Tuesday, December 17, 2013

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "OVER THE GOAL" (1937)

Over the Goal, like the previously-discussed Tear Gas Squad, is another genre-mashup production from Warner Brothers' B-unit. A dizzying hybrid of sports, crime, comedy, drama, music and romance, its 63 minutes fly by with the ease of a quarterback with a broken fibula. 

Ken Thomas, the prized football-player for Carlton University, has sprained his knee. Ken's sweetie, Lucille, has made him promise not to play in the final game of the season against State University, thus making him a pariah among his classmates. (As one of Over the Goal's characters sagely observes, "There's always a woman at the bottom of every man's troubles." Ain't it the truth.) But once she learns that a deceased wealthy alum has left his entire fortune to Carlton if they win that very game, she gives Ken the OK -- money for the school being more important than him risking a crippling injury.

"OK boys, I want you to
go out there and kick
the crap out of the guy who
 wrote this movie."
A lawyer representing the opposing side of the alum's inheritance, getting wind of Ken's return, frames him for car theft. No slouch at criminal behavior himself, Ken bribes a dimwitted law-enforcement official with a seat on the sidelines in order to get to the game. Suiting up with five minutes to spare, Ken's on the field, where he
hurts his knee again and is knocked out. (The well-trained team doctor slaps him back to consciousness.) Hero that he is, Ken still kicks the winning goal, and to hell with his crumbling knee or any future dementia -- the school gets the dead guy's dough.


You have to wonder what Jack Warner thought when viewing Over the
William Hopper, the only
actor who could double as
a marionette.
Goal in his screening room, if he even saw it at all. It's a given that movies, especially in the '30s, were supposed to provide some kind of escape from audiences' humdrum lives. But, damn, this picture really pushes the concept of escape to levels unseen by the Hubble telescope.  My 17 year-old daughter enjoyed Over the Goal's nonsense with me, shaking her head throughout, amused and stunned by its whiplash story turns and inane subplots. Of course, she was most interested in William Hopper, the actor playing Ken Thomas, whom she immediately recognized as Perry Mason's sidekick Paul Drake. (It's astonishing to me that she's as popular as she is in school while being a fan of arcane entertainment that nobody twice her age has even heard of.) Possessing the rugged personality of a hand towel, William Hopper is way too much the pretty-boy to be convincing as a football player, much like me.

Then there's Johnnie Davis as the team's waterboy Tiny Waldron. Obnoxious as a broken
"Hey coach, why is the audience
running away from me when I sing?"
truck horn, Davis doesn't speak one line of dialogue in a normal tone of voice when screeching will do. A running gag involving a bucket of water over a doorway allows him to laugh hysterically every ten minutes or so, further amping the annoyance quota.  A middling psuedo-jazz singer-trumpet player in his day -- he introduced "Hooray for Hollywood" in 1938 -- Davis gets to cram a couple of numbers into Over the Goal to justify his being there. His singing style can best be described as Louis Prima after gargling with Bab-O while getting his cojones caught in a vise. It's a tribute to Warners' marketing department that Davis' first name is spelled "Johnnie" in the posters and credits, but "Johnny (Hot Stuff)" and "Johnny (Scat)" in the trailer. I'd probably lean toward "Johnny (Scat)" because he sounds like shit.



Davis also figures in Over the Goal's primary subplot. Caught in a minor infraction of school rules, the Carlton seniors order Tiny and his beanie-wearing freshman pals to steal State University's mascot, a black bear who's locked up in a cage the size of your average studio apartment bathroom. (Animal abuse = plenty of laffs.) To do so, they need the help of the bear's former keeper, William, who demands a raccoon coat as payment. This entire
Eddie Anderson waits for
Jack Benny's call so he can
get the heck out of movies
like Over the Goal.
segment could have played even stupider than it sounds. Luckily for us, however, William is played by Eddie Anderson, who, that same year, made his debut as Rochester, the hilariously sardonic valet, on Jack Benny's radio program. An excellent character actor, Anderson possesses the rare qualities of timing and delivery that elevates whatever foolishness he's supposed to partake in -- like, say, the resulting production number. Anderson, now wearing a raccoon coat, leads the hind leg-walking, football helmet-wearing bear around the gymnasium on a leash while Johnnie Davis screams the unforgettable "Scattin' with Mr. Bear" in his air-raid siren voice and the freshmen follow in a conga line. One can only hope that Anderson
received hazard pay for this number.

Hattie's sincerity didn't
come cheap.
It's fitting that the only other person in Over the Goal who matches Anderson laugh for laugh is Hattie McDaniel as his long-suffering wife. (She's threatened to sue the bear for the "alteration of affection.") Many race-sensitive viewers these days cringe when she or even Eddie Anderson turn up in old movies. What they don't allow themselves to realize is that these two are great character actors who steal every movie they're in. There's a reason Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for Gone with the Wind and appeared on a postage stamp, you know. She's also responsible for one of the more incisive quotes regarding the movie industry: "We all respect sincerity in our friends, but Hollywood is willing to pay for it."

You'd smile, too, if you got
top-billing for ten lines of
dialogue.
Warners certainly didn't pay much for Over the Goal's budget, that's for sure. Much of the running time is taken up by stock footage of USC football games subbing for Carlton's, and the endless pep rallies held in the miniscule gymnasium. (At no point is anyone within a hundred yards of a classroom.) The dusty backlot town where Ken is briefly jailed seems to have been left over from a Western.  Presumably most of the money went to the inexplicably-top billed June Travis, whose total screentime as Ken's girlfriend Lucille is roughly three minutes. Either Warners was trying desperately to promote her as its next leading lady, or she was awfully friendly with the casting director.

The Carlton cuties pretend to
enjoy Johnnie Davis licking
an ice cream cone.

Culturally, the most fascinating part of Over the Goal is how well-dressed college student extras are. The guys wear jackets, ties and dressy-trousers, the girls are nicely-turned out in blouses and skirts pressed to within an inch of their lives. The only sign of trouble is when the kids hold a well-behaved protest march begging Ken to play in the big game. In fact, most everyone from faculty on down spends their time guilt-tripping Ken even though he risks permanent injury by playing. Real nice bunch of people they got there at Carlton U.  

The idea of mixing college football with crime was done to better effect by the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers five years earlier, only they were in on the joke. The cast of Over the Goal, on the other hand, takes this goofiness seriously, or at least does a good imitation of it. (Remember Hattie McDaniel's remark about Hollywood sincerity?) I've seen this movie twice and actually disbelieved it even more the second time around. But both my college-bound daughter and I learned some valuable lessons:
 
1) Football is more important than an education. 
2) You play through the pain. 
3) Bears enjoy walking on their hind legs and wearing football helmets. 

I only hope that she makes Carlton University's early decision. She'll have a blast.  
     
                                                   **************** 

The post on Tear Gas Squad can be found here.

Here's Over The Goal's original trailer, with a chunk of "Scattin' with Mr. Bear" for your entertainment pleasure. Like the hype says, it's something to blow about. (You may have to endure a brief commercial first):

  



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