'Eleven Men and a Girl' and a Mouth

by Michael Barrett

15 September 2010

A type of 1930s-era entertainment that today would be unnecessary and inconceivable.
Joe E. Brown (photo not from Eleven Men and a Girl
cover art

Eleven Men and a Girl

Director: William A. Wellman
Cast: Joe E. Brown, Joan Bennett

US DVD: 7 Sep 2010

This 1930 release is a type of entertainment that today would be both unnecessary and inconceivable. In a world of 24-hour sports channels, it’s hard to imagine sports fans with no opportunity to see their favorite players unless they’re physically in a stadium, except for catching brief highlights in a newsreel at the theatre. Here is a movie that exists for the purpose of gathering the 11 college football players of the All-American team and putting them through a flimsy plot just so fans could get a look at them in a little bit of field action. The athletes sell the picture as a bigger attraction than the stars who kick the plot along.

The setting is Upton, a nowhere college with a lousy football team. The star player is Joe E. Brown, possibly the busiest comedian of the early ‘30s. He certainly had the biggest mouth, a source of his success in talkies. His bellows and yelps emerge from a cavern in a rubbery face, his jowls extending so far upward that his eyes disappear into dots. It was as if he were made for cartoons, and he was often parodied in cartoons. He’s roughly comparable to Jim Carrey.

The female lead is Joan Bennett as the bespectacled daughter of the dean. She’s still in the fresh ingenue phase of her five-decade career, very much in the shadow of older sister Constance, but Joan is better remembered today because she played her genre cards right. Thanks to her marriage to producer Walter Wanger, she starred in a string of noirs for directors who fled the Nazis: Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls. After her patrician airs had become brittle, she entered horror through the TV soap Dark Shadows and the classic Suspiria.

In this movie, she’s showing a lot of leg, and even a bit more. The hook is that Brown persuades her to take off those glasses, vamp the 11 All-Americans and convince them to attend Upton. He demonstrates how she should move and speak to them (“Are these flowers for me?”), which causes one disgusted board member to fume “I thought we had at least one man on the team!” Brown shifts from twitter to growl while declaring “It’s not what you think!” That’s an example of sissy humor from the pre-Code era, before obvious risqué references were clamped down upon.

It’s nothing compared to the scene where Bennett tips over a canoe and emerges wet from a lake as part of her vamping. She stands there in the middle of the shot, dress plastered to her quite apparently bra-less form, while Brown clowns to the side. It’s doubtful anyone in the theatre was looking at him.

Oh yeah, there’s also a plotline about a spoiled athlete (James Hall) who falls for Bennett and learns to stand on his own feet and make his own name away from his blustering millionaire papa and who naturally scores the winning goal so everybody’s happy. Gee, I hope I’m not giving anything away. You thought somebody dies at the end? You thought they lose the big game? You thought we were in a land of credibility? The real surprise is that the big climax is just as obsessed with Brown’s bystanding pratfalls as any action on the field.

By the way, it’s kind of a musical. Not a full-blown musical, but that early-30s kind where someone might burst into a song once or twice. If anyone did make a vehicle today for college athletes, it’s unlikely the jocks would participate in a sing-along and spin around the starlet in a group huddle. They do it here, and it’s about all they can manage. There’s even a very brief overhead shot of this moment. It’s not as spectacular as a later Busby Berkeley scene, but it already points the way.

The director is the legendary “Wild Bill” Wellman, who was every bit as busy as Joe E. Brown. Today he’s best known for gangster pictures (Public Enemy) and dramas emphasizing tough male camaraderie, but he did everything from Wings to A Star Is Born to The Ox-Bow Incident. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies and its unearthing of routine early talkies, a long-standing myth about the static nature of films at this era has been more or less debunked.

The story goes that cameras became locked down when actors had to speak into a microphone, an impression reinforced by the fact that for decades, the few movies that used to circulate from this era were the Oscar winners, and those were exactly the kind of static, earnest, serious projects that still won Oscars decades later. (Before some of its battle footage was restored, All Quiet on the Western Front looked like such a stodgy picture.) Now we can see that directors like Wellman were never afraid to move the camera, and even to call attention to it.

There a moment of flashy jumpcuts on the field as we look at various players, and there’s a scene where the camera follows Bennett and Hall down a corridor to a spraying fountain in the moonlight. They walk around the fountain to the far side while the camera appears to glide right through the spray. Then Hall croons the theme song, “Maybe It’s Love” (this movie’s original title in theatres), and the scene ends with the camera pulling backwards through the spray again. It’s a corny yet delicate trick, part of the goal of artificial entertainment.

This movie’s not remotely important, funny, or entertaining by today’s standards. One regards it as an arcane specimen, like a butterfly on a pin. It’s a perfect argument for its particular platform of release. It’s part of the Warner Archives project (www.warnerarchive.com), which prints DVDs on demand or streams them for any individual who requests it.

Between fans of Wellman, Bennett, Brown, and dead football heroes, there probably aren’t more than a few hundred people in the world who’d actually want to see it, but now those people can see it without the title needing a wide enough appeal to justify a large retail print run. We have moved from the era of the wide release to the “long tail” and now the even narrower niche of “on demand”, with the ironic result that the wide releases of yester-era can still generate a few bucks.

Eleven Men and a Girl

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