Hollywood Comes to Hanover: The Winter Carnival Movie

by Cassandra Thomas | 2/8/19 2:45am

 “Winter Carnival” was a low-budget Hollywood production set at Dartmouth that was released in the summer of 1939. It was an escapist romance movie that included a fleeing heiress, a heartthrob professor, plenty B-reels of ski jumps, ice sculptures and historically accurate newspaper headlines that exclaim “SMOOTH BABES INVADE CAMPUS.”

Critics say it was one of the worst movies made in 1939. Maurice Rapf, Class of 1935, writes in his memoir that for months after the film was released, he was rejected from jobs because he was a script writer for “Winter Carnival.”

At best the movie is campy, cliché and endearingly rooted in Dartmouth culture. With three alumni working as producers, Hanover functioning as the set and Winter Carnival festivities serving as the backbone of the plot, it became a cherished part of Winter Carnival tradition on campus for years to come.

Despite the misogynistic jabs and overwhelming corniness of the film, there are many fascinating subplots in the lives of the producers and in the making of the movie. According to Mary Desjardins, professor of film and media studies, “there’s a lot of reasons to take a second look at the film.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Piece

One of the most circulated stories about the making of “Winter Carnival” revolves around the acclaimed novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Producer Walter Wanger, Class of 1915, was thrilled to have Fitzgerald on the project because, as Joanna Rapf, professor of film and media studies and daughter of producer Maurice Rapf, explains, “[Fitzgerald] had the reputation of a novelist, and that made the movie respectable.”

The production of “Winter Carnival” began on a snowy January night in Hanover. Budd Schulberg, Class of 1936 and former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth, and the renowned author F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived from the west coast to experience the Winter Carnival first hand and begin working on the script. At the time, Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival was a nationally known festival nicknamed “the Mardi Gras of the North” by National Geographic magazine.

Joanna Rapf recounts the infamous story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s spiral into an alcoholic binge upon arriving in Hanover.

“Apparently, during his trip eastward on the plane, they gave [Fitzgerald] some champagne upon take-off and he imbibed hardly,” Rapf said. “By the time they got to Hanover he was pretty drunk, and I know that part of Budd’s job was to keep F. Scott Fitzgerald sober during the writing of this.”

As the night progressed, Fitzgerald’s state only declined further, according to Rapf. 

“[Wanger] had a party in the Hanover Inn in which he invited the English department to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she added. “Fitzgerald staggered down the steps of the Hanover Inn, totally drunk, and it was hopeless. And then, even worse, he discovered all the fraternity parties and went from fraternity to fraternity getting drunker and drunker and they weren’t going to work on the screenplay at all. He was just too drunk.”

When Fitzgerald came-to several days later, Wanger fired him from “Winter Carnival.” Scrambling to finish the script before starlet Ann Sheridan arrived for filming, Wanger commissioned the novice Rapf to help Schulberg ­— who was also inexperienced in movie production — finish writing.

The story of Fitzgerald’s arrival and subsequent undoing in Hanover fascinated Jay Satterfield, head of Rauner’s Special Collections. Hundreds of primary materials from the making of “Winter Carnival” are available in Rauner, including revelatory letters between Fitzgerald and Schulberg.

“The thing I find most interesting is this letter that F. Scott Fitzgerald writes to Schulberg two weeks after [he falls off the wagon in Hanover] and he’s sort of in recovery,” Satterfield said. “He writes a letter to Schulberg that suggests a new opening for the movie. And it’s terrible. Part of the reason I find it so interesting is that I admire Fitzgerald’s writing a lot; I think he’s a literary genius. But what he suggests is just idiocy. It’s interesting to think about him having degraded that much, that he thinks that’s a good idea.”

Drama, Intrigue, Un-American Activities

Though “Winter Carnival” was poorly received in Hollywood, the events surrounding the writers reveal surprising subplots and stories of betrayal.

Desjardins, who uses “Winter Carnival” primary source material for the course Film Studies 40, “Theories and Methodologies,” reflects on the producers’ Dartmouth experience.

“When Budd Schulberg and Maurice Rapf were students here, it was a very volatile political time,” Desjardins said. “They also were Jewish students at a time when Dartmouth was still using quotas to keep out a certain number of Jewish students. So, their experience at Dartmouth was one that was very involved in politics.”

Both Rapf and Schulberg were politically active on campus, and their involvement increased as adults. In fact, both were involved in socialist or communist parties in the ’40s and ’50s, causing three producers from “Winter Carnival” to be called to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities. 

“[Winter Carnival] became a little bit notorious during the blacklisting era because all three screenwriters that have credits on it were involved in the Committee on Un-American Activities, [which] was trying to investigate whether there was communist influence on American motion pictures,” Desjardins said. “It’s unusual for a film that is in some ways so inconsequential to have had three major figures that all ended up in some way or another associated with the period of Congressional investigations into Hollywood,” she added.

While Wanger and Rapf pleaded the Fifth Amendment, Schulberg buckled.

“Schulberg, at that point, had become utterly disillusioned with the Communist party and was really quite angry at most of the people who were associated with the Communist Party in Hollywood that he had been with,” Satterfield explained. “And he turned friendly witness, which means he named names. It’s something that haunted him for the rest of his life, and it certainly hurt his relationship with Maurice Rapf. They didn’t have a reconciliation until much later.”

The Legacy of “Winter Carnival”

One of “Winter Carnival’s” most lasting impacts on Dartmouth are the rich volumes of primary resources in the Rauner Special Collections library left from production. For Desjardins, these materials offer her students a chance to research movie making firsthand.

Archivists at Rauner Library use the “Winter Carnival” material as historical context, but different researchers have clashing opinions on how accurately the movie depicted Dartmouth culture in the ’30s. Archivist Peter Carini believes Winter Carnival is a faithful representation.

“Even though I’m not a Dartmouth alum, I found it fascinating to see how much Dartmouth footage you get in there,” Carini noted. “It’s very true to the Dartmouth Winter Carnival experience at the time, so it’s interesting from a historical perspective. I think it may give the best flavor of Winter Carnival, if you can put those parts of the story aside that are clearly fictional, you can get a really good sense of how things actually played out.”

On the other hand, Satterfield strongly believes that the film is a cleaner version of the actual Winter Carnival.

“Oh no, [the Hollywood representation] is not at all [an accurate depiction of Winter Carnival,]” Satterfield explained. “It’s a total fabrication. It strays in all ways from the original. It’s cleaned up, no people falling over drunk, it’s a lot more wholesome.” 

He added that a film crew came to Dartmtouth to capture footage of the 1939 Winter Carnival, but most of the scenes were shot on a Hollywood sound-stage. 

One thing that researchers can agree on, however, is the problematic depiction of women in the movie. Unfortunately, their sexist treatment was true to life.

“I think one of the most interesting things about ‘Winter Carnival’ is the way that women were viewed,” Carini said. “It says a lot about a certain kind of Dartmouth of the past, and a certain kind of misogynistic viewpoint that was taken toward women by men at Dartmouth. Being an all-male institution, there wasn’t anything to mitigate that attitude necessarily.”

Julia Logan, assistant archivist for acquisitions at Rauner Library did an in-depth exhibition of the “Queen of Snows” competition that took place at Winter Carnival from 1928 to 1972, before the school went co-ed. What she described was a sexist ritual that judged women based solely on looks.

“Women who were on campus during this time were selected by a group of 15 students, male student leaders and even President Dickey was on the committee,” Logan explains. “It’s upsetting to see in photographs of the events how women are objectified through snow sculptures or the actual judging of the contest where they don’t seem that thrilled.”

English professor James Dobson incorporates “Winter Carnival” into his Writing 5 class, “Dartmouth College in Fiction and in Fact,” pulling literary texts from Rauner and asking students to “historicize” them. He says that even though students are off-put by some of the jarring sexism in the movie, they find echoes of Dartmouth’s culture from the ’30s in their modern lives.

“Some of the gender dynamics are still at play in contemporary life,” Dobson remarked. “I think we have many conversations about a male-dominated campus here and being able to see the ways in which the women are paraded around and are being judged. There are some things that seem so removed from the modern day, like a train-load of women arriving in Norwich. But there are ways in which we can build on those connections.”

Undoubtedly, Winter Carnival as a Dartmouth tradition has a complicated history. Many scenes and activities from the movie “Winter Carnival” are now considered offensive, obsolete and outdated. However, the underlying stories behind the movie’s production and the fascinating archives left behind should give us pause before writing it off.

“There are still many things to be learned from that movie and from its relationship to Winter Carnival and to Dartmouth’s history,” Carini said.

Perhaps Desjardins said it best: “There’s a lot of reasons to take a second look.”