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A Yank at Oxford
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A Yank at Oxford

Robert Taylor's roles in films such as Magnificent Obsession (1935) and Camille (1937) established him as a romantic lead. While female audiences loved him in these roles, men found him too weak. According to Lawrence J. Quirk in The Films of Robert Taylor, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer gave Taylor the lead role in A Yank at Oxford (1938) "in an effort to counteract his 'pretty boy' image which had threatened his stardom with its constant implications that he was 'soft,' 'a ladies' darling,' and possibly 'effeminate.'" In A Yank at Oxford, Taylor plays Lee Sheridan, a brash American college student studying at Oxford. At first, Sheridan's arrogance clashes with his classmates, but he eventually earns their trust. Maureen O'Sullivan plays his love interest and Vivien Leigh has a small role as a flirtatious English woman.

Mayer's intention to toughen Taylor's image with this film worked. In addition to A Yank at Oxford being a box office success, it earned Taylor a new respect with audiences and the press. Quirk describes how Taylor managed the turnaround, "He rows, he races, he wears brief track suits which demonstrate to everyone's final satisfaction that he has a good mat of hair on his chest, and he even gets into fist fights during the course of the film." Taylor's character is on the school's rowing team, so the actor frequently had to shoot scenes in cold water. In order to prepare for the scenes, Taylor would soak in a tub filled with ice every morning. He even got so involved in preparing for the rowing that he would challenge the professional rowing teams.

Mayer was reluctant to cast the then unknown Vivien Leigh in the part of Elsa Craddock. Producer Michael Balcon persuaded Mayer to keep her, pointing out she was already living in England and it would cost a great deal to bring someone else over from Hollywood. According to Hugo Vickers in Vivien Leigh, Leigh's friend, "actress Eve Phillips, believed that, in her playing Elsa Craddock in A Yank at Oxford, Vivien was in effect doing a screen test for Scarlett, playing her 'as saucy and sexual, like an imperious modern-day Cleopatra,' a kind of 'English version of Scarlett O'Hara.'"

A Yank at Oxford was MGM's first British production. Louis B. Mayer wanted to ensure that everyone knew he was still in charge, so he often visited the set giving out orders. He even got into a fight with producer Michael Balcon within earshot of Maureen O'Sullivan and Vivien Leigh and Balcon eventually resigned.

Several writers worked on the script for A Yank at Oxford, including author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although he was not credited, Fitzgerald spent three weeks touching up the script and adding dialogue. A sequel, A Yank at Eton, was made in 1942 with Mickey Rooney. Then in 1984 Rob Lowe starred in a remake entitled Oxford Blues.

Director: Jack Conway
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Walter Ferris, Leon Gordon, George Oppenheimer, F. Scott Fitzgerald (uncredited)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Music: Hubert Bath, Edward Ward
Cast: Robert Taylor (Lee Sheridan), Lionel Barrymore (Dan Sheridan), Maureen O'Sullivan (Molly Beaumont), Vivien Leigh (Elsa Craddock), Edmund Gwenn (Dean of Cardinal College). BW-103m. Closed captioning.

by Deborah Looney

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