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Sporting July: The Cowboy Quarterback (1939)

Sports have been a popular recreational activity since ancient times. They develop and show-off physical prowess as well as foster teamwork and fun. Sports have become big business and some of the major tournaments bring thousands of people together to root for their team in a world that is increasingly divided. This month we celebrate sports movies from the classic era.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: William Demarest stars as Rusty Walker, a scout for the Chicago Packers professional football team. He gets a lead on a young guy (44 year old Bert Wheeler) in Montana that’s known for being a great quarterback. He persuades him to come to Chicago, but the fly in the ointment is that Harry Lynn, the said quarterback, insists on bringing his girlfriend/manager Maizie (Marie Wilson) with him.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Were the Packers in Chicago before Green Bay? Interestingly, though the film has cowboy in the title, we never see him employ any cowboy skills in the movie or even see him in the proximity of animals.

RB: There is a bit of rube humor at the start of the film, trading on the remote location where Lynn lives, and a bit of unfortunately stereotypical humor with a Native American (although it’s not too bad all things considered. The Native American gets the last laugh).

SG: The film is based on the story Elmer the Great written by Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan, a successful play in 1928 and a movie starring Joe E. Brown in 1933. Lardner died in 1933, so he had nothing to do with this version of the story. Harrison's Reports said, "This picture suffers considerably by comparison with the former."

RB: Having seen both films, I wouldn’t have really considered the two films cousins, beyond the basic plot points being rehashed here. Elmer is clearly the superior film, both in cast and execution.

SG: Unfortunately, Wheeler doesn't have the charm that Brown had. He comes off as a complete dope and a cad. He throws over the girl who loves and supports him in favor of a more glamorous and superficial woman, then lets the first girl believe his intentions were always true. He carelessly gets drunk and then gambles away money he doesn't have, refuses to pay his debt, and involves the woman who loves him to get himself out of a jam, risking her business and livelihood in the process. It is clear he has comic chops, but they seem mechanical and don't inspire many laugh-out-loud moments. Where Brown can be childlike, Wheeler is too old to play the part of a neophyte football star.

RB: As previously noted, it also doesn’t help that he was 44 years old when he filmed this, which makes it all the more unbelievable. To say that his performance is uninspired here is really downplaying things. That said, Gloria Dickson is pretty good here, an actress that never quite lived up to her initial potential which was largely spent in supporting roles of films in similar stature to this, before her untimely 1945 death in a housefire in a home that she was renting from Sidney Toler.

And of course, Demerest is always very good, but even he can’t quite rise above the level of material here. The glory days with Preston Sturges were still a few years away, although he was a long-time veteran with several dozen credits under his name. His professionalism goes a long way here toward propping up what passes for comedy.

SG: The Movies... And the People Who Make Them said, "Bert Wheeler returns to the screen as quarterback Harry and tries hard for laughs in a role scarcely cut to his dimensions." This was Wheeler's first attempt at starring in a movie after the death of his comedy partner Robert Woolsey who suffered from kidney failure and retired in 1937. He doesn't have the star power required to carry the film. Although the press book encouraged exhibitors to start Bert Wheeler Fan Clubs in their area to help promote the film and its star, it is unlikely any such attempts took off. Photoplay said, "It must be admitted that Bert Wheeler's first try at going it without the late Bob Woolsey is little more than waste[d] film." Hollywood agreed and Wheeler only made one more feature, Las Vegas Nights in 1941.

RB: Were there actually any Bert Wheeler (solo) fan clubs? I couldn’t find any information online, but I’d love to know how this plan sputtered to a halt.

SG: If there was one, I'd bet money it was started by Chaw Mank.

The Star Theater in Hay Springs, Nebraska called the movie, "Terrible!" but said, "We would like to see Marie Wilson in a glamorous picture some time. Believe she would make good." Wilson is adorable as always, here playing the in-charge, competent manager of boyfriend Harry. It is nice to see her in a different kind of role than the dizzy blondes she usually plays. Other than his talent on the field, it is hard to grasp what she sees in Harry. (Truly, it is hard to understand what she sees on the field too. In spite of his success scoring touchdowns, it is clear the other players are working hard to make sure he succeeds, rather than really playing defense.)

RB: Unfortunately, this was not to be. Warner Brothers had signed Marie Wilson in 1935, but never really knew what to do with her, bouncing her around in a long succession of B’s of assorted genres. While there were intentions of continuing to pair her up with Wheeler in a continuing series of films, after this film was critically maligned, she was released from her contract. She went back to the stage for a year while continuing to try to keep things going in movies, and certainly had a successful career (we previously saw her in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation). I’d say that she’s probably the brightest spot in this film and is absolutely adorable and not nearly as scatterbrained as she often comes across on screen.

SG: "Warners got its signals crossed in an inept football comedy whose only distinction lies in the fact that it's hustling along the forthcoming grid season," wrote Variety. "Okay for the duals."

L.A. Irwin at the Palace Theatre in Penacook, New Hampshire said of the movie, "Not really funny nor yet silly enough to be funny either. Gets by but surely is pretty wishy-washy."

I was interested in the movie when it began, but my attention span gradually dropped off. By the time of the big football scene, I was indifferent to the outcome. Two stars.

RB: My expectations were moderately low when I went into this, but I found the whole affair to be breezy and pleasant until I reflected on the numerous plot-holes and wild inconsistencies. Still not a terrible film, and one that I think I enjoyed more than you did. I’ll go two and a half stars, but will concede that I’m not willing to revisit this one anytime in the near future (or maybe distant future either).

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