The Barrymores are back, y’all…
In 1936, MGM established a branch of its studio in Britain, starting out at the Denham Studios in London. In 1938 three of its biggest stars made A Yank At Oxford there: Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Maureen O’Sullivan, supported by a lady who would became rather infamous later.
Lee (Robert Taylor) is a huge star in his hometown of Lakedale. He’s routinely on people’s shoulders fist-pumping and saluting adoring crowds. His dad, newspaper publisher Dan Sheridan (Lionel Barrymore) delays printings just so he can squeeze in Lee’s latest hat tricks. Lee oozes confidence and thinks nothing can stop him.
Then Lee finds out that he can transfer to Cardinal College at Oxford, but he turns down the offer because his dad needs help on the paper, and anyway it’s too expensive. Dad, however, has different ideas. He talks the local banker into loaning him a couple thousand dollars and Lee gets seen off by a brass band.
Once in England, things start off rather…inauspiciously. Lee meets up with three young bucks on the train, Paul Beaumont (Griffith Jones), Wavertree (Robert Coote), and Ramsey (Peter Croft). Never the shy type, Lee immediately starts bragging about his athleticism. The looks on these guys’ faces say they’re a bunch of trolls, and they tell Lee there’s a welcoming committee waiting for him at the Oxford train station. If he wants to avoid it, he’d better get off at the Didcot station just before. It’s right outside of Oxford, don’t you know? Which is code for ten miles away.
Lee’s ego persists, because no sooner does he arrive at Cardinal than he hears a band playing and hides because he thinks it’s for him. The mystified cab driver yells after him that the band is from the Salvation Army.
The three young bucks from the train are waiting for Lee once he does step foot on campus and they decide to troll him some more. The whole student body turns out to carry Lee around on their shoulders and treat him like a conquering hero, complete with a throne to sit on. It’s really a statue of Aristotle, but they’re hoping Lee won’t peek under the blanket they’ve draped over it.
Yeah, well, Lee’s no dummy. He quickly guesses the scheme and takes off after Paul and Wavertree. When he spies a butt that he thinks is Wavertree’s he takes aim and sends the guy toppling, except the derriere belongs to the Dean of Cardinal (Edmund Gwenn)
Lee narrowly escapes being kicked out of Cardinal, and he and Paul’s unspoken rivalry commences. Paul thinks Lee was bluffing about his athletic abilities, but it’s not until Lee runs in a tryout in his streetclothes that Paul has to admit the guy was on the level.
However, their relationship turns icy when Lee pushes Paul out of the way to win a baton race Cardinal was losing. Paul retaliates by bringing every guy at Cardinal to Paul’s room, where they spirit him off to the quad for a “debagging,” which is Cardinal-speak for pulling down Lee’s pants.
Naturally, athletics are only part of the college experience. On the train coming into Oxford Lee meets Paul’s sister, Molly (Maureen O’Sullivan), and after a briefly contentious start they bond over ice skating and punting on the river. Lee writes his dad all about Molly and dreams about taking her home with him. He also wishes his dad could see Oxford.
Paul isn’t so quiet himself. He’s seeing Elsa Craddock (Vivien Leigh), whose husband owns the local bookshop. The place is a hotspot for the local college guys, and to say that Elsa has a wandering eye is putting it mildly. Elsa and Paul sneak around Oxford and even to London on the pretext of going to a super-swanky book auction, and their dalliances may come back to haunt them. Lee may just find himself caught in the middle as well.
A Yank At Oxford was the first movie made at MGM Britain, and the studio was determined to make everyone and everything about it look good. What better way to make an in with the British public than with a story about a Yank among the Brits?
Among other tricks, MGM brought in an army of writers to work on the screenplay, including one F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was uncredited, but according to TCM, brought his trademark wit to the film.
To quote Mickey Rooney, MGM had their finger on the pulse of the public. Robert Taylor got mobbed by fans everywhere he went. The movie was great for his image, because up to this point he was known as a pretty boy and not much else. Yank gave Taylor a chance to get manly, including, as plenty of modern film historians like pointing out, an abundance of chest hair and low-cut tank tops.
Taylor might have been trying something new, but Maureen O’Sullivan was returning to her roots. She and her co-star, Vivien Leigh had been classmates in Catholic school and had fun working together, although in the movie it’s obvious their characters really don’t like each other.
Yeah, about Vivien Leigh. She filmed A Yank At Oxford just before she made Gone With the Wind, and it’s all kinds of ironic that she plays a coquette in Yank. It’s also ironic that Lee mentions reading Gone With the Wind in one scene. Little did anyone know.
And what of our guest of honor, Mr. Lionel Barrymore? His part is pretty tiny, but he’s still very much present in the film. Unfortunately, Barrymore was also in obvious pain due to arthritis and an injury he suffered two years previously. If he isn’t leaning on a cane, he’s leaning on a doorway or a bookshelf or a table, and walking was clearly laborious. Other than that, Barrymore plays the part of the loving father to the hilt, radiating pride in Lee and his accomplishments.
A Yank At Oxford is a fun, light film that still works almost eighty years later. It brought in healthy returns at the time, setting in motion a string of great movies from MGM Britain right up until the Second World War.
For more of the great Barrymore clan, please see Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Crystal–it was a blast as always. Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you on Tuesday for another Reading Rarity…
A Yank At Oxford is available on DVD from Amazon.
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Kelly, Gillian. Robert Taylor: Male Beauty, Masculinity, And Stardom In Hollywood. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019.