26 September 2002 | lugonian
SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS (Columbia, 1941), directed by Edward Dmytryk, is one of many quickie musicals Columbia churned out during the 1940s, particularly those starring Ann Miller and/or the now forgotten name of Jinx Faulkenberg, just to name a few. However, the sole interest to this musical programmer is watching Ruby Keeler making her final starring screen appearance, her first since MOTHER CAREY'S CHICKENS (RKO, 1938), and whose glory days at Warner Brothers, which began with her successful entrance in the classic 42nd STREET (1933), and, nine movies later, the curtain coming down with READY, WILLING AND ABLE (1937).
In SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, Keeler plays Betty Blake, a tap dancer and sole female member of Ozzie Nelson's band. The stranded troupe, engaged to perform at a night spot near Lambert Tech College, encounter Mrs. Minnie Sparr Lambert (Kathleen Howard), whose sole purpose is to close down the college, which is in financial ruin. However, with the help of Harriet Dale (Harriet Hilliard), who stands up against the snooty Mrs. Lambert, she comes across an idea by having Ozzie Nelson and his musical troupe put on a publicity campaign to interest new students by enrolling at the college themselves. In hope to double the enrollment, the gang get to perform on W.O.O. radio station, television and host student dances in a gymnasium as well as open a nightclub on the campus. Along the line, Harriet finds herself falling in love with Ozzie (thus the beginning of Ozzie and Harriet), while Betty finds herself choosing between accepting a part in a Broadway musical or giving it up for the love of Terry Jones (Gordon Oliver), a college man.
For the musical program, which takes up more screen time than the actual storyline, the songs include: "Beat It Out," "Tap Happy" (by Jacque Press and Eddie Cherkov); "When the Glee Club Swings the Alma Mata" (by Charles Newman and Walter E. Samuels); "Where is Where" (by Jacques Krakeur/ sung by Harriet Hilliard); "Tap Happy" "Tom-Tom, the Elevator Boy" (sung by the Four Spirits of Rhythm); Tap dancing specialty number; "Here We Go Again" (sung by Hilliard); "Beat It Out" "Here We Go Again" (reprise by Hilliard); tap dance number; "Tom-Tom, the Elevator Boy" and "Tap Happy" (finale with Keeler).
For Ruby Keeler's swan song, SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS found her singing voice, for the first time on screen, dubbed by another vocalist. The tune titled "Tap Happy," a song better suited for Keeler's talents, for which she taps her way through this production, from night clubs to inside a jail cell. Harriet Hilliard, who would find fame a decade later opposite her off-screen husband, Ozzie Nelson, in the long running television series, THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, vocalizes pleasantly to "Here We Go Again." As in with her performance in her debut film, FOLLOW THE FLEET (RKO Radio, 1936), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Hilliard plays a somewhat plain-jane character with glasses, who grooms to an attractive woman after removing the glasses, only to see for herself the attention she gets from Ozzie. And speaking of television, SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS takes an early inside look into TV production, not in sit-coms or variety shows that would become popular a decade later, but in musical programming featuring band playing, singing and dancing.
Also seen in the supporting cast are Columbia contract players of Don Beddoe as Sheriff Denby; Byron Foulger as Doctor Bailey; and George Lessey as Doctor Hale.
The movie itself isn't great, but is certainly watchable during its brief 67 minutes. There are no real production numbers to speak of, none in the Busby Berkeley manner of lavishness, but only a handful of peppy songs 1940s style, many done in brief followed by a series of montage sequences. But all in all, this movie is a rare find. One of its sporadic television presentations in recent years happened to be on cable's Turner Classic Movies during its early years on the air in 1994, when the station itself presented its limitation of several Columbia programmers of the 1930s and '40s, some starring Ann Miller prior to her MGM years.
To get an inside look into the life and career of Ruby Keeler herself, watch the documentary titled, RUBY KEELER: THE QUEEN OF NOSTALGIA (1998), which occasionally plays on Turner Classic Movies. The documentary as a whole doesn't go too much into depth in regards to her movie career, by which very few clips from her movies are shown, but into detail about a young dancer from Canada, who, by chance, begins her career by performing in night clubs, Broadway musicals, her long but unhappy marriage to legendary entertainer Al Jolson which started her to a movie musical career that barely lasted a decade, then to lengthy interviews by some of her grown children from her second and happy marriage (to John Lowe), along with some rare home movies of her family, and a look into the private life of a former hoofer who went into retirement after being voted on screen as SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS. (**)