CONFESSIONS OF A CO-ED (1931) Paramount-Publix Pictures. Directed by David Burton and Dudley Murphy. Photography by Lee Garmes. Art Direction by Hans Dreier. Music by John Leipold. 75 min.
Cast: Phillips Holmes (Dan Carter), Sylvia Sidney (Patricia Harper), Norman Foster (Hal Evans), Claudia Dell (Peggy), Florence Britton (Adelaide), Martha Sleeper (Lucille), Dorothy Libaire (Mildred Stevens), Marguerite Warner (Sally), George Irving (College President), Winter Hall (Dean Winslow), Eulalie Jensen (Dean Marbridge), Bruce Coleman (Mark), Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Harry Barris), John Breeden (Student), Bruce Cabot (College Student at Dance), Claire Dodd (Co-ed in Chapel), Dickie Moore (Patricia’s Son), Joseph North (Butler), Imboden Parrish (Student).
As the 1920’s approached, a new movie craze had hit theatre screens creating a wave of interest in college life. Films like the Charles Ray vehicle, Two Minutes to Go (1921) and The Plastic Age (1925) starring Clara Bow, proved to be popular film fare in the wake of the grim realities of the First World War. Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton even gave their slant on college life in The Freshman (1925) and College (1927) respectively. All of these pictures gave us a rather romanticized account of a world, which was so alien to most American youths that the idea of achieving a higher education was a thing that only the wealthy could hope for. Also, Hollywood’s account of college consisted mainly of sporting events, wild parties, or wooing the school’s campus queen, never once mentioning the real objective of a higher education. However, as the roaring twenties came to a grinding halt due to the onslaught of the Great Depression, the idea of living on a school campus became a far-fetched dream to the working class. As a result, films depicting life behind the ivy-covered walls in a frat house or dormitory were now beginning to concentrate more on the harsh realities that could befall many naïve teenagers once they set out on their own. Topics like pre-marital sex, pregnancy and excessive drinking were now the plot elements of early thirties films like Age of Consent and This Reckless Age (both 1932), which brought up various questions about the obstacles one would have to endure while acquiring a higher education. One of the lesser-known titles depicting college life was CONFESSIONS OF A CO-ED, which was the second starring vehicle for 20 year old, Sylvia Sidney, who had made quite an impression in her prior picture, Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931) opposite Gary Cooper.
Perhaps because the film was presumably based on a diary by an anonymous college student (there are no screenplay credits), it is very episodic, a common symptom of early talkies. The lack of pace in the plot may be due to the fact that two directors were credited, which had become a curse to most foredoomed motion pictures. Years later, Miss Sidney emphatically stated to me that this was one of her worst films and she hadn’t seen it since its original release and had no desire to see it again! The male leads (there are two to form the typical love triangle) are Phillips Holmes and Norman Foster, who are not the most captivating of leading men leading the viewer to surmise that the pickings for male companionship are indeed sparse at this university, which looks suspiciously like Berkeley! The expert cinematography is provided by Lee Garmes, whose superb lighting gives the film an added technical gloss. Eagle-eyed film fanatics will spot early appearances by Bruce Cabot, Claire Dodd and a very young Bing Crosby (one of the Rhythm Boys) before he ventured out on his own. Hal Roach fans will be thrilled to see pre-‘Our Gang’ star Dickie Moore as Miss Sidney’s offspring as well as Martha Sleeper, who was so delightful in her appearances with Max Davidson and in Charley Chase two-reelers, where she displayed superb comic timing. Unfortunately, here and in subsequent roles in the mid-thirties, she was sadly wasted.
While CONFESSIONS OF A CO-ED really doesn’t quite come off, it’s truly a product of its time, where viewers can witness first-hand the trial and tribulations of college students from a bygone era at a safe distance. Reviews of the film were generally cool with the New York Times stating that it is no wonder the author (of the story) should prefer to remain anonymous. However, the film did moderate business in lieu of the popularity of this type of film and Paramount felt that Miss Sidney and Phillips Holmes were a good box-office team, so they recast them together in An American Tragedy later that year, which was based on the story by Theodore Dreiser and remade twenty years later by George Stevens under the title A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.