Campus Confessions: A Rare Cinematic Glimpse into 1930s Basketball

The 1930s was a fascinating decade for film. The early part was relatively uncensored, resulting in movies that were surprisingly raunchy (Baby Face, Hot Saturday) and/or politically challenging (I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Duck Soup). Once the Hays Code started being enforced in 1933, cinema lost some of its edge, but maintained the contemporary, Great Depression-era themes, especially that of class consciousness. With the majority of 1930s America falling into the category of rich or poor, the tension between the two classes was reflected in a number of films, even screwball comedies. A good example is 1936's My Man Godfrey, where William Powell plays a homeless man who is adopted by a rich WASP Manhattan family, agreeing to be their butler. My Man Godfrey is one of the best comedies of the 30's and the Criterion DVD is readily available to all [ed.'s note: as it is on YouTube, albeit with much lower picture and audio qualities], much like many other classics. But that still leaves thousands of movies, including some hidden gems, only available in various archives, or through public domain bootleggers.

The latter is where I found the movie Campus Confessions, a breezy comedy from 1938 set in fictional Middleton University. Middleton's athletic program has been struggling to say the least, due mostly to stuffy Dean Wayne Atterbury who prefers that the school be known for its academics. This leads eventual Basketball Hall of Fame member Hank Luisetti (playing himself as a famous college basketball star, albeit rather woodenly) to consider transferring to State U so he can finally play for a winner. Big State and Tech U were apparently too busy courting Jesus Shuttlesworth to recruit ol' Hank.

Campus Confessions is not a classic comedy by any stretch, but it is notable as the first talkie to be primarily about basketball. From the opening credits that overlay the stars names' on top of a spinning basketball, to extended shirts and skins practice sessions, to footage of Middleton's rise to the top of their unnamed conference in Anytown, U.S.A., Campus Confessions was quite possibly the first exposure to basketball for a significant portion of its audience. In fact, the tag line to the movie is "A Peppy College Romance! A Real Basket Ball Game!"

It's such an exciting sport it can't be contained in one word!

Amidst the novel basketball plotline comes the familiar theme of class. The students at Middleton, while prosperous enough to afford a college education, also work blue-collar jobs during the summer. Their resentment for incoming freshman rich kid and Dean's son Wayne Atterbury Jr., played by b-movie veteran William Henry, is apparent from the beginning. In the closest thing resembling a plot twist, Atterbury Jr. turns out to be a proto-Rajon Rondo, a terrific passer who can't shoot for shit. But that's okay, because all the team needed was a facilitator for Hank to become a contender. I don't want to spoil the ending, but let's just say circumstances force Luisetti to sit out the first half of the Big Game. In improbable fashion, he checks in during the second half and goes Sleepy Floyd on those State U herbs. As for Atterbury Jr., he finally wins the respect of his less prosperous teammates by punching the most resentful one square in the jaw. Class conflict averted! His transition from stuck up rich kid to star point guard is symbolized by the shaving off of a ridiculous mustache he had originally sported. This also helps him hook up with the striking Joyce Gilmore, played by a young Betty Grable.

While many elements of the film are very much of their time (a newspaper headline unironically states that Middleton "scalped the Indians 60-40"), there are some surprisingly modern touches. In what may be the first example of sexting-talk on film, Joyce refers to Hank as a "P.C.", which she explains is short for Prince Charming. The town's German tailor is referred to as "Lady MacBeth" because he "always sees spots," and he accepts the nickname proudly with no concern for emasculation that might be typical of the less enlightened 30's male. And finally, an element of liberated fandom is introduced when the Dean is challenged to pick a team to root for in the big Middleton/State U game and responds "Do I have to be for somebody?"

But the highlight of the movie is Hank Luisetti. His acting is terrible by even athlete standards, but his play on the court gives a rare glimpse of basketball stardom when it was still only played in colleges and barnstorming leagues. He dribbles between his legs, throws behind the back passes, and takes a rather ugly one-handed runner, which was still revolutionary in the age of the two-handed set shot. Basketball's early history is sparsely preserved, so a movie like Campus Confessions is valuable as a document of one of its early stars and great influencers, and a pioneer of awful athlete acting cameos that we would suffer through for years to come.

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