly 40min. of material has been excised.
In fact, upon careful review of the DVD there are many sequences in the film that abruptly end with a fade out and dialogue that appears to fade out before the scene is actually over - leading this reviewer to believe that this cut of Varsity Show was, in fact, mastered from a reissue print that might have been released by the studio some years later as part of a double bill.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)