Many moons ago I caught the tail end of the film Brother Rat (1938) on TCM. I was particularly drawn by the film’s youthful cast, the collegiate setting and the slapstick humor. When I went to search for a way to watch this film in its entirety I discovered that the film and its 1940 sequel Brother Rat and a Baby were not available on DVD. I immediately went to the Warner Archive Twitter and Facebook pages and asked if these films were going to be future releases but did not get any response in the affirmative.
Fast forward months later and the Warner Archive released both films on DVD-MOD. Boy, was I excited! This was an opportunity to watch both of these films and to add to my repertoire of classic collegiate movies.
Brother Rat was a successful Broadway play written by and about cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, affectionately known as the “West Point of the South”. The term “Brother Rat” refers to upperclassmen at the school. Freshman are referred to as just “Rats”and it’s expected of them to be at the beck and call of the Brother Rats. The young Rats endure hazing and are given embarrassing and menial tasks in order to earn respect when they advance to Brother Rat status. The Broadway play starring Eddie Albert in the title role of Bing Edwards was such a hit that Warner Bros. got the rights to the script and acquired Albert to reprise his role. This would be Eddie’s screen debut. Warner Bros. also retained Broadway actor William Tracy (or Tracey, depending on the billing) for his role of Misto Bottome, a freshman Rat who desperately seeks approval from the older Brother Rats.
The play and the movie have somewhat different story lines. The screen Brother Rat focuses more on the character Billy Randolph in order to showcase Wayne Morris, whom Warner Bros. was grooming to become a big star. Billy Randolph (Morris), Bing Edwards (Albert) and Dan Crawford (Ronald Reagan) are roommates at VMI. Billy is the son of a wealthy publisher who is careless with his money (and other people’s money too), is always breaking VMI rules, and is completely smitten with the Southern debutante Joyce Winfree (Priscilla Lane). He’s tireless in his efforts to woo her even though he’s up against her disapproving grandmother and another rival suitor and fellow cadet. Bing is having much better luck in his romantic life with his sweetheart, Kate Rice (Jane Bryan). In fact they are secretly married and expecting a baby! Edwards must keep their marriage and their future baby a secret from VMI until commencement. Edwards is also a talented pitcher and expected to win the big baseball game. He’s also expected to pass his Chemistry test so he can graduate. Needless to say, there is a lot of pressure on Bing and he’s not handling it all very well.
Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan are the third couple in this scenario. Their real-life romance, which started with this film and lead to an engagement during the filming of Brother Rat and a Baby, eclipsed the other stars, including Wayne Morris and Priscilla Lane, who have top billing. Reagan’s Dan Crawford is a level-headed cadet who loves to play baseball and spends much of his time trying to put out the fires started by Billy Randolph. Wyman plays the nerdy and bespectacled Claire Adams. She has a knack for chemistry and hides the fact that she’s really Claire Ramm, daughter of Colonel Ramm, one of the superiors at VMI. Claire is smitten with Dan but he’s not quite sure about her. However, she wins him over with her tenacity and her clever solutions to his roommates’ problems.
Brother Rat follows the story of Billy, Bing and Dan as they navigate collegiate life in their final year at VMI and also explores their romantic lives and their stints as top level Brother Rats and talented college-level baseball players. It’s interesting to note that the focus here is on baseball, whereas so many collegiate films before and after this one have showcased football as the ultimate college sport.
Brother Rat was so popular that it spawned an original sequel. While listening to the Warner Archive podcast, I learned that sequels during this time era were very rare. Productions either resulted in stand-alone films or serials. Warner Bros. must have seen a really good opportunity to bring back all the top stars of their box office smash and gave birth two years later to Brother Rat and a Baby.
Brother Rat and a Baby picks up the story several months after the three roommates graduate from VMI. Billy Randolph is at his dad’s publishing company and getting into problems with the law. Dan Crawford is working hard and trying to keep out of trouble so he can have a bright future. Bing Edwards is a baseball coach whose new baby is causing him and his wife Kate much joy and consternation. Their baby was named Commencement because of the key moment in Bing’s life in which he was born, and also upon Dan’s suggestion. Commencement (played by infant actor “Peter B. Good”) is a happy little boy who loves shiny objects and has a propensity to swallow them: quarters, diamond rings, etc. He causes much chaos which only exacerbates the chaos already being created by Billy.
It’s difficult to explain the plot of Brother Rat and a Baby because it’s all over the place! Billy is still trying to marry Joyce and Claire is still after Dan. Billy gets Bing an opportunity to be a baseball coach at VMI, but the baby and Billy cause a lot of problems along the way. It’s definitely not a collegiate film, which may be a reason why it wasn’t as popular as Brother Rat. The plot is unnecessarily complicated and feels rushed. Some of the dialogue is delivered at such a rapid pace that I had to rewind and play key moments again in order to hear everything that was said! This film tries very hard to be a screwball comedy.
There is an interesting appearance by Humphrey Bogart’s third wife Mayo Methot in a small role in Brother Rat and a Baby as a sour-faced woman on a bus whose diamond ring is swallowed by Commencement. Those of you familiar with Bogart’s life will know that his relationship with Methot was very volatile.
There are a couple of rather risqué moments in the films which I found to be welcome curiosities. In the first film we find out that Kate and Bing are expecting a baby. We immediately assume they are unmarried. However, it’s only a good 10 or so minutes later that we find out that Kate and Bing were secretly married. My mind was reeling the entire time wondering how they got this past the censors. The delay of information proved to be quite titillating and a clever way to be both Hays Code friendly and suggestive. In the second film, there is a scene in which Claire’s father Colonel Ramm interrupts couples Billy and Joyce and Dan and Claire in what seems to be a more sexually suggestive situation that it really was. In fact, Dan and Claire (Reagan and Wyman) come out of a bedroom with their hair and clothes in disarray after playing with baby Commencement. However, Colonel Ramm interprets this as something very different, which adds some spice as well as humor to the scene!
I made the unfortunate decision to watch both of these films right after watching a film noir masterpiece. I still had the noir in my mind and started to have unrealistic expectations. I set the Brother Rat films aside for a few days and then picked them up again. They were much more enjoyable on my second viewing.
Brother Rat and Brother Rat and a Baby are light comedic fare. They are perfect for anyone who is a fan of the era or of any of the cast members, and Brother Rat especially should be a must-see for anyone who likes collegiate films.
Raquel Stecher works in book publishing by day and is a classic film enthusiast by night. She’s been writing on her movie blog Out of the Past since 2007 and spends most of her free time watching old movies and reading books about them. She lives in the Boston area, where she watches many classics on the big screens of her local repertory theaters.