Watching 1939: Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

Release date: 
Sept. 29, 1939

Lana Turner, Ann Rutherford, Richard Carlson, Roscoe Karns, Lee Bowman, Thurston Hall, Monty Woolley, Leon Errol, Mary Field, Walter Kingsford, Mary Beth Hughes, June Preisser, Chester Clute, Edward Arnold Jr. (uncredited), Robert Walker (uncredited), Lynn Lewis (uncredited)
Himself: Artie Shaw and his Orchestra


S. Sylvan Simon

Before starring in another film together, husband and wife dancing duo Freddy (Bowman) and Toddy Tobin (Hughes) discover they are going to have a baby and Toddy has to be replaced in their upcoming film, “Dancing Co-Ed.” In a publicity stunt, the studio announces that they are going to have a contest at colleges across the country to find a dancing student. The only thing is that dancer Patty Marlow (Turner) has already been planted at Midwestern College to win the contest. School newspaper reporter Pug Braddock (Carlson) suspects that the contest is phony and tries to uncover a plant.

1939 Notes:
• Lana Turner’s first film where she got top billing.
• Artie Shaw’s first feature film.
• Lana Turner and Ann Rutherford co-starred in two films together in 1939. The second was “These Glamour Girls.”
By the numbers:
– Lana Turner was in three films released in 1939.
– Ann Rutherford was in eight films released in 1939.
– Richard Carlson was in four films released in 1939.
– Lee Bowman was in eight films released in 1939.
– Leon Errol was in nine films released in 1939.
– Roscoe Karns performed in four films released in 1939.
– Mary Beth Hughes entered films in 1939, and she was in nine films released in 1939.
– Thurston Hall performed in 16 films released in 1939.
– Chester Clute performed in 14 films released in 1939.
– Mary Field was in 14 films released in 1939.

Ann Rutherford and Lana Turner posing as college students in “Dancing Co-Ed” (1939).

Other trivia: 
• Lana Turner and Artie Shaw met on the set of “Dancing Co-Ed” (1939) – and Turner didn’t like him. They later were married in 1940.
• Originally was set to star Eleanor Powell.
• The UK title was “Every Other Inch a Lady”
• Another future husband of Lana Turner’s worked on the film. Fred May worked on the film as a college student extra.

Notable Songs:
• “Nightmare” performed by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra
• “Traffic Jam” performed by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra

Publicity photo of Lana Turner, Artie Shaw and Ann Rutherford.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Tuning in to “Dancing Co-Ed,” the casual viewer may not think that it’s much of a film. Entertaining, lively and funny, but nothing more.

However, the film was a landmark in the career of Lana Turner. It was the first film that Turner received top star billing.

In the film, Lana Turner plays dancer Patty Morrow. Patty is set to replace dancer Toddy Tobin (Mary Beth Hughes), half of a husband and wife dancing duo when Toddy becomes pregnant. The studio announces that they are going to conduct a nationwide collegiate search for Toddy’s replacement – after planting Patty at Midwestern University. Secretary Eve (Rutherford) enrolls with Patty to be the “brains” of the duo. While the two are enjoying college life and waiting to be discovered, Patty meets cynical school newspaper editor ‘Pug’ Braddock (Carlson), who is convinced the contest is a phony. Knowing he’s right, Patty balances the lie and a budding romance with Pug.

1939 was Lana Turner’s year. In August 1939, a month before “Dancing Co-Ed” was released, Turner appeared in “These Glamour Girls.” This was the first film that made her the main focus of the story. But Lew Ayres had top billing in this film. “Dancing Co-Ed” cemented that she was a rising star at MGM and the following decade proved it.

Lana Turner had a dancing background and this is one of a handful of movies where she gets to show that off. We get to see a little dancing from Lee Bowman as well, who I was surprised to see was pretty good. It was the first time Turner’s dancing was used in a movie as part of the plotline – and it wasn’t used too many times after.

This film is also notable because is was the first film appearance of jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw. However, Shaw wasn’t thrilled with the experience. As a composer and artist, Shaw felt films and Hollywood were beneath him, according to Lana Turner’s autobiography.

Playing himself, Shaw argued with director S. Sylvan Simon over his lines (like “hepcats and alligators”) because he didn’t talk that way – arguing he already had a successful radio program, according to Artie Shaw: His Life and Music by John White · 2004. The end result is that Shaw had very few lines.

The only other film Shaw appeared in was “Second Chorus” (1940), another collegiate film.

Despite this, we still get to hear Shaw perform as students listen to him on the radio and then play at the dance competition at the end. He performs “Traffic Jam” and “Nightmare” – a song that is played in such a high range you can tell he’s a master musician. As a former clarinet player, I only wished I could hit those high notes. (Shaw may have been a jerk, but he was a musical genius).

I love “Dancing Co-Ed.” It’s fun, entertaining and I love the energy of all of the young performers. Lana Turner is only 18 here – vivacious, red-headed and full of smiles. She works well in comedy and she’s still new and seemingly still unaffected by Hollywood. Cheryl Crane wrote that “Dancing Co-Ed” was a happy experience for her mother and was Turner’s favorite movie, according to “LANA: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies.” The following year I think she grew up fast when she married Artie Shaw. It wasn’t a happy union and the two only were married for four months.

It’s interesting because “Dancing Co-Ed” has several repeat actors from “These Glamour Girls,” including Richard Clarson, Ann Rutherford and Mary Beth Hughes.

Rutherford is lovely in this film and I love her and Turner paling around. I think 1939 was a turning point for Rutherford as well. At 22, she was getting to play some more grown-up parts, rather than just Andy Hardy’s girlfriend. That year, she also co-starred in the film most people know her for: “Gone with the Wind.”

My only real complaint about “Dancing Co-Ed” is Monty Woolley has a much-too-brief role as a professor. I can also usually do without Leon Errol, though I guess he isn’t as annoying here as he could be.

While I don’t miss going to school, “Dancing Co-Ed” makes me wish that I could head back to college only if my collegiate experience could be like this one. I find this a joyful film that left me smiling.

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