Experienced moviegoers know what to expect when Hollywood tries to get serious with the subject of football. In the stark, brutal, devastating opening scene, Coach Goldie Nails, who is tough as nails but has a heart of gold, prepares for State's big game against Normal by sweeping through a tap-dance routine in the campus malt shop. Everything is uphill after that. Goldie staggers out of his tap dance to make a woeful discovery. His star fullback, Crew Slammer, has been caught cheating on an exam. Goldie, of course, discovers the big, rugged, good-natured Crew has been framed and that the person who framed him—since Hollywood has always been harsh on intellectuals in football movies—is the scrawny, squeak-voiced bookworm, Fitzhugh Clarence, who is jealous over the affections of (choose one) Bonita Granville, Ann Rutherford, Priscilla Lane. Fitzhugh is soon tortured into a confession by a group of teasing coeds who play keep away with his skull cap. But it is too late. Crew Slammer, having grown despondent, has disappeared: gone back to log-rolling country. The burden of beating Normal falls directly onto the shoulders of the cocky sophomore, Brick Thompson, a triple threat who can run, pass and sing. The trouble with Brick is he has been kidnaped by gamblers. Happily, all ends well for State. With a minute to play and the score tied. Brick Thompson suddenly appears on the field, squats down, says "hup," takes the snap and, amid some mysterious film clips of Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch dashing through the San Francisco 49ers, wins the game, the girl and the last production number.
Hollywood has made this movie a lot of times, in varying forms, and called it Saturday's Hero, College Coach, The College Widow, Pigskin Parade, One Minute to Play, The Forward Pass, The Big Game, The Drop Kick, The All American, Brown of Harvard, Spirit of West Point, Harmon of Michigan, The Spirit of Stanford, Touchdown Army!, Crazylegs, Knute Rockne—All American and several other big, rugged, good-natured things. Rarely has the film intended to be humorous, but just as rarely has it ever been anything else.
The best thing about Hollywood's football movies is that with precious little aging they soon become classics of whimsy and satire on late-evening television. But it is precisely because of this unedited, if unwanted, success, that the formula may be changing. Last spring a few Hollywood types got together with the very novel idea of going straight on a football theme—not really straight, of course, but at least their movie is supposed to be funny. It would try to prove nothing more realistic than the fact that Shirley MacLaine (see cover) is as cute in football headgear and shoulder pads as she is in a harem costume and, in any case, that she is a loon.
The movie is finished now, and it must prove something. A few concrete things can be said about it. As a starter, it bears the insane title of John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! and is about Notre Dame. It has Shirley MacLaine as a cheerleader who scores a winning touchdown in a game played in the desert. It has a cast that includes Peter Ustinov as an Arab king who drives a golf cart, Richard Crenna as a lost U-2 pilot named John Goldfarb, Scott Brady as the Notre Dame coach, and 10 camels, eight harem wives, 50 tribesmen, four football officials, 20 sheiks, 36 Bedouin warriors, a black bear, four Nubian slaves, 16 musicians, seven Tangier dancers, eight cheerleaders, 22 Arabian football players, 22 Notre Dame football players, four camel riders and a monkey.
The parties responsible for bringing about this unlikely assembly are Coproducers Steve Parker, who is married to Shirley MacLaine and J. Lee Thompson, who directs Shirley MacLaine, and Screen Writer William Peter Blatty, who writes for Shirley MacLaine. The plot that brought them all together, along with the camels, harem girls and Notre Dame players, is—as one might suspect—not very firmly grounded in South Bend history. Briefly, it deals with the king of a land called Fawzia and his efforts to schedule Notre Dame for a postseason game on his own Arabic field against Fawz U.; with the efforts of a girl reporter from Strife magazine to get a dead-level story on a harem while remaining upright herself; with the efforts of a bumbling U.S. Government to see that Notre Dame both plays and loses (better for foreign relations); and with the efforts of a U-2 pilot to coach an Arabian football team that believes the best way to bat down a pass is with a rifle.
"The plot," says Blatty, "was basically inspired by Francis Gary Powers." There were a few other considerations. Shirley MacLaine wanted to do a comedy, Shirley MacLaine's husband wanted to produce one, Blatty wanted to write one and 20th Century-Fox wanted to release one. And everyone thought that it might make money. Right?
"They're playing my song," says Blatty, a dark, solemn-faced man. "We were sitting around one night at Steve and Shirley's talking about the Powers thing. I said wouldn't it be a funny movie if you like did something crazy with it. Steve said write it, he'd produce it and Shirley would play it. First, I thought make the guy Jewish and the Arabs get him. Then I'm watching one of those old football movies on TV one night and I thought make him a football coach. Being a fan of the poor L.A. Rams, I think about football a lot anyhow."
As everyone concerned might well have guessed from the start, the making of Goldfarb was destined to become an athletic event in itself. The interior scenes were routine enough, with the exception of Notre Dame's pregame meal, which involved harem girls and dancing. Then, for the game sequences, the company moved from the Fox lot to a secluded area in the Mojave Desert called Rosamond Dry Lake. Rosamond is a flat, bleak stretch of sand near Edwards Air Force Base. Twelve miles from Lancaster, Calif. and 90 miles from Los Angeles, the site was selected because it looked like Fawzia ought to look—a flimsily disguised Saudi Arabia with Peter Ustinov. And it was complete with mirages.
"Who won the regatta today?" Shirley MacLaine asked, after getting her first look at Rosamond Dry Lake. To which Richard Crenna replied, "I don't know. The flamingos obstructed my view."
Even in a football motion picture that is designed to be humorous there must be traces of realism. Therefore Fox spent $12,000 building an actual field in the middle of the desert. Workmen spread two inches of soil over the sand, then laid down six-by-eight-foot strips of Kentucky blue-grass that had been trucked in from a Tehachapi turf farm. To keep the grass alive, the studio brought in more trucks, equipped with sprinkler systems to shower 10,000 gallons of water a day on the playing field. Around the field it erected a grandstand, complete with a king's throne, ornate goalposts, minarets, a scoreboard straight out of Bagdad, a phony palace facade propped up with two-by-fours and some studio palm trees—the only trees anywhere near Rosamond Dry Lake.