I Tolerate Short Shorts: Once Over Lightly (1938)

Once Over Lightly
Director: Will Jason // MGM, 1938
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

Today is that day: the day when I will finally stroll over to the hairstylist and get my locks chopped. Well, not completely shorn off, but they will certainly be reduced in length and thickness to a large degree. This should make it a little cooler on my daily exercise sojourns; it will also serve to make me look slightly more professional at work. I've became a tad shaggy in recent days, and this look is exacerbated (much to the consternation of Jen, who hates facial hair) by the fact that I have decided to grow out my beard over the last week or so until the time came when I could hit the barber. Of course, having to make that time to get one's hair cut can be a hassle, especially if you have to get an appointment, or if you don't, you at least have to wait in line for far too long. (Pause for dramatic effect...) IF ONLY there were some sort of speed competition held between barber colleges, much like a normal collegiate sporting event and complete with marching bands, fight songs and overeager cheerleaders, where one could avoid the line and get this haircutting and shaving business over with quickly. Hmmmm....
Barber College is about to go into its big shaving match against its hated rival Beardsley (yes, it is just that sort of humor at work here), and poor Coach As it turns out, Once Over Lightly, a brashly silly MGM short subject from 1938, poses just such a scenario. CliptonKapouris (also a professor at the college, and mired in a losing season) is about to lose his job if he doesn't pull off the victory. Add to this pressure the loss of his star pupil, Bob Bradley, from the team, owing to the secret machinations of Bob's nemesis Joe Stevens, who has hidden Bob's final exam in his shaving kit when collecting the tests in class. Prof./Coach Kapouris and Bob are also in the middle of special lab experiments where they are trying to develop "a lather that tastes good," even if the results are seemingly fruitless. And, did I forget to mention that Once Over Lightly is also a musical? And all of this nonsense is crammed into a frantic 19 minutes?

Only a rarefied few, myself included amongst their ranks, go out of their way for short subjects these days. I will watch anything that seems interesting -- not exclusively in the realm of being entertaining, for historical perspective plays a large part in my interest as well -- but I would imagine that most who stumble upon this film were probably doing so either at the end or beginning of a film they were actually intending to watch. Leaving out the sheer chance of channel surfing into this oddball item (and if you do, cherish the moment, because running into precisely this sort of weirdness is the only reason why I channel surf at all), this leaves little audience meaning to watch these things. I do, though -- I actually recorded it, ignoring the films surrounding it -- but I truly wish to be inside the mind of someone who has stumbled upon Once Over Lightly, if only to take in their immediate impressions upon first seeing the character actor and comic playing Coach Kapouris: Billy Gilbert.

To modern eyes, Gilbert's blustery, crazily accented performance might seem unbelievably hammy, and there is no
doubt that such acting is regularly served up with poi at luaus in Hawaii. He is over the top in nearly every scene in this showcase clearly designed around his talents, and while some scenes may fall flat (mainly due to editing and sloppy scripting), Gilbert is brilliant beyond the call for a program filler such as this. In the off chance you have heard of Gilbert, it is no doubt for the fame of his exquisite sneezing routine -- check out Disney's Snow White for his uncredited bit as, duh, that dwarf with the nasal explosion syndrome -- but he appeared in countless films in the '30s and '40s, in parts large and small, starting with Hal Roach shorts and moving into many notable roles in features, including His Girl Friday, Destry Rides Again and The Great Dictator. But, since he was hardly the leading man type, his main starring turns came via short subjects, some of which he directed and wrote.

A co-writer here, Gilbert affords himself one of those sneezing scenes, and also works in bits where his attempts at wisdom and coherence are undone when tangled up in his character's thick accent and general impatience. It is easy to see, even in such a small platform as this, why he was so valued by filmmakers of that time, and his comic timing is impeccable. He also brings real star quality to the film, infusing it with his manic energy, which is important given that he is basically surrounded by the usual assortment of bland, dime-a-dozen studio brats waiting for their bit break while appearing in projects like this. (That said, Johnny Downs as Bob and Dixie Dunbar as Kapouris' daughter do show some verve here, almost as if they believed this one was their big break.)

Unexpectedly, it is the direction here by studio yeoman Will Jason that helps Gilbert's hard work pay off. Collegiate comedies and musicals were common in those days, and the intent here is to satirize that style by placing it in the most ridiculous context possible. (Well, perhaps not quite as ridiculous as the Marxes' sublime Horse Feathers.) While hitting all of the marks of its exceedingly simple-minded plot, the film zings us with numerous throwaway gags, some of which really do seem thrown away. The film opens with a nighttime bonfire rally of the Clipton faithful singing their support for their team, while waving boxed signs reading such epithets as "Trim Beardsley!," and we are then shown the statue of school founder Howe E. Clipton, a bronze figure with his hand gracing the top of a barber chair. At the meeting where Kapouris learns of his possible loss of tenure, the dean finishes his ultimatum as he gently clips away at the hairs on the back of his hand. Then there is a verbal bit from the stadium announcer, who actually finishes an observation with "...and in the history of intercollegiate barberin', it has never been done!"

And if you can make out some of the lyrics sung by the dozen astoundingly hirsute hobos as they enter the stadium and march across the field, you will find yourself wishing that someone had gone the distance and made this into a feature instead. As they romanticize the impending "Clipton-Beardsley Match of '39" in classic fight-song style, the explain in illuminated language far beyond their looks, the reasons why they "crave a free shave," having grown their hair out since the last major intercollegiate shaving match for this very purpose. And where most musicals lose my interest, the love ballad, there comes a scene so wacky you'll wish Fred Astaire had though of it, if only to add tap-dancing to it. Downs and Dunbar enter "Barber's Arbor" (apparently, the Lover's Lane of Clipton College) and sit beside a fountain. As he starts to croon "May We Always Be In Love" to his intended, Dunbar picks up a nail file and nonchalantly begins to give Downs a manicure, as if this were the most natural thing for two barber college students in love to do on a date. Downs then dunks Dunbar's head into the fountain, never missing a beat, and starts to shampoo her hair. With suds bedecking her brunette mane, Dunbar joins in the song, followed by a quick rinse, which causes her voice to warble. Her hair toweled as the pair sit beneath a tree, Dunbar gives Downs a face massage as he finishes the last verse, and Dunbar modulates his voice in return by shaking his head.

The other 11 people whose votes earned this sweet little trifle a 3.8 on IMDB clearly didn't know what they ran into. Me, I won't be happy until MGM slaps it as an extra on one of their discs.

Fight, Clipton! Fight! Trim Beardsley... and how!


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