The Old College Try

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Hello, Mr. Lawford…

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IMDb

One of the quirks of the studio era was that very often actors were conscripted into parts. Unless a performer had a lot of clout with the public, they pretty much had to take whatever the studio threw at them. Even then the word, “suspension” got bandied around a lot, but that’s another matter.

Peter Lawford wasn’t a conventional movie star type, although he was certainly very handsome and talented. What got studio execs in a ruffle was that Lawford had his own way of going about things. Some speculate that the studio wanted Lawford to model himself on Robert Taylor, who was a famously natty dresser and always wore a pin through his collar.

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MGM publicity photo, 1944. (Fine Art America)

Pins through the collar weren’t Lawford’s style. He preferred denim. MGM’s response was to keep Lawford in supporting roles, and he never quite landed as a leading man despite being a competent actor. To his credit, Lawford had no illusions about his stardom. He later said, “I was a halfway-decent-looking English boy who looked nice in a drawing- room standing by a piano.”

As a second-tier player, Peter Lawford had to follow marching orders, and sometimes this meant working in musicals. Lawford wasn’t a song-and-dance man but he gave a pleasant impression of one, and a nice example is 1947’s Good News. Set at the fictional Tait College, it’s a fun look at the nineteen-twenties university scene and all the intrigue that comes with it.

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Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) is the Big Man On Campus. He’s a football star and all the ladies are gaga over him. Well, almost all. Pat McClellan (Patricia Marshall) is a transfer from a finishing school, pretentious to a fault, and out to marry for money. Tommy tries his hardest to impress Pat at a sorority party and she gives him the cold shoulder, calling him “Incorrigible!”

This sick burn drives Tommy crazy, so he goes to the library to learn what incorrigible means. There he finds Connie Lane (June Allyson), the assistant librarian. Connie is a nice girl who’s very studious and driven, working around campus to pay her way through college. She’s also a member of Pat’s sorority and majoring in languages, so she gives Tommy a crash course in French.

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Sparks fly between Tommy and Connie, at least until Tommy forgets himself and thinks out loud about how his new skills are going to impress Pat. Connie storms off, but Tommy is inspired, enrolling in French class and blowing everyone away.

Tommy finds Pat in the soda shoppe having a drink with Peter Van Dyne (Robert E. Strickland), but despite his best French, she still doesn’t bite. She chuckles until Babe (Joan McCracken), one of her sorority sisters tells her Tommy’s dad is the pickle king of America, making him one of the richest men at Tait.

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In the meantime, Tommy soothes his broken heart by asking Connie to the prom. She’s over the moon about it, and Tommy’s pretty high himself, but when Pat comes running to him after the football game Tommy is once again dead gone. Our little heel phones Connie at the last minute, leaving her to stay home heartbroken while he squires Pat to the dance.

Now that he and Pat are seeing each other full time, Tommy’s grades plummet, including his French course, in which he gets an F. He can’t play in the final game of the season unless he passes everything, so it falls to Connie to tutor him. A few other things fall as well, but we won’t spoil anything. It’s fairly predictable anyway.

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Original program, 1927. (Playbill)

Good News is a remake of a 1930 film starring Mary Lawlor, Stanley Smith, Bessie Love, and Cliff Edwards. Both movies are based on a 1927 Broadway musical written by B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, which was highly successful and ran for over five hundred-fifty performances. MGM snapped up the rights to the story, and while the 1930 movie was exuberant, critics and audiences were apathetic. Picture Play said Bessie Love was “the only relief.” Ouch.

Given the earlier film’s lack of success, MGM’s reason for remaking Good News must have been, “Why not?”

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The new attempt was a movie of firsts and earlys. It was the directorial debut of Charles Walters and the first screenwriting credit of Adolph Green and Betty Comden. Roger Edens came on board as an associate producer, his fourth go-round as such but only the second time he got credit for it. With the exception of June Allyson, the film was populated by actors who, like Lawford, were supporting players and not used to carrying a whole movie.

Lawford had a hard slog ahead of him. According to costar June Allyson, he worked like crazy to master the songs and the choreography. However, in some areas he was allowed to slide: His British accent stayed in the picture. Lawford’s French was also way better than June Allyson’s, so he was the one teaching her, but the two of them had fun, anyway.

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Good News grossed three million at the box office, roughly twice what it cost to make. It helped make the careers of those involved; everyone from June Allyson to Comden and Green to Charles Walters got a boost.

Unfortunately, the film didn’t do much for Lawford, whose dancing and singing were generally panned. He made other movies, including a few musicals such as Easter Parade and Royal Wedding, but for the rest of his career he had to really hustle to get ahead at all.

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I remember Peter Lawford as he was in the seventies and early eighties, when he seemed to live in jean jackets and button-down shirts. Or maybe an ascot with a sweater. His personal life wasn’t the greatest in his later years, but he always appeared very elegant in an outdoorsy way. Like a Ralph Lauren ad. I have fond memories of seeing Lawford on various TV shows.

Maybe it’s the passage of time talking, but I don’t see why people got down on Good News when it released. Granted, it’s certainly not MGM’s flashiest musical, not by a long shot. It’s not even the most polished. The clothes and hairstyles are firmly in the nineteen forties. Half the time Lawford talks his way through the songs and gets by on his dancing.

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Still, the movie is a lot of fun with catchy music and college kid antics. It might have quirks, but that’s what I like about it. It’s also nice to see Peter Lawford in a proper lead role. He may not have been cut out for musicals, but he gets As for energy and effort, anyway. He has great chemistry with June Allyson, who would be his costar in three other films. Good News speaks well of the MGM star-making machine, too. That the studio was able to turn out something as respectable as Good News with second-tier talent is impressive.

For more Peter Lawford, please see Kristen at KN Winiarski WritesThanks for hosting this, Kristen, and congrats on your first blogathon! Welcome to the film blogging world. Thanks for reading, all, and see you on Thursday with a book review. Have a good one…


Good News is available on DVD from Amazon.


Bibliography

Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of The Wizard of Oz. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1977.

6 thoughts on “The Old College Try

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