Why watch Varsity Show? Two words: John Bubbles, the man Fred Astaire said was the greatest tap dancer of his generation. John Sublette (John Bubbles was his stage name) and his partner, Ford Washington Lee, were Buck and Bubbles, with Buck primarily at the piano and Bubbles dancing and singing. They were major stars in vaudeville. I can't explain dancing any more than an infant can explain milk, but I know the good stuff when I see it. John Bubbles combined tap, a sort of fast shuffle and ingenious rhythm into something I wouldn't argue with Astaire about. He has a couple of short numbers in this inane college musical and one Buck and Bubbles short production number to "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?" They make watching the movie something special.
Among the aged aspects of Varsity Show that you have to get past to enjoy the tap artistry of John Bubbles are...the jokes are so corny even Iowa wouldn't take credit for them...the pacing is just about as matter-of-fact as that bland title...several of the students have long since past their college years...ironically, Dick Powell seems too young for the part...and Fred Waring as the drama teacher is so sincere, so constantly smiling and so solicitous of the students as to be creepy.
Still, the Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer songs aren't bad. "We're working Our Way Through College," sung by Powell and the students as they stride through the campus, is bouncy and funny.
"We're working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we'll probably never ever use again.
It's swell to tell what parallel and parallax is,
But after graduation will it pay our taxes?"
For those fond of choral music there's Waring and his Pennsylvanians (they're in the movie as college students) doing some fine singing. Aficionados of college pep songs will hear a bunch of them at the big smash close. And for those with a morbid fondness for stories about alcoholics, there's Ted Healy in a major role and Lee Dixon in a minor one. Healy, who's the reason there was a Three Stooges, wound up in Hollywood as one of the highest paid comedy actors. His specialty was the big grump. Let me tell you, he was good. He also was a big-time alcoholic. He got into a drunken fight the night his first child was born (the year Varsity Show was released) and died several hours later. He was 41. Lee Dixon was big and blond, an eccentric dancer in the early Buddy Ebsen style. He was handsome enough with an open, quizzical kind of face. He towered over everyone else. He was 23 when he made Varsity Show and played one of the students, had a few lines and a couple of brief dance steps. By the early Forties he was drinking so heavily no one wanted to take a chance on him. Rodgers and Hammerstein offered him the part of Will Smith in Oklahoma after extracting the promise he wouldn't hit the bottle. He received great reviews with his two numbers, "Kansas City" and "All Er Nuthin'" (with Celeste Holm as Ado Annie). All was well for a year or so, then he started sneaking drinks, then more and more. That was that. He faded fast and died at 39 in 1954. What's the moral to Healy and Dixon? You've got me.
The story? The kids at Winfield College are putting on the annual varsity show but their professor advisor insists that there'll be nothing "swinging" or "modern." A group of them decide to go to New York and ask Chuck Daly (Dick Powell), famous Broadway producer and Winfield graduate, to take over the show. They've got a lot of great songs and ideas. They don't know that Daly has had three flops in a row and is broke. We can skip the next hour. The show is a smash, on Broadway no less, with a Busby Berkeley finale. Chuck wins a co-ed's love with Rosemary Lane the co-ed. She's second billed after Powell. Her sister, Priscilla, is third billed and gets a song to sing and a few dance steps to share with Dixon. Priscilla Lane has never done much for me, but here, at 22 and in her first movie, she's a cutie pie.
College musicals always seem to give off that indulgent condescension that so many adults reserve, usually to their regret, for the young. Still, some can be a lot of fun. There are three I like a lot. Too Many Girls [DVD] - Authentic Region 1 from Warner Brothers with Lucille Ball has a book as inane as Varsity Show, but it has a great Rodgers and Hart score and a terrific Lucille Ball performance. BEST FOOT FORWARD (DVD MOVIE) has a fine Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane score, including that rouser, "Buckle Down, Winsocki," plus Ball again, and a great cast that includes June Allyson and Nancy Walker. Good News is a lot of fun, just as corny as the rest, but June Allyson is appealing, Peter Lawford avoids being appalling, and best of all there's Joan McCracken and Ray McDonald dancing. "Pass that Peace Pipe" is a showcase for both of them, especially McCracken.