Carole Lombard stars as the sprinting queen of her college but she’d rather be chasing boys than medals. It’s up to her indefatigable coach to make sure she wins first place.
Home Media Availability: Released on Bluray
The Phantom Fun
We all have to start somewhere and comedy success for future screwball queen Carole Lombard started on the Sennett lot. Mack Sennett had been a pioneer of rough slapstick comedy back in the 1910s but had settled into a formula that can be described as a bit of slapstick, a few car crashes and a dash of Spirit Halloween. Like that famous pop-up holiday store, if there was a “sexy” variant for any celebrity or profession, Sennett would find it.
Collegiate films were big business during this time and campuses were heavily populated by coeds in abbreviated costume who loved to dance the night away with their sheiks. Critics scoffed at the suspicious number of thirty-something students but audiences ate the genre up with a spoon.
And this is where Run, Girl, Run enters the picture. It starred the diminutive Daphne Pollard, who was quite a wonderful comedian if she had the material to support her talents. (I quite enjoyed her work opposite Harry Langdon in His First Flame and her later parts in Laurel and Hardy films.) And, of course, the Sennett Girls and most particularly Carole Lombard. (I have previously covered this genre and collaboration in my review of The Campus Vamp.)
Lombard plays Norma Nurmi, the star runner of a college with a struggling athletic program, and Pollard is Minnie Marmon, the enthusiastic but somewhat silly coach who has been told to deliver a win or lose her job. That should be easy with Nurmi on the team but our star runner has other ideas, the first of which involves boys (as do all her other ideas).
Much of the film is taken up with Norma attempting to escape the dorms in order to neck with her sweetheart in his flivver, as they say, while Minnie tries her best to stop her. The picture injects some sass when coach forces her runner to disrobe and share a bed so she can keep tabs on her but Norma evades her by filling a rubber glove with water and slipping it into the sleeping Minnie’s hand. Later, Norma loses a race when she is distracted by her powder puff. Minnie confiscates the puff, which is then accidentally fried as a pancake. It’s rather that kind of film, I’m afraid.
Mack Sennett was firmly in the old school “let the stars leave, I’ll make more” camp and to that end, he steadily let some of the biggest comedy players of all time slip through his fingers. I find his early work endearing in its open cheapness (using any event, any event at all, as a free backdrop) and the innovations of his early stars. By the twenties, this revolving door policy was unsustainable and Sennett’s approach involved the formula of babes, cars and special effects.
There were exceptions. I rather like the more Hal Roachian Smith Family series starring Raymond McKee. (Lombard appeared in a couple of these.) Run, Girl, Run represents a style that I am less attracted to.
It also represents the kind of “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” filmmaking associated with the worst of slapstick. While the leg show and athletic antics are mildly, in unimaginatively, amusing, the film also tries to wring laughs out of animal cruelty (bunion pads stuck to a cat), obsessive fat jokes aimed at one of the actresses, and chicken-stealing gags targeting a Black man who wanders into the film entirely for the purpose. All in all, the gags tend to range from “meh” to “ew.”
The plot also is not very compelling. I am okay with an unlikable or antihero comedy lead but Norma and Minnie don’t have any kind of character arc, challenge or comeuppance. Norma just wants to party instead of practice and Minnie makes her win the race by commandeering her powder puff. Not sure why we needed two reels to accomplish this task. If Norma’s boyfriend had been a honey trap working for the rival school, if she had experienced some kind of revelation about the importance of sportsmanship, or if Minnie had finally figured out how to get through to her, this picture might have gone somewhere.
The heroine’s name in this comedy, Norma Nurmi, was a reference to Paavo Nurmi, dubbed the Phantom Finn. A multiple gold medalist in the field of running, Nurmi used his Olympic glory as a springboard for running tours and he was wildly popular in the U.S.A. His financial success later caused him to run afoul of the ridiculous and classist Olympic “amateurs only” edict.
(You can see Nurmi run in the Finnish documentary film Finlandia (1922), which features a chapter focusing on the newly-independent country’s Olympic success about 50 minutes in. It was filmed just after the 1920 Antwerp games, where Nurmi made his international debut.)
Of course, Run, Girl, Run clearly did not intend to seriously comment on Nurmi. It merely borrowed his name as an instantly recognizable runner surname much the same way a modern running comedy might feature a character named Brianna Bolt.
Run, Girl, Run was released with Technicolor sequences, which were described in Motion Picture News as relatively static shots of the Sennett Bathing Girls in athletic wear, no doubt abbreviated. The review states that more of these color sequences and less “comedy” would have improved the film. Given the quality of this film’s humor overall, I must agree.
It’s worth noting that when this picture was made, Technicolor was an almighty pain in the rear and performers could look totally different with even a slight change in lighting. Thus, the static shots under no doubt controlled conditions were a cost-saving measure. No risk of outtakes or wasted film. While they don’t sound extremely dynamic, I would still love to see them.
Despite all this, feedback from exhibitors in trade publications was generally favorable for this two-reeler. Theater managers described it as “very high class and laughable,” “very good” and “fair” with special praise reserved for those color sequences. Interestingly, this film was also made available in a 400-foot 16mm cut (about half its original runtime) for the burgeoning home viewing market almost at the same time as its theatrical release. It cost $25, or about $420 in modern cash. Films of Paavo Nurmi’s running technique were also for sale, with reel of slow-motion shots available for a cool $1.75 on the Pathex machine (that’s a steal at about $30 in today’s money).
All in all, Run, Girl, Run is a testament to Lombard’s charisma. She doesn’t have much of a part but her charm is quite evident. As for the rest of the film, your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy the twenties Sennett house style. I am not the biggest fan, myself.
Where can I see it?
Released on Bluray by Flicker Alley.
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Wait—isn’t that Greta Garbo playing Norma?
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