In 1925, Wesley Ruggles directed a film entitled The Plastic Age, which starred Donald Keith as Hugh Carver, an athlete and freshman at Prescott College. The film follows his story through his entire college career until he leaves, finally paired with Cynthia Day, played by Clara Bow in one of thirteen films she made in 1925. The following year found Ruggles at Universal, and directing the majority of The Collegians series of over forty short films. Over the next four years, the films would follow Ed Benson at Calford, doing his best to win over June Maxwell, the girl of his dreams. Aside from Ruggles, many aspects of The Plastic Age were carried over to The Collegians, including the local place to party (“The Hula Hula Hut”) and Churchill Ross, whose small bit-part in the earlier film was developed into a major character in The Collegians. The series centred around the athletic and handsome Ed Benson, played by George Lewis, with his nemesis, Don Trent, played by Eddie Phillips. Of the forty-four films, only around a quarter survive today, but they make for enjoyable and fascinating viewing.
On the surface, this series of films is a harmless, good-natured 1920s version of the campus comedy, with most episodes centring around sports events and often including student high-jinx. And yet, to my eyes at least, there is something much more going on here. Flashing Oars is a typical entry in the series. Made in 1927, it centres on a rowing race between Calford College and their traditional rivals, Velmar. As with many of the other Collegians films, the young men are often seen semi-naked and covered with sweat following their sporting activities, with their bodies on display in a way that is atypical for the period. This is the case in the very first scene of Flashing Oars, as the boys are seen practicing for the race the next day, rowing shirtless down the river in two separate boats. Both Benson and Trent are on the team for the race, but a phone call comes through to the dormitory later that evening to tell Benson that Trent has been seen out drinking. Benson and the rest of the team leave the energetic pillow-fight which is taking place and make their way to the club where Trent is drinking in an effort to bring him back to the dorm to sober up. This they succeed in doing (despite basically having to kidnap him in order to achieve their aim). The next scene shows Benson and his team mates sobering Trent up by holding him under a cold shower. Once again, both Benson and Trent are shirtless, with the camera angle not allowing us to see below their waist. However, it is Benson who is in physical contact with Trent as he holds him under the water knowing that, despite the animosity and fights between them, they have to work together to win the race. At the same time, the nerdy Doc Webster (played by Churchill Ross) is seen standing at the side of the showers holding Trent’s trousers in his hands, suggesting that Trent has been stripped of most or all of his clothes by the others.
Doc (left, above) is a rather strange character within the series, occupying a place between nerd and sissy, with his sexuality indeterminate and exaggerated by his use of words when either watching sport or explaining how the body works to his fellow students (see above). He is never seen dating a girl (at least not in the available films) and certainly has an unusually active interest in the sporting activities going on around him, considering he is portrayed as a geek and never partakes in any of them. Therefore, while he is not a traditional sissy or a stereotypical gay character of the period, his role in the films can be seen as being the most un-masculine of the young male characters, although he is not seen to be bullied for this by the others. His sexuality is clearly problematised by the fact that his interest in sport (but lack of participation) finds him constantly surrounded by sweaty, half-naked (and almost uniformly handsome) sportsmen. He is to be found not only at training sessions and events, but also in the changing rooms while the men around him shower and get changed.
The Relay (above, 1928) is a rather manic later episode in the series which concludes with a party in a restaurant which ends with most of the male characters fighting within a small indoor pool. The homoerotic elements are upped considerably with comparison to previous episodes. The boys literally tear each other’s clothes off during the course of the fight as they wrestle within the water. This is pure slapstick, with the sequence making relatively little dramatic sense within the course of the narrative. By the end of the scene, most of the boys are shirtless, with some also with their trousers down. Those that have not been stripped of their shirts are so wet that their (mostly white) shirts have become see-through. The removal of clothing in this way is not unusual in the surviving entries in the series. For example in Running Wild (1928), much is made of the campus tradition of jumping on students and removing them of their clothing (although they leave their underwear intact. This was 1928 after all).
The one entry we have available to us from the end of the series is 1929’s part-talkie, Flying High. Sadly it is a huge disappointment over what had gone before. The dialogue is clumsily delivered, and the plot itself is contrived and the whole thing seems remarkably tired. Whether this was the norm for these final episodes is difficult to know with no other title from 1929 available to us, although we can always hope for more to emerge in years to come.
What perhaps make these films more fascinating is the lack of similar scenes involving female characters. The girls are rarely, if ever, seen in a state of undress and, while Ed is in love with June throughout the series, their love story always takes second place to the sporting events themselves and the rivallry between Ed and Don. The male body is certainly the spectacle here, and there to be admired, but the continued communal semi-nudity, forced removal of other people’s clothing, and physical interaction certainly adds a homoerotic feel to the whole proceedings, whether intended or not.
If you haven’t come across this series of films, they are worth hunting around for, although sadly Flying High (the worst of the ones I have seen) is the one more easily accessible on DVD, and is an extra on the “Discovering Cinema” set. The Relay is currently available on YouTube.
(Except where noted, all screencaps are from Flashing Oars).