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Dancing Co-Ed (1939) was MGM's stab at bringing bandleading clarinetist Artie Shaw into Hollywood's filmed pantheon of Swing Era luminaries that included Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Shaw's clarinet-wielding rival, Benny Goodman. While Miller and Goodman received the ultimate Hollywood genuflection biopics, with Jimmy Stewart as Miller in 1953 and Steve Allen as Goodman in 1955 this was as far as Shaw got in movies. Part of the reason may have been Shaw's own ambivalence about Hollywood. Lana Turner, his third wife, making the most of her first top-billed role in her 12th film, called him an intellectual snob. Still, he more than gets the job done.
He does a lot of it before we even see him, as the brassy growl of Shaw's theme song, "Nightmare," is heard over the opening credits. He's asked only to play himself, which he does with unforced ease (although not with as much geniality as Goodman in Hollywood Hotel in 1937), culminating in a campus concert at the end. Later, he complained about being asked to seem a cross between Rudy Vallee and Ben Bernie. It perhaps explains the somewhat sullen cast to his hunky, white dinner-jacketed look.
The formulaic collegiate plot, crossed with the MGM hey-kids-let's-do-a-show template perfected with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, isn't graced with any really memorable songs, but it's enlivened by a screenful of jitterbugging and a graceful dance routine unfurled by Ann Rutherford, until then best known as Mickey's loyal girlfriend, Polly, in the Andy Hardy movies.
The revelation here is Turner, the seventeen-year-old Idaho-born redhead who became a legend even before the lens cover came off the camera; she lived the Hollywood dream, having been discovered by Hollywood Reporter kingpin Billy Wilkinson, who moved her from behind the soda fountain at Schwab's drugstore to a Hollywood career that proved a mixed blessing. Turner was hardly ever regarded as anything but a sex symbol dished up by the Dream Factory, an image cemented by her reign as WW II pinup queen alongside Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. Known as The Sweater Girl, her likeness was festooned across servicemen's gear ranging from foot lockers to bomber fuselages.
But here, in 1939, before her image became her prison, she reveals a flair for light comedy you can't help wishing Hollywood had made more of. In the tissue-thin plot, she's featured as the dancing daughter of an old Broadway vaudevillean (Leon Errol), positioned for her big movie break after the woman in a famous dance team becomes pregnant and her male partner needs a new dancing co-star quickly. To drum up interest among the collegiate demographic, fast-talking studio flack Roscoe Karns stages a phony contest rigged to culminate in Turner's hoofer being "discovered" after having been planted among the student body at a Midwest college.
It moves right along until the editor of the student newspaper an earnest Richard Carlson (the same Richard Carlson who rose to B-movie immortality in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) after It Came from Outer Space (1953), not to mention TV success as Commie-fighting Herbert Philbrick in I Led Three Lives). He uncovers the ruse and licks his lips over a big expos. Or would, if he didn't find himself falling for Turner and licking his lips instead over the thought of romancing her. It's as if he's playing the Dick Powell role opposite Turner's Joan Blondell. Eleanor Powell was the original choice for the role, but when she proved unavailable, Turner was moved up from the ranks, a fact the script exploits by interpolating a line about the fictitious studio in the film being unable to land Powell or Ginger Rogers!
Predictable triteness ensues, and it can't be said that Sylvan Simon's direction is in any way sparkling or distinguished. But Dancing Co-Ed is agreeably watchable, buoyed by its collective good spirits, smart pacing and solid character work from such studio reliables as Errol, Thurston Hall as the blustering studio boss, Walter Kingsford as the harrumphing college president and Monty Woolley, reaching back into his real-life teaching days at Yale to play the lit prof here, dryly one-upping his students. Although its efficient packaging of Shaw, including a solo by drummer Buddy Rich, satisfied the bobby-soxers, Turner is the reason for seeing the film.
She's good-natured, a little rough around the edges, but likeably simpatico, with a charm arising from the fact that she's set apart from the collegiate stereotypes. So Blondell, yes, in her perky toughness and resilience, but also a hint of Carole Lombard. Her vibrant openness comes much closer to the working girl from Idaho she was than almost any of her other films allowed her to be, and it's not at all certain that her wholesomeness, leavened by its working-class unpretentiousness, wouldn't have outlasted her manufactured pre-Marilyn Monroe sex goddess stereotype, had her career gone in that direction.
Turner's good humor here, incidentally, is in marked contrast to the disillusionment and distaste with which she recalled her brief (four months, seventeen days) marriage to Shaw, a mismatch to which she was susceptible, she writes, because she had just learned that the man she loved, Hollywood lawyer Greg Bautzer, had been two-timing her with Joan Crawford. She and Shaw had little to do with one another during the filming of Dancing Co-Ed. But when he called her a year later, his timing couldn't have been better. At the end of their first date, spent on a beach and consisting mostly of Shaw talking and Turner listening, he chartered a plane and they flew to Las Vegas for a whirlwind elopement. It was her first marriage, his third (of eight), and its short duration was due in part to his taking on the role of Pygmalion to her Galatea, loading her down with books to improve her mind and insisting she play down her glamorous side with a more dowdy look. Thus began an unwanted love-hate relationship between Turner and the media. It culminated in 1958, when her daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Turner's mobster lover, Johnny Stompanato, to death. The notoriety pumped up the box-office receipts of Turner's Peyton Place (1957), the scandal-mongering film of Grace Metalious's critically skewered but best-selling novel about small-town sexual shenanigans. Turner remained a star for decades, and a presence on the MGM lot, specializing in sexy femmes fatales. Dancing Co-Ed is where movies really began for her -- innocently enough and, apart from the Fred Astaire film, Second Chorus (1940), the following year, ended for Shaw.
Producer: Edgar Selwyn
Director: S. Sylvan Simon
Screenplay: Albert Mannheimer; Albert Treynor (story "The Dancing Coed"); Herbert Fields (treatment, uncredited)
Cinematography: Alfred Gilks
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Snell, Edward Ward
Film Editing: W. Donn Hayes
Cast: Lana Turner (Patty Marlow), Richard Carlson (Michael 'Pug' Braddock), Artie Shaw (Himself), Ann Rutherford (Miss Eve Greeley), Lee Bowman (Freddy Tobin), Thurston Hall (Henry W. 'H.W.' Workman), Leon Errol (Sam 'Pops' Marlow), Roscoe Karns (Joe Drews).
by Jay Carr
New York Times review, Nov. 10, 1939
The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, by David Shipman, Crown, 1970
Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner, Dutton, 1982
Artie Shaw biography at swingmusic.net
The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity, by Artie Shaw, Farrar, Strauss & Young, 1952