The Sport Parade (1932)
This is a pre-Code sports movie that’s mostly famous for a certain locker room scene, but it’s interesting to watch for the sports footage, the frequent appearance of Robert Benchley as a drunk and confused radio announcer, and of course Joel McCrea in his beefcake days.
McCrea had started with stunt work in the mid-1920s, quickly graduated to small parts and then hit leading man status in 1930. His star was rising fast, and 1932 was a particularly good year for the 27-year-old. He’d made a splash in Bird of Paradise, an island love story, which premiered in August, as well as The Most Dangerous Game, which opened in September. The Sport Parade was released in mid-November, followed quickly by Rockabye at the end of the month. Screens were filled with Joel McCrea (and his naked torso) in 1932!
Besides Beefcake McCrea (trademarked), The Sport Parade stars Marian Marsh, another star on the rise. She had recently appeared opposite John Barrymore in Svengali (1931), and, like McCrea, filled screens in 1931 and 1932. William Gargan, who would become an award-winning character actor in the 1940s, rounds out the top trio.
Other notable credits include Max Steiner, who would become one of the most influential composers in Hollywood history, producer David O. Selznick of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) fame, and director Dudley Murphy, who is most lauded today for his early avant-garde films.
To the film! We open at the Dartmouth-Harvard football game back when that was a nationally important contest. The crowds are riled up, the marching bands are in formation, and sports reporters capture every detail. But one radio announcer (played by the wonderful Robert Benchley) lacks the intensity and focus of his colleagues. He gulps from a flask and keeps forgetting which teams are on the field and also which sport he’s watching. One imagines he would be fired pretty quickly after frustrated listeners protested at his horrible announcing, but somehow he keeps his job throughout the movie.
The stars of the game are Dartmouth’s “Baker to Brown” combination: quarterback Johnny Baker (William Gargan) and receiver Sandy Brown (Joel McCrea). They’ve been tearing it up all season, and this championship game is no exception. Fun fact: Joel McCrea was a good athlete in real life, though he was too scrawny to make his high school junior football squad! Once he grew to his 6’2 height and filled out a little, he was asked to play on his college team, though he preferred beach volleyball. But his true passion was ranching and horses.
Sandy makes it to the end zone for a winning touchdown just as the clock runs out. Dartmouth wins! Fun fact: this film has some lovely, unusual shots (the football one in the middle of the collage, for example). The artistry isn’t surprising because the director Dudley Murphy first got into filmmaking with avant-garde and art films, including Soul of the Cypress (1921) and Ballet mécanique (1924) which he co-directed with Fernand Léger. Watch for Murphy’s sensibility throughout this film.
After the game, Sandy boasts to Johnny that he can “catch anything you throw my way. Footballs or women!” A-ha, so Johnny is a bit of a ladies man! And he certainly doesn’t lack confidence…You can watch the opening scene here:
Then Sandy and Johnny horse around in the locker room in the most famous scene from this movie. The on-screen nudity (you can catch the glimpse of a man’s butt if you look closely) and the implied nudity of Sandy and Johnny, as well as their tomfoolery (they wrestle and Johnny snaps Sandy with a towel as they shower) are things that wouldn’t get past the Production Code once it was implemented in 1934. It verges on homoerotic, and the very close friendship between Sandy and Johnny doesn’t lessen that implication. If asked to pick out something about this film that is “pre-Code,” it’s easy to choose this locker room scene and the intimacy between the two male leads.
You can watch the scene starting at about one minute in:
Now that football season is over, Sandy and Johnny turn their attention to ice hockey and then baseball. They’re stars at all three sports, and the Baker to Brown combination keeps bringing home victories for Dartmouth. The idea of star college athletes playing three different sports seems ridiculous now, but it must have happened occasionally back then.
At the end of the school year, Johnny and Sandy are honored at a banquet of Dartmouth alumni. They win the coveted golden football award (which comes with a small golden football charm you can hang on your watch chain).
Everyone at the banquet assumes that the pair will stick together after college, too. You know, because if a quarterback and a receiver have particular success on the field, they will surely make a great pair of accountants or mechanics or salesman.
The plan is for Baker and Brown post-graduation is to work at a newspaper together, but Sandy is having second thoughts. He has enjoyed being the big man on campus, so when a manager/promoter shows up and says he can make the famous Baker and Brown duo a lot of money, he’s inclined to listen. “Shifty” Morrison (Walter Catlett, whom you may recognize as the looney sheriff in Bringing Up Baby (1938)) tells Sandy that he can book them personal appearance tours, endorsements, and a professional football career, among other enticing options.
Sandy thinks it sounds great, but Johnny gets a bad feeling about Morrison; plus, he can’t wait to start work at The Bulletin! But when Morrison says he’ll take Sandy on his own without Johnny, Sandy signs up.
It looks as though “Baker to Brown” is finished. Sidenote: I buy McCrea as a recent college grad, but Gargan? He looks at least 38, right? He was actually 27 when he made this movie, and only three months older than McCrea, but he’s not nearly as fresh-faced. And he’s a little doughy for a star athlete.
After graduation, Johnny becomes the editor of the sports section at The Bulletin, and Sandy goes on a disastrous personal appearance tour. The demand for just Brown without Baker isn’t as strong as they’d hoped; plus, Sandy isn’t an especially charismatic speaker. He gets jeered off the stage and quits. (I don’t know why people would buy tickets and then be such a cruel audience, but that’s how it goes.)
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Sandy is still enjoying himself. He always has a girlfriend hanging around, and Morrison is generous with the per diem. Soon Sandy starts playing professional football, but he can’t get used to it and doesn’t enjoy the drama that other players provide for the paying crowd.
Soon Sandy is discouraged and unhappy, but he acts as though he is stuck and can’t possibly get another job or go work with Johnny at The Bulletin. His inertia is weird because his contract with Morrison isn’t a deal with the devil–he can leave–but Sandy acts as though his decision to be a pro-athlete and “celebrity” is totally binding forever and ever amen.
But he finally gets an out when Morrison suggests that he and Sandy place a bet on the other team winning the next football game. Then Sandy could drop a few passes, wink wink. They need the money badly, but Sandy is horrified and quits.
But he has a hard time finding a new job. He searches the “Help Wanted” ads and visits the various Dartmouth alumni who had courted him back when he was their star. But it’s been two years since graduation, and no one cares about Sandy Brown anymore. In despair, he pawns his golden football charm to pay for a train ticket to New Haven where Dartmouth is playing Yale in the big game. That’s a silly use of one’s last resources, but there you go.
Meanwhile, Johnny is doing well. He loves his work, and he’s in love with a very pretty illustrator named Irene (Marian Marsh) who sketches and does layouts at the paper. (Just when you thought this movie wouldn’t have a named female character, Miss Irene appears! She’s the only one, though.)
Johnny keeps proposing to Irene, but she says that she is just not sure. At least they get to spend a lot of time together working! They both go to the big Dartmouth-Yale game, for example, where of course they run into Sandy. The friends haven’t seen each other in two years, but they pick up right where they left off. And Johnny wastes no time getting to know Irene.
Johnny is ashamed of his current state, so he lies and says he is working as a stock broker, but Johnny finds the pawn ticket for the golden football and realizes the truth. So he offers him a job at The Bulletin. They’ll write side-by-side columns under the banner “Baker to Brown.” Johnny happily accepts. I don’t know why he didn’t try this 18-months ago, but the movie needed some drama.
The dual columns are a success and Sandy finds happiness working alongside Johnny. He also has a great time with Irene, who enjoys Sandy’s company at least as much as she does Johnny’s. Conflict on the horizon!
We get a great montage of the pair “working” at various sporting events including a bobsled race, wrestling, car racing, speed skating, and a steeplechase event. It is truly a “sport parade.” (When did bobsledding and horse racing fall out of fashion? You don’t see those covered on SportsCenter nowadays.)
Irene and Sandy click immediately and even share an inside joke where they talk like old timey cowboys. But it’s not very funny. Maybe it’s because the real 1930s slang that peppers the dialogue is so much more interesting (everything is screwy, people scram, they dip the beak when they drink, if you mean something you’re on the level, you add see? to the end of sentences as a substitute for “you understand?” and ladies are gals or dames.)
But the lack of chemistry might also be because we have no idea who these characters are or why they like each other. They’re shallow sketches of “great athlete and ladies man” and “working gal who believes in love.” There’s none of the repartee and mockery you’ll find in later 1930s films–instead it’s flat dialogue traded without much zip and even less humor.
Anyway, the movie comments on the evil of fixed contests, particularly wrestling, when Irene and Sandy attend a bout that they’re convinced was pre-arranged. They’re both disgusted by it.
The wrestling scene also includes a brief moment with two men who are flamboyantly homosexual. They’re slight and effeminate, and during the match, one says in a cartoonish voice, “What a brute! Let’s go!” as he gestures with a limp wrist. They stand up and prance away clutching large handkerchiefs. I think the moment is meant to be funny, as the men never show up again and there is no plot reason for them to be there. But it sticks out as an unusual, gratuitous, uncomfortable vignette. It’s a tangle of (offensive) homosexual signs, and the type of thing you won’t see in movies made under the Production Code that tried to minimize homosexuality. There are still gay characters, but they are a lot more subtle than these two men.
As Sandy and Irene leave the wrestling match, they run into Morrison, who laughs off their concerns about the corrupt contest. He also tells Sandy that he can get him into professional wrestling if he ever wanted to try. But Sandy is not interested.
This pleasant period in Sandy’s life shortly comes to an end when that conflict I alluded to creeps up. Johnny tells Sandy that he is in love with Irene. Sandy recognizes his own blossoming feelings for Irene, and decides to do the honorable thing and bow out. Johnny saw her first! So Sandy starts working all the time and avoiding Irene, whom he now thinks of as his “best friend’s gal.”
Sandy was hoping to fix the situation by removing himself, but instead of re-attaching to Johnny, Irene is confused and miserable.
She and Johnny talk about the absent Sandy one night at a club (could be the Cotton Club or another place in Harlem) as they watch the floor show of African-Americans performing African-style dancing. It’s difficult to watch because the number is drawing on the “wild savage” and “hyper-sexualized” stereotypes of Africans as white people watch in their tuxedos. On the other hand, it’s nice to see some black people in a Hollywood movie, but the way they are portrayed is not good.
Johnny mentions to a downcast Irene that Sandy is working the 6-Day Bike Race. They say goodnight, but Irene doesn’t go home as she told Johnny she would. Instead, she finds Sandy. They talk inside a tent where the riders sleep during their breaks.
Sandy explains that he is staying away from her because Johnny loves her, and he could never betray his friend. Irene sadly accepts the arrangement, and the pair kiss goodbye. Guess who shows up at that moment? Naturally he believes the worst and punches Sandy right in the kisser.
Fun fact: a gossip column in Photoplay suggests that this scene is the first one that Gargan and McCrea filmed. Cal York wrote that the pair had “never met before they reported for work…it was a fight scene and the director made it clear they were not to pull their punches. And then Joel interrupted. ‘Before I land on Mr. Gargan’s jaw don’t you think we ought to be introduced?’ And they both laughed so hard they couldn’t shake hands.” Now isn’t that just adorable? And probably not true?
After the fight, Sandy leaves The Bulletin. In his despair and shame, he returns to Morrison and becomes a professional wrestler. Oddly enough, Johnny starts publishing scathing articles accusing Morrison of illegal betting and fixing wrestling matches. He’s quite angry at Sandy, and also deeply disappointed that his friend is part of that dishonest, corrupt world. Dartmouth gets mad, too, because Sandy is advertised as the “Pride of Dartmouth” and wears Dartmouth colors when he wrestles.
Meanwhile–shockingly!–Irene hasn’t magically transferred her affections to Johnny now that Sandy isn’t around. She still loves Sandy, and even though Johnny’s investigations suggest that Sandy will take a dive in his next match, Irene doesn’t believe it.
She tells him that Sandy is still honest, and that he will win the fight. If she’s wrong, she will marry Johnny(!). It’s a terrible bet, and Johnny is horrible for accepting the terms. Just imagine their proposal story: “‘How’d you propose?’ ‘Well, she was in love with another man but she lost a bet about him so she had to marry me.'” So romantic!
The night of the fateful wrestling match finds Sandy rather depressed. He has been wrestling for real, but he has agreed to throw the match for the first time, and he doesn’t feel good about it. He looks good, though! This movie has no problem ogling McCrea’s handsome face and body, which is one reason I chose to write about it…I’ve decided to level with ya, see?
We even get a massage scene when a half naked Sandy is worked over by an African-American trainer played by Dudley Dickerson (I think; it’s an uncredited role.) The trainer is portrayed as a nice guy and one of Sandy’s pals, which is a pleasant change.
Right before the match, Irene finds Sandy and proclaims that she loves him, not Johnny. She says that she still believes in him and knows he’s not a crook. I’m surprised she was able to form sentences when Sandy is in those teeny-tiny shorts, but she has excellent self-control.
Her love is what Sandy needed to escape his downward spiral. He decides not to throw the match after all. The fight is really on! Sidenote: I thought those white short-shorts were Sandy’s locker room attire, but they are his uniform!
Fun fact: a lot of the fight is really McCrea and his opponent, but you can clearly tell when they used stuntmen. The middle image on the bottom row, for example–that is not McCrea’s body type at all!
The fight doesn’t go well at first, but at least Johnny can tell that his friend is not losing on purpose.
Eventually Sandy prevails, and Johnny is the first person in the ring to shake Sandy’s hand. Then he brings Irene up and symbolically hands her to his pal. It’s a happy ending!
This movie had two other working titles: Sports Pages, which makes sense, and the unfortunate Free, White and Twenty-One. The latter references a common expression used for over a century as shorthand for “I can do whatever I want!” You can read more about the phrase and its history in this Jezebel article.
The Sport Parade was released on November 11, 1932, and got fairly good reviews. The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it “quite a satisfactory entertainment” with “several interesting sequences devoted to various types of sporting events.” He noted that “Marian Marsh portrays Irene moderately well. William Gargan is pleasing as Johnny Brown, and Mr. Catlett makes the most of his part. Mr. McCrea may not be a believable wrestler, but he acts competently.”
Hall also singled out Robert Benchley’s humorous turn as the drunk radio announcer, writing that “more of [Benchley] would be very welcome.” I certainly agree–Benchley’s mistake-ridden monologues are the most entertaining parts of the movie.
Hollywood Filmograph‘s review called the story “trite” but thought that McCrea, Gargan, and Marsh did a swell job. Benchley again received praise, with the critic writing that he “gives a splendid characterization.”
Motion Picture Herald‘s brief write-up in March 1933 called the movie “a fairly good little picture of sport events with a rather nice little love story.” It recommended exhibitors show the film on a weeknight or as part of a double program.
As these reviews suggest, The Sport Parade isn’t the greatest film ever, mostly because there’s an overall lack of tension. You can see the conflicts and resolutions coming a mile away, and you don’t care very much. As Mordaunt Hall put it when discussing the love story”…every one in the Mayfair [the theater] seats knows that Mr. Brown’s chances of winning Irene’s favor are nil.” Even the big wrestling finale isn’t terribly suspenseful. It’s obvious that Sandy will win.
But it’s still fun to watch this movie either as a pre-Code, a sports movie, or as one of McCrea’s early roles. As always, thanks for reading! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook, and you can buy this film here.