The Campus Vamp (1928) A Silent Film Review

Carole Lombard shows her stuff in this late-silent era comedy. She is the titular vamp who is determined to steal her gal pal’s man. Of course, the gal pal has other ideas. Notable for some splendid twenties fashions and a climactic color sequence.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Spring break!

College films were big business in the twenties and equally big names were ready to take a stab at the genre. Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Marion Davies and Richard Barthelmess (just to name a few) all caught the college bug. Never willing to let a trend pass by, Sennett studios also cranked out short films with a collegiate theme.

The runtime is short and so are the costumes.
The runtime is short and so are the costumes.

Once the top comedy studio, the Sennett banner had fallen on hard times by the end of the silent era. Like his mentor, D.W. Griffith, Sennett viewed himself as a star-maker and saw no reason to shell out a lot of cash for big names when there were cheaper performers waiting in the wings.

This attitude (along with other poor business decisions and a refusal to keep up with the times) was really responsible for Sennett’s downfall. It meant that brilliant comics would get their start with Sennett but would leave the moment they were big enough to be offered a better salary. Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson and Carole Lombard all slipped through his fingers. What Sennett failed to realize was that paying five times as much for a star was worth it if their films brought in ten times as much at the box office.

Pretty much the reason this film was made.
Pretty much the reason this film was made.

So, Sennett’s movies were in trouble financially but how did they fare from a comedy viewpoint?

As stated before, The Campus Vamp was one of Sennett’s collegiate comedies. It is of special interest to modern viewers because it features a very young Carole Lombard as the titular vamp. Plus, the finale of the film (a beach baseball game) was filmed in color.

The formula for The Campus Vamp was the same one that Sennett had been practicing for nearly two decades: The plot is a skeleton to hang the gags on. Sally (Sally Eilers) is a good girl and a brainy one. She has her eye on Matty (Matty Kemp), whom she is tutoring. However, wild Carole (Carole Lombard) also wants Matty and she is far more assertive. Sally must find a way to win her man back.

That scheming Carole! Plying him with ice cream!
That scheming Carole! Plying him with ice cream!

At this point, I am wondering why she must do that. I mean, Matty made a pass at Sally but immediately dumped her for Carole. A boyfriend with a wandering eye? No, thank you!

Oh well. Frumpy Dora (Daphne Pollard) and Barney (Johnny Burke) try to help Sally, comical-like, to middling results.

As I said before, the plot is thin. Unfortunately, the comedy does not make up for it. While a few of the gags work (Dora clonking Sally and Matty’s heads together for a very awkward kiss), most of them rely too heavily on mugging and slapstick.

Middling comedy.
Middling comedy.

So, does the film have any redeeming qualities? Fortunately, the answer is yes.

Mack Sennett loved his bathing girls and they had been a fixture of his comedies for years. However, I think that the ladies have more to recommend them than just sex appeal. The leering camera unintentionally captured shots of adorable twenties hair, swimsuits and accessories.

(The climactic beach baseball game was shot in color but the only version available on DVD is all in black and white.)

Carole has a wardrobe malfunction.
Carole has a wardrobe malfunction.

The dance scene is even better. Fringe, beading and flounces galore! If you want ideas for a twenties costume or reproduction this scene should give you plenty of ideas.

Matty Kemp is nondescript as the object of everyone’s affection. Sally Eilers fares a little better but she does not really have anything that makes her unique. Eilers is probably best remembered for her role in Frank Borage’s 1930 pre-Code drama Bad Girl. She never really hit true stardom and her career sputtered by the end of the decade.

Sally Eilers never made it big.
Sally Eilers never made it big.

Of course, I dare say that most people will watch The Campus Vamp for one reason and that reason is Carole Lombard. I am happy to report that even at this young age, her madcap sensibilities are quite intact. She dances, leaps, jumps and laughs. She is a sparkling presence. You can see at once why Matty cannot give Sally the time of day while Carole is around.

Carole Lombard is a gem.
Carole Lombard is a gem.

It’s worth noting that Matty finally does choose Sally– but only because the seat of Carole’s swimsuit is chewed off by a crab and she is forced to retreat. Yes, I realize that is a very odd sentence to type. Sennett comedies could verge into the surreal.

I have a feeling, though, that Matty and Sally have not seen the last of Carole. Shorn seat or no shorn seat, she’s ten times as much fun as anyone else in this short.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★½

Where can I see it?

The Campus Vamp was released on DVD as an extra with Nothing Sacred. It is also available on DVD from Alpha but the print is not great and it does not have the final color sequence.


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  1. vp19

    A nice review, and some good news — “The Campus Vamp” is available on DVD with the color sequences. It and another Lombard Sennett short (“Matchmaking Mamma” her last two-reeler for Mack, also partly filmed in two-strip Technicolor) are available as extras on one of the public domain DVDs of “Nothing Sacred” (wish I could remember which one).

    Two more things to note about “Vamp”:

    * One of the guys in the dance scene is none other than Robert Young! (He and Lombard never made a feature together, but co-starred on radio about 1940 in a version of “The Awful Truth.”)

    * The dance scene was lifted and used in the 1985 Glenn Close comedy “Maxie” — Carole is cast as flapper Maxie, whose character is seen on vintage film dancing before being killed in a car crash prior to an audition in Hollywood. After seeing the clip, Glenn’s character is suddenly inhabited by the spirit of Maxie, who causes all sorts of mischief.

    Apparently all the shorts Carole made for Sennett are available, including a few stored at the UCLA archive. Someone really should restore and assemble them into a comprehensive collection.

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