"The Varsity Drag"

It’s been pretty well established that the Freed unit at MGM was the zenith for movie musicals during the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, when it came to adapting stage hits for film they were seldom faithful to their source material. In some cases, a film musical only retained the title and maybe a song or two and nothing else. The 1947 version of Good News directed by Charles Walters fared better than most, but wasn’t spared in being overhauled. (A 1930 film was made and quickly forgotten; clips are bonus material on the DVD). The song order was changed, songs were dropped and others composed specifically for the film. Comden and Green had their first screenplay assignment bringing the 1927 smash to a late forties sensibility, and supplied the words for “The French Lesson.” Roger Edens, Ray Henderson, Kay Thompson, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane all contributed new material. Edens, Martin & Blane were Oscar-nominated for “Pass that Peace Pipe,” a showcase for Joan McCracken, a vibrant musical comedy dancer who is (unfairly) recognized as a footnote in musical theatre lore as Bob Fosse’s first wife.

The plot, if you want to call it that, involves the star player for the college football team (an unlikely Peter Lawford) who needs to be tutored in French by the charming all-American Connie Lane (the lovable June Allyson) in order to pass his exam and win the “big game.” Complications ensue when a golddigger (Patricia Marshall, who is perhaps best known as Mrs. Larry Gelbart) sets her sights on our hero. I’ll give you three guesses how the story turns out and the second two don’t count. While the film isn’t in the upper ranks of MGM classics like The Band Wagon or Singin’ in the Rain, it is considerably charming. In pulling out the stops, MGM also placed Mel Torme on the scene as one of the college cohorts, getting his own reprise of the show’s famed ballad “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

The show was revived at the tail end of the nostalgia craze of the early 70s that brought about No, No Nanette and Irene, among others. Starring Alice Faye and John Payne, the show went out on a considerable road tour before coming to NY with Gene Nelson replacing Payne. The show was revised to build up the senior roles (professors) to give Faye and Payne/Nelson considerably more stage time ultimately deflecting the show and its energy away from the kids. The revival was met with critical indifference and lasted 16 performances at the St James Theatre. (A live cast album was made as a souvenir for the show folk out there and features the sole Broadway performance of the late, great Alice Faye). Another reworking of the show was crafted in 1993 and is licensed as an updated alternative to the original piece. While we’re on it, this would be one helluva a fun show for Encores.

“The Varsity Drag” was originally an act one showstopper led by the soubrette (McCracken’s character) but for the sake of creative license (and because the song is pure joy) it became the film’s finale, choreographed by Robert Alton. It’s one of those big 20s style numbers that’s insanely catchy (plus it teaches you the basic steps in its lyrics) and I just love it. Here’s a clip from the 1947 film.