After William Wellman got sick of his treatment at Paramount Pictures, he showed why his nickname “Wild Bill” stuck. He covered Producer B.P. Schulberg‘s desk in manure and left a note on top of the pile reading: “Here’s what I think of your lousy script!” Despite his bad boy behavior, Wellman was in demand. He could make any script better by adding his distinctive touches, and he did it while staying on schedule and under budget. After he was done demonstrating his opinion to Schulberg, Wellman literally hopped into his roadster and sped from Paramount in Hollywood to Warner Brothers in Burbank, where he was signed for a two-year deal by Darryl F. Zanuck. While Zanuck promised that Wellman would get to make his own projects, the first picture Wellman worked on was an assignment, Maybe It’s Love.
It wasn’t a hoary old chestnut like Charley’s Aunt, but the movie’s original source material was twenty-six years old, and it had been adapted in one form or another multiple times. The project’s original DNA came from a play. George Ade‘s The College Widow was a stage hit in 1904. The play kept its original title when it was filmed by the Lubin Company in 1915. That was the era of simply filming a play as is, and stage and film star Ethel Clayton played the title role. In 1917 Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton, and P. G. Wodehouse turned the play into a stage musical called Leave It to Jane. Its’ first run was a critical hit, but a modest commercial success. Another silent film adaptation followed in 1927, and again the play’s title was kept. Dolores Costello took her turn playing the college vamp. This last film was a Warner Brothers project, so the studio was remaking its own product three years later for the sound era.
Why the studio interest in this material? Zanuck favored seeing the movie produced because he had co-authored a new take under the pen name Mark Canfield. The studio could exploit the subject’s sound possibilities and the college movie craze all at once. Wellman had little interest in the project, but he wanted to please Zanuck, whom Wellman held in high regard: “I admired him for his guts and the quality he had of grabbing a headline and generating the speed and enthusiasm all down the line to make a good picture quickly–at this he was a master and the hardest-working little guy you have ever seen in all your life.” Wellman accepted the assignment.
The plot of the movie is as follows. Joan Bennett plays Nan. She’s the daughter of Upton College’s president, and he’s been threatened to lose his position by the school’s board if the football team doesn’t finally have a winning season. They’ve lost for the last twelve years to rival school Parsons. Joe E. Brown plays Speed. He’s the football team’s star player, and its only valuable one. The rest of the team would be bench sitters at another school with quality players. Speed convinces the “mousy” Nancy to turn herself into a college widow and seduce the nation’s best footballers to enroll at Upton. Nan is willing to do almost anything to save her father’s career, and she agrees. She gets a makeover and flirting lessons from Speed. The rest of the movie mixes comedy and drama. We see Nan’s choreographed seductions of football stars and how she tries to juggle multiple men on campus at once before falling for one of the lot, James Hall‘s Tommy Nelson. Of course, Nan’s machinations get found out, which puts the big game and her in peril.
There are plenty of pre-code elements in the picture. What a college widow can get up to is shown. Normally a college widow goes through a succession of men, not dating the whole team at once like Nan does! Then there’s an implication that maybe Nan goes to a greater extent in her seductions than simply flirting. We see Nan seduce fella after fella using different tricks. One lad goes canoeing to canoodle with her, only to end up tipped into the drink on purpose. When Nan emerges from the water, her thin dress is plastered against her body, and every curve is evident as are her pointing nipples. Her body is on display as bait. When Nan falls for Tommy, they take their romance behind a pillar. The audience is left to imagine at least necking if not heavy petting. There’s a dance scene in which the football team circle Nan and dance around her with their bottoms in the air. The oddest pre-code moments are Speed hiding, watching, coaching, and commenting on Nan’s shenanigans. He comes off very creepy. He seems pimp-like and to be taking too much pleasure in the goings on. When the players later turn on Nan after realizing her manipulations, there’s a momentary feeling of danger. They want to humiliate her as they feel humiliated by her. How far will they take their revenge?
Despite having Wellman as a helmer, Maybe It’s Love isn’t a successful picture. “Originally planned as a full scale musical, much of the music was removed before release because of the public’s apathy and aversion towards musicals in the autumn of 1930.” These cuts turned the picture into a comedy with some musical numbers. The film feels disjointed. Joe E. Brown would become a major star one year later, and he seems like he should be featured more throughout the movie as its billed second lead. His character is mostly sidelined after Nan’s real romance ignites, and James Hall becomes the film’s de facto male lead. Brown isn’t well shown either. His character comes off as weird, loud, and annoying. His comedic college athlete persona would be much better shown in 1931’s Local Boy Makes Good. Laura Lee appears as Betty at film’s start. She’s Speed’s girl, so I expected the Brown and Lee characters’ romance would parallel the one of the straight romantic leads like in 1930’s Top Speed, but she disappears until the film’s end. The energy and enthusiasm lacking in the shooting of most of the comedic scenes becomes even more apparent when the final game hits the screen. Those football scenes are much more dynamic and show more of Wellman’s directorial mastery.
Any Wellman fan watching this picture would look for evidence of his direction, and it can be found. As Frank Thompson once wrote, “No matter how slight the film seemed to be, no matter how trivial the subject matter, Wellman was able to leave his personal imprint on the finished product.” Maybe It’s Love falls on the slighter picture scale, yet there are undeniably Wellman moments. During Tommy and Nan’s falling in love scene, a long, slow dolly shot goes through the water bursts of a fountain to the lovers and pulls back as they disappear to continue their lovemaking offscreen. Before that moment, he shoots some of the love scenes so that his leading lady’s face is obscured by leaves and the pillar. He sacrifices showcasing his actress during a big moment for his signature preoccupation of making an audience work as they watch a scene. Wellman was a former football player, and he knows how to feature the sport. During the final game, Wellman intercuts newsreel or stock footage from at least one football game with his scenes to give a sense of scale. The crowd attending looks huge which makes the pressure on the athletes feel greater. A really clever moment has Wellman doing quick cuts between a referee and a player on the field. We get flashes of two different actions occurring simultaneously, increasing the sense of dynamism as our minds process the fast layering of images. Such flashes of brilliance momentarily elevate this lesser quality programmer.
If you’d like to view Maybe It’s Love look for it under the more salacious title of Eleven Men and a Girl. For television airing, the movie’s title was changed. It sometimes airs on Turner Classic Movies, and Warner Archive released a disc for those unwilling to wait for a repeat airing or wanting to add to their home collection.
This post is part of Now Voyaging‘s William Wellman blogathon. For other posts celebrating this director’s work and life, please click the banner below. Many great classic and silent film bloggers are participating, and they’ve written their hearts out. Visit their blogs and leave comments, and you will thrill them!
Wellman, William, Jr. Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel. N.p.: Pantheon, 2015. Print.