Last Friday, I attended a screening of the recently re-discovered 1928 silent film Hold ’Em Yale. The Whitney Humanities Center played the film to commemorate the Yale Bowl’s 100th anniversary. Though the picture itself was rather lackluster, I found the experience of watching a silent film on a large screen with live musical accompaniment to be unique in and of itself.
Directed by William H. Griffith, Hold ’Em Yale concerns a young man from “the Argentine” named Jaime Emmanuel Alvarado Montez (Rod La Rocque) who travels off to Yale in search of a professor’s daughter (Jeanette Loff). In order to win her hand in marriage, he attempts to become a full-fledged “Man of Yale” by excelling first in boxing and then in football. At the same time, he must outwit an extraordinarily incompetent but relentless police detective (Tom Kennedy), who due to a series of misunderstandings is convinced that Montez is a dangerous criminal. Hilarity ensues.
When first released, the film was widely criticized and dismissed as just another entry in the overabundant genre of college-themed films, released by studios ever since the financial success of Harold Lloyd’s 1925 film, The Freshman. “A careful analysis would bring tears of pain to graduate eyes,” The New York Times quipped upon the movie’s release.
The film’s detractors have a point. Hold ’Em Yale never attempts to be anything other than a pleasant comedy. Populated by archetypes rather than flesh-and-blood characters, it has Animal Companions, Bumbling Police Detectives, Honorable Men of Yale, Dishonorable Men of Yale, Sidekicks and Gorgeous Women but no people to whose personalities more than three or four descriptive adjectives could reasonably be attached.
The film similarly lacks a distinct setting, despite having the University’s name in the title. Montez and his monkey could conceivably be gallivanting around on any other college campus with little overall change to the film as a whole. Scenes take place on streets and in university houses with little to no distinguishing characteristics. Even the film’s climactic Big Game (supposedly at the Yale Bowl) takes place in a stadium that looks suspiciously similar to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The film’s updated soundtrack, composed and performed live by Donald Sosin, incorporated such University-related tunes as “Boola Boola” and did more to ground the film in its own setting than the picture itself.
Also, being a product of its time, Hold ’Em Yale does possess a few moments to give modern viewers pause. The movie’s sole African American character is a servant whose title cards read in a grossly exaggerated dialect. For example, “Dat bad moustache be upstairs, boss.” Similarly, Montez’s Argentinian farm-hands all pronounce their ‘i’s as ‘ee’s, telling one of Montez’s friends that “He ees on the feeld, señor.”
However, despite its flaws and overall blandness, what remains at the film’s core is a perfectly pleasant picture of both visual and written wit. Montez’s monkey, Firpo, in particular, amused me (although a certain PETA editorial concerning the inhumanity of monkey training popped into my head whenever he came on screen).
One of the questions that consistently plagued me over the course of Hold ’Em Yale’s 74 minutes was whether I should see the film as a remnant of the past or as a movie. In their introductions, Yale Film Archivists Judith Schiff and Brian Meacham seemed to view it as archaeologists might an ancient artifact, emphasizing the process by which the film was preserved, lost and rediscovered by Meacham in a New Zealand Film Archive. Was Hold ‘Em Yale thus a relic or a piece of visual entertainment? As the picture went on, that question receded further and further into the back of my head. As the lights came back on and the credits rolled, a new one had replaced it: Had the film been fun?
It had been. Perfectly.