Sunday, April 5, 2009

COLLEGE DAYS

Okay, now that I had my April Fool's Day fun (You didnt really think SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER was a real operetta, did you?), it's time to get back to the real thing.

COLLEGE DAYS (1921), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wilson Dodge, is interesting in the fact that it has a bit of an odd construction and it's one of the first I've come across that deals with the First World War and its impact on the young people of the time.

Set (initially) in 1917, COLLEGE DAYS starts with a school baseball game. It's the bottom of the ninth in a real nail-biter, and fortunately for Brinkdale, the star player, Davey Carson, slams in a home run that puts the college in the lead and wins the game. After celebrating his win. Davey gets some "quality time" with his girlfriend, Dot, who's also the daughter of the college president.

But it seems that someone else is after Dot's affections: Chauncy de Forest (also known as "Dude", although I'm not sure why). Chauncy's a local bad boy who, through a somewhat complicated plot, manages to frame Davey as the player who throws the next game with archrival Fairfield College. Because (1) he gave his word and (2) he's apparently not very bright, Davey leaves Brinkdale at the end of Act Two with his head still high -- even though he's been thrown out of school. Instead, he's going to prove his worth to Brinkdale by going off to war.

Oddly, no one seems to care. Dot breaks their engagement, the college president acts like he's scum -- even his old teammates abandon him.

Act Three is 1919, and Davey returns a war hero. But before he can, Dot's best friend Helen gives us a full page of exposition:

As sure as you're sitting there, he's coming back a hero, First Lieutenant, medals and everything, and all cleared of that old affair. This letter and telegram came from Tubby today. I'll read you part of the letter first. "Dude de Forest dies in my arms at Chateau Thierry - he may have been a four-flusher back in school days but he fought and died like a hero. Before he "went West", he confessed he framed Davey because he couldnt bear the thought of Dot's marrying him. Davey didnt even tell me, his best pal, why he kept silent until after Dude died. Davey said Dude told him that his aunt had heart trouble and if she should learn of his connection with Foxy and he should be expelled from school it would kill her, so Davey like the hero he is took the blame. There's lots more but you can read it later.

It's actually even more complicated than that, with money going one way and then coming back from somewhere else -- but I gather the Dodges hoped the audience was taking notes. At any rate, Davey comes in, Dot forgives him (Huh?), and we move into the finale, a sprightly four-part, twelve-page hymn to Brinkdale and college and being in love.

The biggest problem with COLLEGE DAYS is the third act, which really just slams on the exposition so the story is trapped with nowhere to go. Reduced to a mere three pages of dialogue, there's no time for development, because the authors seemed almost rushed to resolve the plotlines. As a result, everything's top heavy with Act One (which is fully half the script), leaving Act Three to be nothing more than a coda at best. And that's a pity, because certainly enough would have happened to these folks (especially the ones that went off to war) to give the proceedings a bit more depth. But as it is, there's no time: Davey's the same guy we saw in Act One. If the death and destruction that was World War One impacted him at all, you'd never know it. For her part, Dot never seems much concerned about his safety as much as what he'll think of her when he returns.

The characters are the usual two-dimensional creations of the time: Dot, her father, her best friend Helen, Tubby (Davey's pal and Helen's boyfriend) are all easily sketched-out and march through their paces with no surprises. But Davey is a frustrating quandry -- he just never seems to get it that he's being had, even though it's pretty obvious from the outset. Between Chancey suddenly becoming his best friend in the whole world and the preposterous story about the aunt, not to mention the money that somehow moves out of his hands and back in in the space of fifteen minutes without him having the slightest clue what's going on... well, truly, it's a wonder the boy can tie his shoes without assistance. He's very much the epitome of the "dumb jock" in a self-sacrificing, heroic way. The fact that he makes it to First Lieutenant in two years is... well, pretty scary on one hand and not terribly surprising on the other.

Musically, there's a lot to like about COLLEGE DAYS. The first act has some fun little numbers for the secondary characters, including a barbershop quartet with a jazz gloss called "The Old Tom Cat".

There was an old cat sat on a fence
And howled the whole night long
He sang to his love neath the moon
What he thought was a tender song

Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow
Oh tabby cat I love but you
Please come down from yonder tree
Down to the ground and stroll with me
I will build you a little house
Every day I'll catch a little mouse
Every night beneath the moon
Tabby cat we'll sit and spoon.

Upon finding out that Helen likes him as much as he likes her, Tubby gets "Tis a Grand Old World", a love song that's surprisingly celebratory and fitting for the guy who thought he'd never get the girl of his dreams.

Tis a good old world, tis a jolly place
Tis a kind old world with a smiling face
Tis a dear old world, tis a dream come true
Tis a paradise where I'll be with you

The college president and his dean of women (who, despite the fact that she loves romance, is actually more modern in thought than her students) have two charming turns about growing old and missed opportunities. These more than make up for the contrastingly flat (albeit typical) love songs our main characters get to sing.

It's difficult to believe this is from the same team that wrote CRIMSON EYEBROWS, which was the work of people who know the format well enough to take a few shots at it with tongue firmly locked into cheek. That earlier piece may be a string of bad jokes, but it never takes itself seriously: everything from the characters to the script to the music seems purposely written as vaudeville-esque as possible. On the other hand, COLLEGE DAYS, while purporting to be a "musical comedy", is an all-too-typical example of the very thing they were lampooning.

No comments: