Sweetheart of the Campus – 1941

Growing up, I was regularly exposed to the music, films, and television series that my parents had grown up with.  This is the rite of passage for almost all of us, and many of us tolerate it until we reach an age of decided tastes and opinions (seemingly younger all the time!).  While we rarely watched reruns of the show, “Ozzie and Harriett” was definitely part of our general lexicon.  However, other than being aware of the duo, and for awhile following the musical and film careers of their grandchildren (remember The Father Dowling Mysteries?), Ozzie and Harriett Nelson never became regulars in my film canon.

Enter this picture, a 1941 musical starring Ozzie Nelson, Ruby Keeler, and yes, Harriett Hilliard, who by this point was married to Ozzie.  They already had their two children, as well.  Ozzie and Harriett made a little money for Columbia with pictures like this one, but their real bread and butter was in broadcasting.  Keeler was a musical star in her own right, probably best known for her role in the 1933 film version of 42nd Street with Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers.  This film features Keeler in her final starring role,

Sweetheart of the Campus is about a big band, led by Nelson and Keeler, that arrives at Lambeth Technological College to open up a night club.  Before they can perform, they’re arrested for violating an out-of-date statute that prevents such lewdness as music and dancing so near campus.  To stop the school shutting down, the band all enroll as students at the school, and then engage in a series of publicity efforts to help bolster enrollment.  Harriett plays Harriett Hale, the woman whose idea sparks this series of events and falls in love with Ozzie.  Keeler is the band’s lead singer (Keeler herself was not a singer and her voice here is dubbed), and while her story isn’t center stage, it certainly adds interest.  There’s more music than dialogue or real plot in the movie, and viewers are treated to Keeler’s exceptional tap skills and a really fun performance of “Tom Tom” by the Spirits of Rhythm.

I need to talk about that Spirits of Rhythm thing, y’all.  Leo Watson is in the film with this quartet – he’s credited as Zoot Watson, probably thanks to an interview with Bob Clampett in 1969 in which he was misnamed.  Watson was a jazz musician from Kansas City; he worked with a lot of the big band leaders of the era like Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw, but never for huge stints.  His most high profile film appearance was in 1943’s Stormy Weather. He died in 1950 at age 52.  What stood out about the Spirits of Rhythm performance in this movie was the sound – it’s a 1941 sound but something about it seems way ahead of its time.  It definitely stands out in the film, easily the best musical sequence.  Honestly I felt a sense of what was to come throughout the movie; with the exception of Keeler, you’re watching 1950s television stars, you’re getting a taste of what television will end up doing for publicity, and with Watson you’re hearing music that will hit its mark in the 1950s.  While watching him, I thought of Sam Phillips.  Leo Watson would have been squarely in Phillips’ stable of musicians in my opinion.

And to save you watching the whole movie, you can catch Leo Watson and the Spirits of Rhythm here thanks to the wonder of YouTube.  Of course, not being as big a jazz connoisseur as I’d like to be, I hadn’t really heard of Watson until watching this movie, but you can be spared the “d’oh!” that I experienced if you go check out “The Original Scat Man,” a compilation of his work released in 1999.

Aside from that, it’s a tepid film, that has to be said.  Whatever the popularity of the film’s stars, they aren’t given a very good script.  The film’s style is really to promote Ozzie Nelson’s band.  The interest for a casual viewer has to be his romance with Harriett (their names are linked together so firmly in the American pop culture consciousness, due in no small part to their appearances like this one).  For musical fans, it’s more about Ruby Keeler in her final film role.  Overall, as “campus” movies go, it falls woefully short of the mark, but then it’s a short film at only 67 minutes, most of that taken up by the extensive soundtrack.  There isn’t time to make us understand why the school is shutting down, how the sudden enrollment even works to save it, etc.

Others have noted that this film’s sneaky achievement is showcasing television; the band makes a television appearance to promote the school at one point, and we get a very early glimpse at a television genre that would become quite popular (a band playing for a dancing crowd).

Colombia made several musicals in the early 1940s, attempting, it seems, to play into the market.  This one isn’t memorable as a musical per se.  There are no splashy songs, no big production numbers.  The music is all big band, popular of course at the time but not particularly suited to a rote musical like this one.

I think this is a movie that film buffs would enjoy, but it’s not one to seek out without that underlying thirst for rare star turns.  Ozzie and Harriett are better in other productions.  Ruby Keeler is interesting but hardly the “star” of the movie, despite being declared the eponymous Sweetheart of the Campus by Lambert Tech students, and is overshadowed in a lot of ways by the creaky script and the obvious attention on her co-stars.

Sweetheart of the Campus is available on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

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