Watching 1939: The Spirit of Culver (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: 
The Spirit of Culver (1939)

Release date: 
March 8, 1939

Jackie Cooper, Freddie Bartholomew, Andy Devine, Henry Hull, Tim Holt, Jackie Moran, Gene Reynolds, Kathryn Kane, Walter Tetley, Pierre Watkin, John Hamilton, Irving Bacon (uncredited), Lon McCallister (uncredited), Charles Smith (uncredited)

Universal Pictures

Joseph Santley

Tom Allen (Cooper) is an orphan who’s father was killed in World War I and his mother died shortly after. Now living on the streets, Tom meets Tubby (Devine) who works at an American Legion soup kitchen for teens. Tubby gives Tom a job and learns that Tom’s father was a war hero and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Because of this, Tom is given a scholarship to attend Culber Military Academy. Starting off with a chip on his shoulder, Tom isn’t well-liked by the students. But his roommate Bob Randolph (Bartholomew) works past his differences with Tom to help him fit in and warm up to the other students.

1939 Notes:
• Jackie Cooper and Freddie Bartholomew were in two films together in 1939.
• Previously billed as Sugar Kane, this was Kathryn Kane’s only feature film of 1939. She wouldn’t make another film until 1947.
• By the numbers:
– Jackie Cooper was in six films released in 1939.
– Freddie Bartholomew made was in two films released in 1939; both co-starring with Jackie Cooper.
– Andy Devine was in eight movies in 1939.
– Tim Holt was in five movies in 1939.
– Gene Reynolds was in four films released in 1939.
– Henry Hull was in nine films released in 1939.

Freddie Bartholomew and Jackie Cooper in “Spirit of Culver”

Other trivia: 
• The film was a remake of Tom Brown of Culver (1932), which starred Tom Brown, Slim Summerville and Richard Cromwell. Andy Devine co-starred in both films.
• Tim Holt, who is a student at Culver in the film, attended Culver Military Academy, according to his 1973 obituary. He graduated in the class of 1936.
• Some scenes were shot on location at Culver Military Academy in Indiana.
• Culver Military Academy superintendent Brigadier General L.R. Gignilliat was invited to Hollywood to supervise the film, according to the Culver Citizen, Jan. 18, 1939.
• General Gignilliat, Bill Leach of Evanston, Ill., assisted during the filming in training the actors in drill exercises and military routines, according to the Culver Citizen.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Jackie Cooper and Freddie Bartholomew were two of MGM’s top child stars. Cooper was known for his ability to tug at heartstrings as he cried in films, and Engligh actor Bartholomew excelled at costume dramas and acting in literary adaptations.

But all child stars do something unforgivable: They grow up. By 1939, Bartholomew was 15 and Cooper was 17. As the two grew up and were too old to play children, they evolved into teen roles (mainly away from their former home studio of MGM). Cooper often was cast as boys growing up in rough settings, like Streets of New York, or teens dealing with coming of age struggles like in Seventeen (1940).

Bartholomew often seemed to be cast as a student. His last three films before entering World War II were all education-based (particularly at military schools): Naval Academy (1941), A Yank at Eaton (1942), and Cadets on Parade (1942).

This week’s 1939 film combines the two types of plots Cooper and Bartholomew were frequently cast into one:

Jackie Cooper plays Tom Allen, an orphaned teen who lives on the streets. He meets Tubby (Devine) at an American Legion soup kitchen. Tubby learns that he knew Tom’s father, who was killed in World War I and awarded the Medal of Honor. As the American Legion worries about the problem of more teens living on the streets, they decide to give Tom a scholarship to Culver Military Academy, in memory of his father’s valor. When he arrives at Culver, Tom has a chip on his shoulder and isn’t well-liked by any of his classmates, including his English roommate, Bob Randolph, played by Freddie Bartholomew. As Tom eventually warms up to the school and his classmates, a turn of events with his family occurs.

Cooper and Bartholomew, while no longer adorable children, are still appealing actors as teenagers. There are several humorous scenes involving both of them, including when Bartholomew has a crush on famous singer June Macy, played by Kathryn Kane, and what happens when he tries to meet her.

The supporting cast is also great in the film. Among their classmates, you can spot several other former child actors in the film. Gene Reynolds has a small role of a boy whose mother dies while he’s off at school. Reynolds later went on to be a director. There’s also actor Jackie Moran among the students.

Interestingly, Tim Holt, who went on to star primarily in westerns as an adult, went to Culver Military Academy as a student in real life. He graduated from the academy in 1936, a few years before this was released. I was surprised Holt had little screentime. When I first saw him in the film, I assumed he would be an antagonist of Cooper, but that wasn’t the case.

Andy Devine as Cooper’s adult mentor is also great – he has a few great comedic moments, but mainly plays a tenderhearted friend.

Though released in 1939, the film is set in 1932 – most likely so that the timing of Tom Allen’s character would work in connection with his father’s World War I death. This is a remake of “Tom Brown of Culver,” which was released in 1932. The original film was filmed at Culver Military Academy from 1931 to 1932. Because it created such a disruption on campus at that time, the remake was filmed primarily in Hollywood, according to the Culver-Union Township Public Library.

“The Spirit of Culver” isn’t the most well-known film of 1939, but I found it enjoyable and likable. I love to see how child actors move into teen and adult roles. The year of 1939 was when Cooper and Bartholomew both started making that move. However, since both entered the service during World War II, that hindered their careers some – especially Bartholomew.

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