Musical Monday: Varsity Show (1937)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Varsity Show (1937) – Musical #99

Warner Brothers

William Keighley

Dick Powell, Rosemary Lane, Priscilla Lane, Ted Healy, Walter Catlett, Sterling Holloway, Johnnie Davis, Lee Dixon, Ford Washington Lee, John William Sublett, Mabel Todd, Edward Brophy, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, Carole Landis (uncredited)

Winfield College students (Lane, Lane, Healy, Holloway, Davis) need a successful varsity show. The last few years have been a flop and the old-fashioned staff is ready to outlaw swing in the shows. The students try to get alumnus Chuck Daly (Powell), who is now on Broadway, to stage their show. While they think he’s a New York success, his shows have been flops.

Awards and Nominations:
-Busby Berkeley was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Dance Direction. Hermes Pan won for “A Damsel In Distress

Carole Landis as an uncredited chorus girl dancing with Sterling Holloway in the finale of “Varsity Show”

-Priscilla Lane’s first film.
-Sisters Rosemary Lane and Priscilla Lane co-star in the movie. However, they do not play sisters and do not have many scenes together.
-The closing finale number was choreographed by Busby Berkeley
-Busby Berkeley apparently picked Carole Landis as one of the chorus girls for “Varsity Show,” according to Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak
-Reissued in 1942 and was cut to 80 minutes. The edits were cut to the original film and the original cut film was discarded. At least four songs are missing from the Turner print because of this, according to Spivak’s book.

-Busby Berkeley choreographed finale
-Priscilla Lane singing
-Buck and Bubbles tap number

Notable Songs:
-“Old King Cole” performed by Johnnie Davis
-“We’re Working Our Way Through College” performed by Dick Powell
-“I’m Dependable” performed by Priscilla Lane and Fred Waring
-“On with the Dance” performed by Rosemary Lane and Buck and Bubbles

My review:
“Varsity Show” (1937) is a special subset of musicals that mainly were made in the 1930s: the collegiate musical where co-eds happily sing, rarely study and put on a wham bang finish of a show.

I wish college really was like “Varsity Show” and other collegiate musicals. A whole group of students (not just theater majors) putting on a musical production, singing from class to class, boys and girls serenading their love interests, and the school’s fate sits on the success of a successful musical show. Alas, my college experience was nothing like that, but maybe your’s was.

Fred Waring as a professor directing Dick Powell and Ted Healy, and students played by Priscilla Lane, Johnnie Davis, Sterling Holloway, Mabel Todd and Lee Dixon

The collegiate musicals weren’t just making higher education look glamorous and fun, it was showing the ideal youth: smart, fun and popular.

“Varsity Show” comes at the end of Dick Powell’s crooner films, which kicked off in 1933 as the show’s juvenile in “42nd Street” — he was in films prior to this but “42nd Street” sparked his fame. By the late 1930s, Powell’s musicals were slowing down and he eventually switched to film noir, dramas and westerns in the 1940s and 1950s (his last major musical was in 1944 with Meet the People). Don’t worry, 33-year-old Dick Powell isn’t a college student but an alumnus of the college who is trying to make it on Broadway. He comes back to help the students…and his career.

Sisters Priscilla and Rosemary Lane in “Varsity Show” (1937)

Sisters Priscilla and Rosemary Lane star in the film together and are as lovely as ever. But where they have scenes and lines together in films like the “Four Daughters” series, they don’t in this film. They don’t exchange lines with each other or sing duets. However, they are both charming and we get a rare opportunity to hear lovely Priscilla Lane sing.

The cast is rounded out with energetic and entertaining cast members that were seldom seen in films after the 1930s. Long-longed dancer Lee Dixon, who was only in nine films or shorts, is a likable young man. Johnnie Davis is an energetic, raspy-voiced jazz singer whose film career spanned from 1936 to 1944. Davis was even the voice of “Owl Jolson” in the cartoon “I Love to Singa.” And then there’s Mabel Todd, who generally plays “nerdy” young women who chase men. Bandleader Fred Waring also plays a professor in his only acting role. And then of course there’s Sterling Holloway, with his unforgettable voice and prescience.

While none of these players became large stars, each of them has a great deal of screen time. Dick Powell is the lead, but this is very much an ensemble piece. Even Powell’s love interest, Rosemary Lane, doesn’t have that much screen time.

Busby Berkeley didn’t direct this film, but he choreographed the closing number of the film. It’s not as impressive as his work in films like “Footlight Parade,” but it is still visually pleasing. The finale is an ode to collegiate life, including “Boola Boola” and other college fight songs, while the chorus forms the initials of the school.

“Varsity Show” is an entertaining and energetic little film. While it isn’t one of Warner Brothers’ best musicals of the 1930s, it’s still enjoyable.

Actors as students studying in “Varsity Show” (1937)

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