07/11/2013

A Yank At Oxford (1938)


This sterling comedy from MGM-British stars Robert Taylor as Lee Sheridan, the titular all-American star of track and field, who wins a place at Oxford University and makes a big impression, overcoming a number of comic cultural misunderstandings, practical jokes and a ceremonial debagging before leading the city of dreaming spires to victory over Cambridge in the annual boat race. Taylor was previously known as something of a soppy romantic lead but successfully managed to break free from typecasting here by playing an athletic jock, bulking up for the part and convincing as a champion sprinter and rower, so much so that A Yank At Oxford was originally billed as, "The Bob Taylor picture you've always wanted!". The inevitable romantic interest is supplied by Maureen O'Sullivan as a fellow student but it's the actress's old school friend, Vivien Leigh, who makes the greater splash as Elsa Craddock, the promiscuous wife of a dull local bookseller. Leigh's performance here apparently did much to secure her the part of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's blockbusting Gone With The Wind the following year. I saw Jack Conway's film screened as part of a Leigh retrospective at the BFI and it was, fittingly, one of her lines that got the biggest laugh, coming during a scene in which she casually informs a college dean (Edmund Gwenn) that she and her husband have decided to close up shop to escape scandal and the temptations of the student body and move away to Aldershot, a famous army town.


Taylor is sporting, redoubtable, two-fisted and no-nonsense as Sheridan, recalling to my mind Gary Cooper as Frank Capra's Mr Deeds. Among the supporting cast, Griffith Jones and Robert Coote are believable as Sheridan's fellow collegians but there are also two touching elderly turns to relish: Edward Rigby as Scatters, Sheridan's sentimental butler, and C.V. France as an endearingly doddery old don, insistent that our man's name is Jenkins. Lionel Barrymore is also in the mix, supplying his usual brand of cantankerous bluster, this time as Sheridan's father, a proud Midwestern newspaperman.


A Yank At Oxford's screenplay, from an idea by John Monk Saunders developed by Sidney Gilliat, Leon Gordon and Michael Hogan, was credited to Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Walter Ferris and George Oppenheimer, but also featured contributions from a number of other studio writers, including future Ealing scribe Angus MacPhail, playwright Ronald Pertwee and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who reportedly added several passages of key dialogue. Ealing legend Michael Balcon produced the picture and was slated to direct before falling out with Louis B. Mayer. The film spawned an affectionate Laurel and Hardy spoof, A Chump At Oxford (1940), and an imitation sequel, A Yank At Eaton (1942) with Mickey Rooney. As an Oxford native myself, I was delighted to see the city so well recreated in a picture of this vintage and particularly enjoyed the thought of Taylor being cast off the train at nearby Didcot, now home to an unsightly power station.

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