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By Phil Hall | November 7, 2014

BOOTLEG FILES 557: “All-American Co-Ed” (1941 musical comedy featuring Frances Langford and Harry Langdon).

LAST SEEN: The film can be found on YouTube and Internet Archive.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was included in a 2010 DVD anthology collection of public domain musical films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: An orphan film that seems unlikely to ever see a proper restoration and standalone release.

There is an excellent chance that you never heard of this 1941 film, which is rather interesting since it brought together an extraordinary array of talent and even earned a pair of Academy Award nominations. But once you actually sit down and watch this film, you will be left wondering how so many gifted people could create something so woefully quotidian.

“All-American Co-Ed” is supposed to be about an academic battle of the sexes between the ladies of the all-female Mar Brynn College (a riff on the Bryn Mawr College) and the all-male Quinceton (a spoof on Princeton). The young men of the Zeta fraternity at Quinceton specialize in producing a drag revue, featuring some rather elaborate female impersonator make-up and costumes. A fast-talking male publicity agent convinces the elderly female president of Mar Brynn to openly ridicule Quinceton as part of a campaign to attract new female students. The Zeta frat boys decide to get their revenge by having one of their drag revue members infiltrate Mar Brynn’s line-up of new students – but this guy-in-drag winds up falling in love with the beautiful niece of the Mar Brynn president.

If that seems like a rather condensed plot summary, that’s because “All-American Co-Ed” is a rather condensed film – the whole thing runs a mere 53 minutes, and includes four musical numbers. Let’s step back for a moment and explain how this weird thing came about.

“All-American Co-Ed” was a product of the Hal Roach studio, which first gained prominence in the 1920s and 1930s for its quirky low comedy shorts featuring the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and Our Gang. By the late 1930s, Roach began to migrate away from short comedies and concentrated on producing prestige feature films, including “Topper,” “Of Mice and Men” and “One Million B.C.” In the early 1940s, Roach switched his focus to creating “streamliners,” a series of featurettes that would be used as the lower half of the double-feature presentations that were popular in the cinemas of the era. These films ran under an hour and mostly carried B-grade production values, but sometimes an extra degree of attention and talent would be devoted to their creation.

And this was the case of “All-American Co-Ed,” beginning with the recruitment of LeRoy Prinz, a prominent choreographer who was eager to branch out into directing. For the starring role, Roach hired Frances Langford, a popular singer who had recently become the vocalist on Bob Hope’s weekly radio comedy show. Langford’s previous film appearances were mostly guest shots in all-star musical productions, so this offered her a rare chance to become a leading lady in her own feature.

In the plum supporting role as the glib publicist, Roach tapped his old friend Harry Langdon. Although he was briefly considered a rival to Chaplin and Keaton during the late silent movie era, Langdon’s star had waned during the 1930s. Roach helped to keep Langdon working, both as a gag writer and in occasional acting gigs (most notably the 1939 feature “Zenobia,” which teamed Langdon with a Laurel-free Oliver Hardy).

So what went wrong? For starters, “All-American Co-Ed” was a dumb comedy, even by the standards of early 1940s B-movies, the production offered a Neanderthal view of women’s education and the notion that any young woman in pursuit of a college degree should be viewed with suspicion. Rather than celebrate academic achievement, the film presents the female students (including uncredited then-unknowns Marie Windsor and Elyse Knox) as little more than curvaceous starlets with a talent for singing and dancing – which is rather unusual, considering that the college supposedly places a strong focus on agricultural science.

But the guys don’t come off much better. The Zeta fraternity boys are depicted as smug bullies with a dreary sense of entitlement – and their stupidity is reinforced when a pair of frat brothers (played by future TV stars Noah Beery Jr. and Alan Hale Jr.) receive orders to carry out the violent outing the drag impersonator from the fraternity once he falls in love with Frances Langford’s character.

And that’s another problem with “All-American Co-Ed”: the keystone to this farce is the frat boy who dresses up like a girl into to infiltrate Mar Brynn. He’s played by Johnny Downs, a one-time child actor from the Our Gang films who was trying to make the transition into adult roles. Downs is utterly dismal as a drag performer – he clearly does not look or move like a woman, despite elaborate make-up and costuming, and his inability to feign a female voice is barely excused with a running joke that she/he is supposed suffering from laryngitis. He also fails to capture the comic confusion and paranoia of his drag disguise — compare his dull reactions to this unlikely dilemma to similar situations handled by Ray Bolger in “Where’s Charley?” or Jack Lemmon in “Some Like it Hot,” or even Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria.” But, quite frankly, he is not much better when he is in male clothing – his romantic scenes with Langford (who was no great actress) are the film’s low points.

By contemporary standards, there is also the problem of an extended comedy sequence with an African American laundry room attendant, played by the great comic actress Lillian Randolph. The scene traffics in the tired notion of a black person being terrified by the fear of ghosts, and even Randolph – who turned political incorrectness into comic gold as the sassy voice of Mammy Two-Shoes in the Tom and Jerry cartoons – was unable to plumb any laughs from this shrill detour.

Oddly, the film’s other African American character offers a genuine surprise: Dudley Dickerson as an ebullient railroad porter who wanders into a train car full of gorgeous white Mar Brynn students (who are in the midst of a musical number!) and begins to perform a wildly gyrating dance. The idea of having a black man (even in a comedy relief situation) dancing along with white women was highly unusual for a 1941 film.

Indeed, there were more than a few moments when “All-American Co-Ed” seems to be itching for a fight with the censors. Langdon’s character openly has his sexuality questioned by the Mar Brynn president, and he later bluntly remarks, “Give me the girl and I’ll give you the bird.” The film’s climax – a musical number with women dressed in agriculturally inspired costumes – includes a woman clutching two ridiculously oversized tomatoes over her breasts and has song lyrics like “she just can’t rumba with an old cucumber.”

As for the film’s Oscar pedigree: the song “Out of the Silence” and Edward Ward’s musical score were nominated. In case you are wondering, the score from “Dumbo” took the Oscar instead of Ward’s work while “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Lady Be Good” was named Best Song (even though that tune was not written specifically for the film “Lady Be Good” – the Oscar rules were changed the following year to prevent a repeat of that situation).

Still, as piece of B-level fluff, “All-American Co-Ed” is hardly a toxic entity. And thanks to a lapsed copyright, it can easily be enjoyed via public domain dupes (of varying quality) at several online video sites; it was also part of a 2010 Mill Creek Entertainment DVD release featuring a bunch of copyright-free musical films.

Yes, this film’s obscurity is probably well-deserved. But, hey, there are worse ways to spend 53 minutes!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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