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In the same year that he co-wrote the Oscar®-winning screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941) with Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz also scripted the considerably more lightweight Rise and Shine (1941), based on characters and incidents from James Thurber's autobiographical "My Life and Hard Times." The 20th Century Fox film has a giddy tone and a satirical bite that raises it above the standard collegiate comedy with musical interludes; the fact that producer Mark Hellinger enlisted star Jack Oakie to bring his dumb football player persona back to the screen (where he was a fixture in the 1930s) at the age of 37 is an indication that the filmmakers are aiming for a romp bordering on the surreal. In addition to Oakie, the antics of Rise and Shine provide fun roles for a number of comic actors, all playing to their strengths. In particular, Walter Brennan shines in a wildly eccentric part and even nominal "straight man" George Murphy projects more personality than usual in a role that allows for some physical comedy for a change.
The film opens with a rousing musical number (all songs are written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger), "Hail to Bolenciecwicz," featuring a bevy of overly-glamorous cheerleaders marching in step and acting much more like a Broadway chorus line rather than college cheerleaders. The big finish has them spell out the subject of their song in held-up placards, although it comes out as COWEBINCCEZL! The girls, led by Louise Murray (Linda Darnell), are all atwitter because star football prospect "Boley" Bolenciecwicz (Jack Oakie) is due to arrive at Clayton College, which is in dire need of a boost to their sports program. The problem is that the Conference Investigating Committee threatens to declare Boley ineligible to play the first time he fails to pass an exam, and Boley needs a LOT of help with studies, as he is stupid. The college president (Charles Waldron) persuades economics professor Philip Murray (Donald Meek) to board Boley in his house; Boley is more than willing when he meets the professor's pretty daughter Louise. The Murray household is full of eccentrics; for example, the professor is an amateur magician constantly pulling eggs out of his mouth while Grandpa (Walter Brennan) is an irascible skirt-chaser and Civil War veteran. Complications arrive in the form of Jimmy McGonagle (George Murphy), a genial nightclub singer sent by big-city gangster Menace (Sheldon Leonard) to move in next door to the Murrays and spy on Boley. Menace bets a lot of dough every year on football, but he only loses when he doesn't have the "inside dope." As insurance, Menace also sends along an older couple, Colonel Bacon (Raymond Walburn) and Mame (Ruth Donnelly) and later, his horse-mouthed henchman, Seabiscuit (Milton Berle). Inevitably, romance sprouts as Jimmy falls for Louise and Grandpa courts Mame.
Rise and Shine is crammed with songs and incident, colorful characters and constant gags - both physical and verbal. It never gets out-of-hand thanks to referee work by veteran director Allan Dwan, a former football player himself. Screenwriter Mankiewicz seems to realize that he is dealing with clichd character types and he makes the most of it; all situations are played with a knowing wink - a tone that in later decades would be called "camp" - and no scene overstays its welcome. Choreographer Hermes Pan staged the musical sequences, and they display an intentionally reckless attitude towards logic. One scene has romantic leads Darnell and Murphy enjoying a bicycle ride with a song; here the approach to the material deviates from the norm -- the artificiality of the scene is emphasized as the pair ride mocked-up bicycles in front of a rear projection screen and perform some outlandish moves to the music.
Linda Darnell was just seventeen years old when Rise and Shine was filmed. She had been frustrated for months following the success of Blood and Sand (1941), and the contract player was being paid her salary of $750 a week to take studio-mandated lessons in acting, singing, dancing and posture, but was being passed over for important roles she felt she could tackle. According to biographer Ronald L. Davis, writing in Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream (1991, University of Oklahoma Press), in Rise and Shine "...Linda's was anything but a demanding role. Still, for the first time, she played someone her own age and even sang a few bars, which the sound department dubbed." The day before Rise and Shine wrapped shooting, Darnell turned eighteen and the cast and crew celebrated her birthday - an important one for a film actor because it meant no more teachers and welfare workers on the set, and longer working hours with fellow actors.
Rise and Shine opened in New York on Friday, December 5th, two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the New York Times review appearing on the 6th, Bosley Crowther noted that Fox was late with its annual football picture, "...but better be late than never with this harum-scarum jape, for it packs some brisk entertainment in a madly farcical vein..." Crowther felt that screenwriter Mankiewicz "borrowed freely" from sources other than the Thurber story, including the 1932 Fox comedy Rackety Rax, a satire of a collegiate football program set up by gangsters; the Kaufman and Hart play You Can't Take It with You; and "any number of football films." Nevertheless, he felt that the final product was "...as impromptu as a pick-up game, yet most of its little incidents are lively and chucklesome." The critic for Time magazine noted that Jack Oakie had not made a football picture since his nearly-decade-old comedies at Paramount Pictures, and "now a tubby 38, Oakie turns out to be the back-of-the-year at his new alma mater. Well-cast as a dumb, sleepy, semi-inhibited sophomore named Bradislaus ("Boley") Bolenciecwicz, Oakie mugs Clayton College to a national championship in a wacky welter of song and dance, romance and slapstick." This writer also notes the similarities in plot to the Kaufman-Hart play and the McLaglen film, "...but it has enough good farce to make it go - especially Walter Brennan's portrayal of a glandular octogenarian with a propensity for showing his Civil War etchings to willing blondes."
Producer: Mark Hellinger
Director: Allan Dwan
Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz (screenplay); James Thurber (story)
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Art Direction: Richard Day, George Dudley
Music: David Buttolph, Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman (all uncredited)
Choreography: Hermes Pan
Film Editing: Allen McNeil
Cast: Jack Oakie (Boley Bolenciecwicz), George Murphy (Jimmy McGonagle), Linda Darnell (Louise Murray), Walter Brennan (Grandpa), Milton Berle (Seabiscuit), Sheldon Leonard (Menace), Donald Meek (Professor Philip Murray), Ruth Donnelly (Mame Bacon), Raymond Walburn (Colonel Bacon), Donald MacBride (Coach Graham)
by John M. Miller