A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#1 by Robert Crewdson , Tue May 22, 2018 9:24 pm

This was one of two articles I wrote for Phil Sheard a few years ago to help him with his request for contributions. Both appeared anonymously, and I only saw them because someone sent me a scan, so I decided to write no further articles for his mag. The 1940 Laurel& Hardy film 'A Chump at Oxford' was a spoof of this film.

A 'Yank at Oxford' (1938) is notable for being the first M.G.M film to be shot outside of Hollywood. It tells the story of a cocky American named Lee Sheridan, played by Robert Taylor, who receives a scholarship to attend the fictional Cardinal College, Oxford. After arriving in England by ship, he takes the train to Oxford; on the way he meets fellow students, whom he annoys with his bragging about his athletic prowess. They trick him into getting off the train at Didcot, about 15 miles from Oxford; then he is tricked again on his arrival at the college, in believing he is receiving a grand reception from the Dean.

Lee Sheridan (Taylor) considers leaving Oxford, but is persuaded to stay by his personal servant, Scatters, played by Edward Rigby. He makes an enemy of student Paul Beaumont, played by Griffith Jones, who is having an affair with a married woman, Elsie Craddock, played by Vivien Leigh. When Elsa is found in the room of Lee Sheridan, he takes the blame, covering for Paul Beaumont. As it is Lee's first offence he is given a warning rather than being expelled. Paul Beaumont thanks Lee for protecting him, and the two become friends. Lee Sheridan goes on to help Oxford win the annual boat race against Cambridge, and all ends well.

MGM got the idea of forming a British studio as early as 1936, Louis B. Mayer had been keeping an eye on Michael Balcon, who was successfully running Gaumont-British. They had developed an occasional correspondence. Mayer hired Balcon to run MGM British, and brought him to Hollywood for 6 months of indoctrination in the MGM ethos. Balconlater wrote that he was given every consideration. However, things changed when Balcon returned to Britain. Oxford University refused to allow any filming on its premises, so photographers were hired to take hundreds of pictures of Oxford, so it could be recreated at Denham, Buckinghamshire. Mayer was uneasy about the operation at Denham, closely supervising Balcon's stories, budgets, and schedules. He was unhappy about Balcon's casting of the second lead, a promising young starlet named Vivien Leigh; Mayer felt the picture need a bigger name. Casting official Bob Ritchie, suggested a different actress, Balcon resopnded 'Don't be a bloody fool'. Mayer threw open the office window, then tore into Balcon, with an ever increasing volume, so the entire office and immediate studio could hear.

Jack Conway was chosen as Director, and the rest of the crew were British. Conway took ill in the middle of the picture; Joseph Newman, who had been sent over to get the company ready and assist Conway in any way took over; he recalled 'I shot about a week of the actual picture. Then I did all the boat races, which was a major part of the picture. So 'A Yank at Oxford' gave me great directorial experience'.

Although Oxford had to be recreated in a studio, it was clearly modelled as close as possible to the real thing. As someone who has lived here for more than 60 years, I thought it was filmed on location, until I noticed one or two differences. The scene where Lee Sheridan (Taylor) arrives by taxi, is clearly based on the corner of Market Street and Turl Street; we even see the delivery boys on their bicycles, which were a familiar site until comparatively recently. The fictional Cardinal College could be any of three in Turl Street, and it's hard to believe it wasn't actually filmed outside a college entrance. In one scene, we see Sheridan enter a bookshop, climb a ladder to talk to the sister of Paul Beaumont (played by Maureen O'Sullivan who played Jane in the Johnny Weismuller films). This is copied from Thornton's Bookshop in Broad Street, just off Turl Street, which was in business from 1870 until 2002. I remember going in there several times, the top shelf was the height of a two storey building, and the staff had to climb a ladder to reach a book for you. It was enough to make you feel quite queasy just looking up at the shelves.

I don't know how far this ban extended by Oxford University, but twice we see Robert Taylor on the University racetrack; the track, in Iffley Road, is where Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile in 1954. Clearly the scenes on the Thames, other than the race with Cambridge, were filmed at Oxford, as we see the Victorian houseboats, which have been a feature of Oxford since the 1830s.

The film was also an attempt to beef up the image of one of its leading men, Robert Taylor, who had previously only played romantic parts, and his manhood was being questioned. He was seriously in danger of becoming a joke.

By the time 'A Yank at Oxford' had moved to the editing stage, Balcon found he had nothing to do besides read scripts and synopsis. Suddenly, no one wasw interested in his opinion about anything. Eventually he resigned. Balcon generally referred to his former boss as 'the unspeakable Mayer'. For the rest of his life he received a Christmas card from Mayer every year, an unintentional running joke that could only have reminded Balcon how much he hated the man who had humiliated him.

The film was well received in America, and received it's premier at the Empire Cinema, London, on Thursday 31st March, 1938. Among the distinguished guests were Lord Derby, Mr C.K. Allen, Master of Rhodes House; the Master of Pembroke College. The American Ambassador and Mrs Kennedy, the High Commissioner for Canada, Mr F. Handley-Page, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Mr Gordon Selfridge, Mr E. Bridges Webb, Principal of Brasenose College, Rear Admiral Sir Edward Inglefield, and a whole host of notable persons.

There were one or two complaints from former students about minor innacuracies, such as the May Morning choristers of Magdalen Tower wearing ruffs instead of collars, the rowing style of the hero being wrong, Cardinal College using a Merton boat and Trinity oars, putting on full academic dress to visit the Proctor, who would have had a less palatial office than that shown. Having said that the writers generally agreed that they had enjoyed the film.

'A Yank at Oxford' was listed by the Times as one of the most successful British films of 1938; despite this it has not been released on DVD anywhere to the best of my knowledge. It does get aired on the TCM channel for the benefit of American viewers who have been able to record it on air.

My print , which I bought from Classic Home Cinema is on 3 x1600ft Spools, and is in immaculate condition. It was made by MGMs own labs, and is a theatrical print, complete with all original leaders and tails.

The police hold back the crowds as Robert Taylor arrives at Waterloo railway station.

Attached pictures:

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Last edited 05.22.2018 | Top

RE: A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#2 by Vidar Olavesen , Tue May 22, 2018 9:43 pm

Only seen the Chump, even though it might be Mr. Hardy, he is a Yank, right?

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RE: A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#3 by Douglas Warren , Tue May 22, 2018 9:52 pm

Excellent review Robert, and I love hearing the backstories on films.

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RE: A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#4 by Eivind Mork , Tue May 22, 2018 10:05 pm

I had heard something about Mayer and Balcon a long time ago, I think it was on TV, but I had forgot the details, so it was a nice read! Thanks for the review!

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RE: A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#5 by Greg Perry , Tue May 22, 2018 11:05 pm


Yes, Oliver Hardy was a Yank---born in Harlem, in the state of Georgia...
I never knew the L&H "Chump" (1939, I think) title was a play on words to this film title "A Yank at Oxford" from 1938...
Plus, nice bonus that Maureen O'Sullivan was in that as well!

Great article and review, thanks for adding it here!

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RE: A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#6 by Tom Photiou , Tue May 22, 2018 11:11 pm

That is a great article Robert, you certainly know your subject, thanks for putting this up. Your name certainly should have been put up in that magazine.

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RE: A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#7 by Robert Crewdson , Wed May 23, 2018 12:03 am

Oliver Hardy claimed descent from the Hardy that served on Nelson's flagship 'Trafalgar'. The Laurel & Hardy film 'Bonnie Scotland' is a spoof of 'The Lives of a Bengal Lancer' starring Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Richard Cromwell. Films about British India were popular at that time. The poster appeared twice for some reason, so I'll try to correct it tomorrow.

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Last edited 05.23.2018 | Top

RE: A Yank at Oxford (1938)

#8 by Robert Crewdson , Wed May 23, 2018 12:17 am

My family used to think that 'A Chump at Oxford' was filmed in Oxford, as the College they arrive at looks like Magdalen College, plus on the other side of the road are the Botanical Gardens, where the maze is in the film, though we have no knowledge of there ever having been a maze. It was very well done, and contains an early appearance from Peter Cushing.

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