This here is a football, boys

Coach John Wayne is unimpressed with his new team.

The trouble with running a church-funded college is you have to follow the rules. This can be dreadfully inconvenient.

Take fundraising, for instance. If your school is losing money and facing imminent closure, you’ve gotta raise some fast cash. But how is a clergyman to do this when the quickest ways to raise money are always a bit, uh, dodgy?

This is the dilemma faced by Father Matthew Burke (Charles Coburn) in the 1953 comedy, Trouble Along the Way. Coburn is the head rector of St. Anthony’s College, which is $170,000 in the red and is scheduled to be closed after the fall semester.

Coburn refuses to let St. Anthony’s die because it is aging (like him), and he is fighting to keep it relevant (also like him). He feels that if the Church gives up on the college, they’re giving up on him.

Most of Coburn’s lines reflect his unease with the future. In one scene, representatives from the Church tell him that after his college is closed, he’ll be offered a position at another school with “outstanding scholarship and athletics.” Coburn dryly replies, “Which one do they want me for?”

What is a man of the cloth to do? The rector may be religious but he’s also cagey. He decides to hire a professional coach to beef up the football team, and organizes a schedule that includes a game with Notre Dame! Remember, kids: all good things come to those who sell football tickets!

Enter Steve Williams (John Wayne), a former football-coach-turned-down-and-out pool shark. Wayne’s character has been fired from every major college football program, and is now relegated to living above a pool hall with his ascerbic young daughter, Carol (Sherry Jackson).

If there ever was a person with baggage, it is Wayne’s character. He drinks, he can’t keep a job, he doesn’t care if his daughter goes to school or to the Dodgers game. Plus, he has a villainous ex-wife (a scene-stealing Marie Windsor) who wants to destroy him if she can’t have him back. If all that weren’t enough, an officer from the Children’s Court (Donna Reed) begins to investigate Wayne due to suspicions of child neglect.

What is a washed-up coach to do? Wayne decides to accept Coburn’s offer to coach the St. Anthony football team. This enables him to live at the college which, he hopes, will shield him from both his ex-wife and the Children’s Court.

What a treat to see Wayne and Coburn together! Here are two seasoned actors playing polar opposites, and the chemistry couldn’t be better. In one scene, Wayne sums up the two men’s philosophies: “The difference between you and me, Father, is I’m a sensitive man and you’re a gambler.”

It doesn’t take long for Wayne to realize that the only way he can save the football team – and the college – is to bend the rules a little. (Okay, a lot.) Coburn, a trusting soul, is oblivious to this blatant disregard of league rules until all of Wayne’s troubles suddenly collide to create a great big ugly mess.

This movie has been criticized as a blatant public relations vehicle for John Wayne after his nasty public divorce in the early 1950s. But what does it matter? Wayne certainly isn’t the first – or the last – actor to star in this kind of publicity piece. If only every star vehicle had this roster of acting talent with such a witty script!

If you’re looking for a heart-warming, laugh-out-loud movie that underscores a man’s love for his daughter and another man’s belief in higher education, we urge you to watch Trouble Along the Way. We suspect you’ll be adding it to your DVD collection.

Trouble Along the Way: starring John Wayne, Donna Reed, Charles Coburn. Written by Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Warner Brothers, B&W, 1953, 110 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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