Written by Margaret at The Film Detective
What to do when your college fraternity is slandered by the local girls’ school? Infiltrate their ranks with a dude in a dress, of course! “All American Co-Ed” (1941) is an innocent-enough collegiate romp that leans heavily on sight gags, innuendo, and the sheer “eek!” factor of male crossdressing as it was viewed in the 1940s: immoral, brazen, unseemly, and an absolute riot. In classic film (pre-1990s), there seems to be nothing quite so giggle-inducing as a gender swap. Even the title of the movie contains a clever pun: “all-American” was a male athletic designation, and “co-ed” was a term used for female college students–tee-hee! It must be stated in the opening credits, as if there was any doubt, that any similarity to actual college life depicted in this film is purely coincidental.
The plot is straightforward: Concerned about falling attendance, the president of Mar Brynn Horticultural School for Girls designs a scholarship contest open to “unusual girls” with a flair for agriculture (double entendres about breasts abound, with the scholarship applicants considered on the photographic merits of their “produce-growing” skills). The press release announcing the scholarship draws ire from the Zeta fraternity of the nearby Quinceton Community College, as the boys are called out for being “Least Likely To Succeed” following their recent flamboyant drag revue. The Quinceton Zetas send one of their own, Bob Sheppard, disguised as a girl, to infiltrate Mar Brynn’s ranks, win the scholarship, and expose the girls for the snobs they are. Along the way, Bob falls for a beautiful co-ed and helps her stage a musical finale, in which all is forgiven and love reigns supreme.
Special props go to the couple dozen or so young men who give it their all in the opening musical number, in full ball gowns, wigs, and heels no less. Though “crossdressing” as a film comedy trope has largely fallen by the wayside as social sensitivity has increased, the trend was popular beginning with silent films of the early 1900s. Of course, men had been playing women onstage for centuries, but once women scored their rightful place there by playing their own gender, the practice fell out of fashion. Perhaps the most well-known example of male drag played for laughs–before the likes of “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) or “Tootsie”(1982)–is “Some Like It Hot” (1959), in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon disguise themselves as women in order to hide from the mob.
With all the talk of ladies’ underwear and scenes of nightgown-clad young women in close quarters, “All-American Co-Ed” is a distinctly male-made film, in which the consideration of women or men who fell outside the masculine norm were convenient afterthoughts and fodder for easy jokes. And it must be said, as any successful drag performer will tell you, that it takes more than slapping on a wig and hurriedly fashioning a skirt out of a curtain to pass for the opposite sex. Be warned there are also a couple scenes of racially-themed slapstick, as well as one of casual sexual coercion. But as America was on the brink of entering World War II at the time, a cheap laugh was encouraged and welcomed.
The film was directed by LeRoy Prinz, best known as a choreographer for stage and screen. He was described as rough-and-tumble, pedestrian, and “more of a bartender than a choreographer,” according to the 2003 Joan McCracken biography The Girl Who Fell Down by Lisa Jo Sagolla. Nevertheless, what Prinz lacked in finesse he made up for with sheer enthusiasm: roughly 25 minutes of the 54-minute film are taken up with musical numbers, which do little to advance the plot, as Prinz was wont to do when choreographing.
While not nearly as clever or well-conceived for a cross-dressing film as “Some Like It Hot,” for example, “All-American Co-Ed” is a fun pick for movie night. The age-old gag of the wolf in sheep’s clothing is a classic good time, and ripe for tricky conundrums and ribald jokes. Best to leave contemporary context in the other room. Find it on The Film Detective!