Watching 1939: Winter Carnival (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: 
Winter Carnival (1939)

Release date: 
July 28, 1939

Cast: 
Ann Sheridan, Richard Carlson, Helen Parrish, James Corner, Alan Baldwin, Robert Armstrong, Marsha Hunt, Joan Leslie (billed as Joan Brodel), Jimmy Butler, Virginia Gilmore, Cecil Cunningham, Morton Lowry, Robert Walker (uncredited)

Studio: 
Walter Wanger Productions, released through United Artists

Director: 
Charles Reisner

Plot:
After a well-publicized divorce to Count Olaf Von Lundborg (Lowry), Jill Baxter (Sheridan) visits Dartmouth College during its Winter Carnival. Upon her return, she finds her old boyfriend, John Wilden (Carlson), who is now a professor at the school and was jilted by Jill when she was crowned queen of the Winter Carnival years earlier. Jill’s younger sister Ann (Parrish) is also attending the carnival and falls for the head of the ski team, Mickey Allen (Corner), but as she receives attention from the other athletes, it looks like Ann may follow in Jill’s footsteps.

1939 Notes:
• First film of Alan Baldwin, James Corner, Virginia Gilmore and Robert Walker.
• By the numbers:
– Ann Sheridan was in six films released in 1939.
– Richard Carlson was in four films released in 1939.
– Helen Parrish was in three films released in 1939.
– The only film Charles Reisner directed in 1939, and his first since 1937.
– Robert Armstrong was in six films released in 1939.
– Marsha Hunt was in six films released in 1939.
– Joan Leslie was in four films released in 1939. At this time, she was billed as Joan Brodel.
– Jimmy Butler was in four films released in 1939.
– Alan Baldwin was in two films released in 1939.
– James Corner was in two films released in 1939.
– Cecil Cunningham was in five films released in 1939.

Helen Parrish and James Corner in “Winter Carnival”

Other trivia: 
• James Corner and Jimmy Butler co-star in this film and both were killed during World War II.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald was originally assigned to write the film with Budd Schulberg, and the two traveled from California to Hanover, NH to see the Winter Carnival for their script. B-Roll would also be recorded by a film crew of the sports. However, Fitzgerald, who struggled with alcoholism, was given celebratory champagne at the start of the trip. He arrived in New Hampshire drunk and continued to drink while at Dartmouth, including making the rounds at fraternity parties. Producer Walter Wanger fired Fitzgerald, and Bud Schulberg and Maurice Rapf had to hurriedly write the screenplay before the stars arrived, according to Back Lot: Growing Up with the Movies
by Maurice Rapf.
• BuddSchulberg later wrote about his experience on this film and with Fitzgerald in his novel, The Disenchanted,
• Scenes filmed at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
• Kay Kyser and his band were originally set to appear in the film, but negotiations fell through.
• Producer Walter Wanger, screenwriter Maurice Rapf, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were both Dartmouth graduates.

Marsha Hunt, Robert Allen, Ann Sheridan, Richard Carlson in “Winter Carnival”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
The plot of “Winter Carnival” (1939) itself is not the most memorable movie of 1939. In fact, the New York Times listed it as one of the worst movies of the year in their year-end roundup, published in Dec. 1939.

However, the backstory of how the film was made is what makes it notable. And Dartmouth College – where the story is based – still references this film in their studies, according to a 2019 article.

The film is set during Winter Carnival at Dartmouth, which celebrates winter and winter sports. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1911 and continues today (though their website says it will involve video and virtual games this year). From 1923 to 1972, a Winter Carnival queen was crowned, a tradition that ended when the school went co-ed.

After a well-publicized divorce to a count, Jill Baxter (Ann Sheridan) visits Dartmouth for Winter Carnival, where several years before she was crowned queen. On the night she was crowned queen, Jill jilted her old boyfriend, John Welden (Richard Carlson), who is now a Dartmouth professor. Jill’s younger sister Ann (Helen Parrish), also attends the carnival with other young women in search of love and the crown. As Ann falls in love with and spurns the sports team captain Mickey (James Corner), it’s apparent that she is following in her sister’s footsteps. Jill realizes this and steps in.

Marsha Hunt has a small role as Lucy, a married friend of Jill and John, who hopes the two will reunite romantically. Lucy and her husband even have the two babysit their baby to give them domesticity time together.

The movie is fine, which I was a little disappointed by. This is a film that looked so much fun just going by the title and description. It probably didn’t help that I had a very low-quality version, as this film isn’t easy to find and doesn’t appear to have been restored. I feel like a bad picture and sound add to a film maybe not being so enjoyable.

But the really interesting part is the behind the scenes. First off, there are several newcomers to this film. Joan Leslie, still billed as Joan Brodel, is in this film and is a secondary character. She is a love interest to Jimmy Butler.

It’s also the first film of James Corner, Virginia Gilmore and Robert Walker, who I wasn’t able to find in the film. James Corner came from Broadway’s “What a Life” (a role he reprised that year). With “Winter Carnival” as his first film, I was surprised that he had a secondary lead role. Unfortunately, Corner wasn’t in many films because he was killed in World War II, as was his co-star Jimmy Butler.

Outside of the cast, the screenwriting of the film is where the real interest in this film is. Screenwriter Maurice Rapf wrote in his autobiography that despite writing several Disney films, including “Song of the South” and “Cinderella,” “Winter Carnival” was the film he was most often asked about.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Walter Wanger at Winter Carnival in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Dartmouth alumn, producer Walter Wanger, hired novice screenwriter Budd Schulberg for the film. Schulberg was also a Dartmouth alumn – he later wrote “On the Waterfront.” To assist the young writer and to give the film some prestige, Wanger hired writer F. Scott Fitzgerald to help write the script.

Rapf quipped that he thought Wanger must have been looking for an honorary degree from Dartmouth as he brought both a film and Fitzgerald to Hanover, NH.

Wanger flew Schulberg and Fitzgerald to New Hampshire to witness the Winter Carnival in early 1939 to help add color to their script for the film. In a 2004 interview, Schulberg said he and Fitzgerald had a great deal in common and got along well. But not knowing Fitzgerald was a struggling alcoholic and had been on the wagon for several months, Schulberg’s father gifted them two bottles of champagne for the trip. This started a downward spiral for Fitzgerald, who arrived in New Hampshire drunk, was drunk at a party Wanger held at the Hanover Inn and made his round to the fraternity parties on campus.

Unable to work on the script with Schulberg, Fitzgerald was fired, and Maurice Rapf (another Dartmouth alumn) was brought in to help finish the script. Both Schulberg and Rapf didn’t think the script was very good, but because the stars had to start filming in a few weeks, they couldn’t do much.

Truthfully, the story behind this film – while interesting – is depressing. Reading about Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and decline makes me really sad – especially because he was such a talented writer.

I also think the plot of this film has some interesting aspects that make it more than a one-dimensional collegiate romance. First, I like that there is a mix of older and younger romances. In 1939, 27-year-old Richard Carlson played college students in both “Dancing Co-Ed” and “These Glamour Girls,” so he got to play a character a little older in “Winter Carnival.” We see the more adult romance of Carlson and Sheridan’s characters, who have both experienced life and see their past mistakes.

Then we see the younger, more foolish and fickle romances of Helen Parrish and James Corner.

Second, I think the most interesting part is the risk of Ann following in Jill’s footsteps of falling for a more worldly, European love interest and throwing away her life for short-lived glamour.

While “Winter Carnival” may be a flash in the pan for several viewers, it’s still important to Dartmouth College. The film is discussed in a writing class, and students can use archived materials to research filmmaking, according to a 2019 Dartmouth article.

As far as this movie being one of the worst movies of 1939, that may be a bit harsh because I have seen much worse (remember that Charlie McCarthy movie I reviewed a while back?). I was mainly disappointed because it wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be.

Sadly, the main reason this film is still discussed is its connection to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his sad history.

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