One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: School’s out for summer. Celebrate the end of a semester (or just the release of Neighbors 2) with these unconventional campus comedies.
Animal House defined the college comedy for the ’70s and ’80s, but it was far from the first time that American moviemakers went back to campus. In the silent and early sound eras, Hollywood generated stories galore about dating, sports, and putting on a show, using a university setting as an excuse to fill the casts with fresh young faces. Often these were nostalgia pieces, based on the writers’ own memories of matriculation. Sometimes they spoofed the fleeting fads of youth culture.
Good News did both. The Ray Henderson/B.G. DeSylva/Lew Brown musical first opened on Broadway in 1927, and made fun of how the age of the flapper and hot jazz had turned college campuses into places where parties took precedence over studying. The 1930 MGM movie version of Good News stays fairly faithful to the source material, telling the story of a lunkheaded football phenom who’s in danger of missing “the big game” if he doesn’t pass a re-test in astronomy class with the help of a prim, bookish, jock-averse young lady. In 1947, MGM’s Arthur Freed had director Charles Walters and screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green remake the film, but still set the story in the late ’20s, so it’d seem more quaint.
Ironically, the older Good News is the hipper one. Taking its cues from the stage show, the first film is a lot more focused on the wantonness of youth, with songs and sketches tackling smoking, smooching, boozing, and gambling. It was so lustful, in fact, that within a few years—when the Production Code took hold in Hollywood—it was banned. The 1930 Good News eventually reappeared on the archival circuit, but without the special Technicolor dance sequence that had been shot for its big finale. Still, while the movie today looks decidedly PG, it’s a kick to see the raw, sensual physicality of MGM’s dancers in the big party scenes.
The same can be said of the 1947 Good News, which cleans up a lot of the innuendo and vice from the original production, and adds the sweetly soft June Allyson and Peter Lawford as the romantic leads, but still feels like it’s getting away with something whenever the performers are kicking up their bare legs. If nothing else, the score’s appropriation of gospel and tribal sounds—while culturally insensitive—illustrates American youth’s eternal desire to be “cool.” And it’s that wild enthusiasm and zest for living that connects the two Good Newses to Animal House and all of its descendants. Ultimately these movies are about how, in the right setting, the late teens and early 20s of youth can be one long, sexy, drunken, inappropriate celebration.
Availability: The 1947 Good News is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library, and can be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets. The 1930 version is out of circulation, but pops up occasionally on TCM.