Watching 1939: Sorority House (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: 
Sorority House (1939)

Release date: 
May 5, 1939

Anne Shirley, James Ellison, Barbara Read, Pamela Blake (billed as Adele Pearce), J.M. Kerrigan, Helen Wood, Doris Davenport (Doris Jordan), June Storey, Elisabeth Risdon, Margaret Armstrong, Selmer Jackson, Chill Wills, Marge Champions (uncredited), Frank Sully (uncredited)

RKO Radio Pictures

John Farrow

Alice Fisher (Shirley) is a smalltown girl who helps her father (Kerrigan) at his grocery store. Nearly thinking she won’t be able to attend Talbot College, her father makes financial sacrifices by using his life savings so that she can attend college. Upon arriving, Alice learns of sororities and is eager to join, as all the girls excitedly discuss rushing. While not wanting to be a social pariah, Alice has to determine if joining the exclusive (and expensive) groups is worthwhile.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– John Farrow
– Anne Shirley was in three films released in 1939.
– James Ellison was in five films released in 1939.
– Barbara Read was in two films released in 1939.
– Pamela Blake (billed as Adele Pearce) was in five released in 1939. Blake/Pearce started getting billing in 1939.
– J.M. Kerrigan was in 14 films released in 1939.
– Helen Wood was in two films released in 1939. This was Wood’s last film until 1949.
– Doris Davenport’s only film of 1939.
– June Storey was in 11 films released in 1939.
– Elisabeth Risdon was in 10 films released in 1939.
– Frank Sully was in eight films released in 1939. All of the roles were uncredited.

Pamela Blake/Adele Pearce and Anne Shirley

Other trivia: 
• Based on the story “Chi House” by Mary Coyle Chase.
• Working title was Chi House.
• Since this was a successful film, a sequel called “Final Exam” was announced but never made.
• Screenplay adapted by Dalton Trumbo.
• Lucille Ball and Frances Mercer were originally supposed to be in the cast.
• Tim Holt was supposed to be set as the male lead.

James Ellison, J.M. Kerrigan, Barbara Read, Anne Shirley

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In the 1930s, Hollywood released several films with social messages and concerns – from the mistreatment of college football players in “That’s My Boy” (1932, Columbia) to the brutal treatment of prisoners working on the chain gang in Hell’s Highway (1932, RKO).

In 1939, RKO released “Sorority House,” which takes a look at the college experience of a co-ed and the elite groups on college campuses.

Alice Fisher, played by Anne Shirley, comes from a smalltown where she helped her father run the local grocery store. Financially, she didn’t think she could attend college, but her father surprises her before the start of the fall semester, who used his life savings to send his daughter to school.

Excitedly arriving at school, she finds many girls are already being courted by sororities to join. Thinking that sounds fun, Alice asks a registration assistant how you join the clubs and learns you have to be selected.

Living in a campus-approved boarding house, Alice’s roommates are Dotty Spencer, played by Barbara Read, and Merle Scott, played by Pamela Blake who is billed as Adele Pearce in this film.

Dotty is anti-sorority and Merle is excitedly being rushed by the Gammas. Both girls think Alice is a shoe-in to be rushed because she’s pretty.

Throughout the film, you see depictions of both sides – girls who are and aren’t in the exclusive clubs.

Dotty says that those who aren’t in sororities are “Dreeps” – girls who are dreary and weep because they aren’t part of the groups. On the night of a big party, girls who aren’t traditionally pretty (wearing glasses or having a big nose) are shown dreaming of what male co-ed they would date.

“If you don’t belong to a sorority in college you’re just not anybody,” Merle says.

On the other side, you see the sororities meeting and discussing what members they will take. Some of their comments are complimentary – they want to invite a girl to join because she is sweet or pretty. Others aren’t as complimentary. Twin students are proposed and one member replies, “Those truck horses?” The rush captain explains that their father is a plumbing tycoon and maybe they could get a new living room set out of them.

Later, an overzealous aunt, played by Elizabeth Riosden, visits the sorority house encouraging them to send a bid to her niece Merle; ruining her chances.

Once Alice is finally invited, it’s upon a false pretense that was given about her (that she has money). When she finds that she is embarrassed by her simple background, she has to come to determine if joining the group is the route she wants to take.

The film also takes a serious turn when it a student takes a desperate action when she isn’t invited to a sorority because her desire to be popular and her family’s expectations were too strong.

Other than Anne Shirley, leading man James Ellison and Barbara Read, many of the co-eds aren’t major stars.

An interesting aspect of this film is that the focal point is young women. James Ellison plays a football hero and we see fraternity brothers serenading the boarding house, but athletics and dates are barely touched on.

“Sorority House” is a brief, 64-minute film and has a plot slightly similar to “Finishing School” (1934). It’s entertaining and an interesting depiction of college life, and also as a classiest society.

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