Robert Taylor stars as Lee Sheridan, a highly lauded jock at Lakedale State College. Though well-liked by fellow students, and by his instructors, Lee has a notoriously big head. This attitude has been aided and abetted by his father, Dan (Lionel Barrymore), editor of the local newspaper, who thinks nothing of holding up delivery of the paper so he can put in a headline about Lee's latest sports achievement. Lee's starring role in the athletics department has not, however, caused him any scholastic damage. He has done well enough that he has been selected by the College dean for a scholarship to Cardinal College, Oxford University. While at first reluctant to leave his father and the newspaper job that awaits him, Lee finally agrees to his father's wish that he attend Oxford.
Of course, Lee being who he is, the first thing he does upon meeting some Oxford classmates is to brag about his athleticism, and what a break Cardinal College is getting in having his skills at their disposal. So, Paul Beaumont (Griffith Jones), Marmaduke Wavertree (Robert Coote), and Paul's sister Molly (Maureen O'Sullivan) collaborate in a plan to put Lee down a peg. When Lee discovers the trick, he is bound and determined to return to the U.S., but the intervention of his servant, Scatters (Edward Rigby) convinces him to stay. He excels at Cardinal, both academically and athletically. He also falls in love with Molly. The complications? He is being pursued by a married woman, Elsa Craddock (Vivien Leigh), who is also pursuing Paul. And he has annoyed the Dean of the College (Edmund Gwenn).
A Yank at Oxford was filmed in the U.K., using British actors, a British director, and British film crew. MGM had to find ways to circumvent the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which imposed quotas on the number of foreign films in the country, and therefore (hopefully) bolster the British film industry. By sending heart-throb Robert Taylor over to England, MGM would fulfill the letter, if not the spirit of the regulation - they would get this film into distribution in Great Britain. And, if the experiment worked, it was a way of producing other films that could more easily be marketed in Great Britain - and the United States - creating a revenue stream for the studio. This TCM article on the film, as well as the substantial essay, British Films, 1927-1939 discuss the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 and its affects on British and American production.
Robert Taylor is quite good in this film. He succeeds in making Lee likeable, but also in making you want to smack him for his inflated ego. He really is the focus in this film; the other characters revolve around him, and he does an excellent job in holding it all together.
The casting of the women is very interesting. Maureen O'Sullivan plays an ingenue, but an intelligent one. She is also attending Oxford, and clearly is no slouch academically. She also has a definite moral compass, and it is Molly, more than anyone else, who succeeds in teaching Lee about being a team player. Vivien Leigh, on the other hand, portrays a rather sly character. A year before she will come to American attention as Scarlett O' Hara, Leigh plays a philandering wife who is loyal to nothing but her own sexual desires. Interestingly, given the time period, she isn't really punished for her appetites.
It's also a pleasure to see Edmund Gwenn, Lionel Barrymore and Robert Coote in small roles. Coote had already appeared in two American films, but most of his work was in the U.K. His Wavertree, a fairly innocent young man whose major goal is to get sent down (expelled) from Oxford (in an effort to impress a wealthy uncle) is a riot. Try as he might, Wavertree is just too naive to succeed in being bounced. One wishes there was more screen time with Gwenn and Barrymore; regardless, they stand out in the scenes in which they appear.
All and all, this is an excellent film, made even better by seeing it on a big screen. Here is a trailer from the film, in which the British production angle of this film is emphasized: