Wednesday, July 3, 2024

The Affairs of Dobie Gillis: A Review



When Nick at Nite showed old television shows, I found myself addicted to the 1950's sitcom Dobie Gillis. I do not know if I related to Dobie, a teen forever long on love and short on cash. It was not until long after that I discovered that there was a film prior to the television series. The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, like Dobie himself, just wants to be loved. Harmless, inoffensive and with a slight charm to sell the premise, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis should be greeted with the gentleness everyone involved meant it to be.

Young Dobie Gillis (Bobby Van) has enrolled at Grainbelt University with no ideas of his future. There are those who work in life and those who enjoy life, and Dobie is a proud enjoyer. Quickly making friends with Charlie Trask (Bob Fosse, yes, THAT Bob Fosse), Dobie finds himself in a curious romantic situation. Charlie has eyes only for vixen Lorna Ellingboe (Barbara Ruick), who has eyes only for Dobie, who has eyes only for a girl whose name he struggles to learn due to odd situations.

Eventually Dobie learns her real name: Pansy Hammer (Debbie Reynolds). She is at Grainbelt to learn, learn, learn and work, work, work. She should not have time to be a teen, but soon she finds the joys of life and love with Dobie. They skip classes for picnics. They find love and laughter, much to the distress of Pansy's father George (Hanley Stafford) and quiet approval of mother Eleanor (Lureen Tuttle). All that fun though will get them out of Grainbelt if they don't turn in a long-ago assigned essay and science project. Will Dobie and Pansy manage to pull things off without doing what Pansy accidentally does best: blowing up the science lab? Will they be able to save the Grainbelt University magazine with a big-time dance band? Will Dobie and Pansy, sent off to New York City after her disastrous science exam, reunite?

I find that The Affairs of Dobie Gillis is a curious film, attempting to appeal to teen audiences while being almost psychotically square. These are not rebellious kids in the Rebel Without a Cause mode. They are instead the most squeaky-clean college freshmen in human history. One imagines that the students at Grainbelt University would find the teens parodied in Hairspray's The Nicest Kids in Town number much too avant-garde.

Dobie as portrayed by Bobby Van is never mean-spirited. He is affable if clueless about things. Van has only one solo musical number, I'm Through with Love, which is pleasant and well-staged. We should dislike Dobie for being so irresponsible on so many levels, particularly money. There is a montage of him in New York, sent there to hire a big band like Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman, maybe even Harry James. Instead, he uses most of the money the magazine has to squire his beloved Pansy.

We should be appalled, but Van makes Dobie into such a lovesick puppy that we almost think this is sweet. Almost, for we still are a bit distressed at how foolish he is. We are also astonished that he got away with his blatant act of plagiarism. However, again thanks to Van's performance, we find nothing malicious or calculating in his manner. It is more a mix of naivete and desperation that caused his predicaments. That his pompous professor Amos Pomfritt (Hans Conried) was so taken in by this essay that he forgot about how much contempt he had for Dobie almost makes thing endearing.

Reynolds is sweet and impish as Pansy, discovering the joys of love and laughter after a lifetime of all work and no play. She and Van duet on All I Do Is Dream of You, which curiously enough she sung the year earlier in Singin' in the Rain. While not as good as her rousing rendition in the latter, this version is again, pleasant and sweet. As a side note, I'm Through with Love was featured in Some Like It Hot, though Marilyn Monroe's tragic take on the song is better than Van's more wistful take. 

The big number is You Can't Do Wrong Doin' Right, which is a showcase in particular for Fosse. His dancing is electric, moving smoothly and effortlessly throughout the number. There is an almost explosive manner to his movements. Van is not a bad dancer, but Fosse puts everything into his dancing while Van is more focused on his lower body. You Can't Do Wrong Doin' Right also has the girls joining forces, and Ruisk and Reynolds work well together.

One does wonder, however, if The Affairs of Dobie Gillis would have done better by focusing more on Dobie and Pansy. Poor Ruisk and Fosse have precious little to do, sidelined so often sometimes one forgets that they are there. Both Conried and Charles Lane as the more sarcastic science professor do well in their roles, though they are stock characters. 

The Affairs of Dobie Gillis is not deep and in some ways very square. Despite this, there is a certain innocent charm in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, more of a portrait of what people wish the early days of college was like in a wonderful fantasy world. Again, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis are like the title character: well-meaning, pleasant, a bit clueless but with a certain innocent charm that you end up liking him and it despite yourself.  


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