By Ed Garea
Sweetheart of the Campus (Columbia, 1941) - Director: Edward Dmytryk. Writers: Robert H. Andrews & Edmund L. Hartman (s/p). Cast: Ruby Keeler, Ozzie Nelson, Harriet Hilliard, Gordon Oliver, Don Beddoe, Charles Judels, Kathleen Roward, Byron Foulger, George Lessey, Frank Gaby, Zoot Watson, & Four Spirits of Rhythm. B&W, 70 minutes.
This little programmer from Columbia is notable only for two items: it’s Ozzie and Harriet’s first movie pairing, and it’s Ruby Keeler’s last film. Other than that, the rest is filler. Bad filler.
Ozzie Norton (Nelson) and his band are about to open in a new nightclub near the campus of Lambeth Technological Institute. Ozzie’s featured attraction is dancer Betty Blake (Keeler), who’s in love with Ozzie (naturally). A dancer fronting a big band? Oh, well.
Rehearsal goes well, with Betty tapping away to a lame song, but then the party is interrupted by the presence of Mrs. Minnie Lambert Sparr (Howard), accompanied by a cast that includes the sheriff (Beddoes) and Harriet Hale (Hilliard), the daughter of Dr. Hale (Lessey), a professor at the college. Sparr, the head of the college, insists the joint be closed because it violates a state law forbidding the establishment of such a club within five miles of the campus. She tells the sheriff to padlock the place.
Lest we think that Mrs. Sparr is your typical puritanical battleax, it seems she has an ulterior motive in mind, as exposed by Harriet Hale. Under the terms of her late brother’s will, the land on which the college sits will revert to Mrs. Sparr if the enrollment drops below 300 students. Her plan is to turn the college into a girls’ seminary.
Not taking this lying down, Ozzie and the band lead a protest match, but are jailed by the sheriff for their troubles. Harriet visits them while in jail and lets them know not only that she’s on their side, spilling the beans about Mrs. Sparr, but that she has a plan. Yes, a plan. She proposes they all enroll at the college to boost enrollment. The band’s publicist, Terry Jones (Oliver) sees this as a great publicity stunt, and builds a publicity campaign around the fact that Betty is the only co-ed at the college.
They begin by preempting the college television station and performing a number with Harriet singing. When Harriet and the guys decide to turn an abandoned gym into a nightclub, the Battleax protests. But Harriet outmaneuvers the old goat by describing it as a commissary with music. The resulting publicity has attracted a bevy of co-eds and a traveling football team. By this time Ozzie now has a weekly show on the college station featuring the warbling of Harriet.
Not to be outdone, Mrs. Sparr insists that all new students take a series of examinations administered by the strict Dr. Bailey (Foulger). But Betty manages to pass, mainly by flattering Dr. Bailey. But though she’s won the battle, she loses the war, as Ozzie declares his love for Harriet. Miffed, Betty decides to take an offer on Broadway, but before she leaves, Terry declares that he’s fallen in love with her.
Betty becomes a smash hit on Broadway, and as the Battleax eagerly awaits the end of term so she can take over the place, Betty suddenly arrives with a bevy of new students she has recruited from her admirers. She also announces her intention to remain on campus, and Terry kisses her at the end.
As mentioned before, Sweetheart of the Campus is a serviceable, if not spectacular, programmer; the sort that keeps the audience entertained while awaiting the main feature, but not good enough to overshadow it. The plot, though clichéd, is pleasant enough, and the songs listenable if not memorable. As also mentioned before, it was the first film in which both Ozzie and Harriet co-starred. Some fans were of the mistaken belief that this was where they met, but in truth they’d been married since 1935. In three years, they would begin The Ozzie and Harriet Show on radio and segue over to television in the ‘50s, where they would compete with Ward and June Clever for the title of America’s favorite white bread couple.
This was, indeed, Keeler’s last movie. Having come over to Columbia from RKO, this was her only movie for Columbia, and, after seeing the contents, decided that she didn’t have to be an archeologist to read the handwriting on the wall. Her tempestuous marriage to Al Jolson had ended in 1940, and she had married second (and last) husband, John Homer Lowe in 1941. It was just as well, for Keeler’s success at Warner’s was based on two items: her charisma and her marriage to Jolson, who Warner’s had signed with huge expectations. Speaking about her days at Warner Brothers, she was forthright when she said, “It's really amazing. I couldn't act. I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn't the greatest tap dancer in the world, either.” The entertainment world would not see Ruby again until 1971, when she starred in the Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, directed by none other than Busby Berkeley.
Aside from the stars, the most interesting thing about the film is the look it gives us into the very early days of television, via the “campus television station.” NBC had started to broadcast television in New York City in 1939, but the effort was placed on hiatus during the war.
Also, don’t blink when the football teams arrives on campus, or you may just miss Alan Hale, Jr. in an early role as one of the players.
Betty Blake (Keeler): “Ozzie and Harriet, Ozzie and Harriet, Ozzie and Harriet - you say it like they go together like ham and eggs!”
During the film, Betty Blake takes Harriet Hale (Hilliard) aside to give her advice about marriage. The former Mrs. Al Jolson tells the present and future Mrs. Ozzie Nelson, “Being married to someone more famous than you are isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Truer words were never spoken.