December 3, 2008

College Goes to Hollywood

Life on campus has long been a mainstay in the movies, but we never knew quite how much—until now

By Taylor McNeil

From Harold Lloyd trying out for the football team in the 1925 classic The Freshman to John Belushi yelling “Food fight!” in Animal House, life on campus has provided some memorable moments in the movies—more than you’d think.

Click the play button to see a slideshow of college movie lobby cards through the years.

If you had to guess the number of films set on campus, you might say several dozen—after all, there are the likes of Legally Blonde, Revenge of the Nerds and Love Story. The correct answer, though, is north of 1,000, according to John Conklin.

He should know. Conklin, professor and chair of sociology, is the author of the new Campus Life in the Movies (McFarland), and he estimates he watched almost 600 films before sitting down to write the book.

And even though he’s a sociologist by profession—his expertise is in criminology—Conklin didn’t set out to write a theoretical treatise on college-based flicks. It started, in fact, with his collection of lobby cards.

Up until about 30 years ago, promotions for most movies included the lobby cards, 11-by-14-inch mini-posters that were displayed at movie theaters. They are, not surprisingly, collectors’ items, and Conklin is a self-described “compulsive collector.”

“I began noticing that I had a lot of lobby cards that dealt with movies about colleges,” he says, and he set to work finding and buying more. Intrigued by the cards, he took the next logical step, and searched out the old movies the lobby cards were promoting.

By the time he had amassed another collection—more than 500 movies on VHS and DVD—he had decided it was a topic ripe for comment—and a book. “I think some of it was a result of where I am in my career—I’m in my 39th year here [at Tufts]. It was my desire to look at college life and sort of reflect on my own life,” he says.

Many of the themes he identifies in the book dovetail with sociological research. “For example, I look at how social class is used in dealing with student romance,” he says. But the average reader is struck mostly by the volume—and variety—of movies, released between 1915 and 2006, which fit the criteria.

Teacher’s Pet

The best in the genre are classics in their own right. There’s Buster Keaton’s College, the 1927 silent film in which he plays the egghead Ronald, who upon graduating from high school announces publicly that he deplores “the curse of athletics.” Needless to say, the girl of his dreams tells him she won’t give him a second look until he’s made the college team. Cue the sight gags of Keaton repeatedly failing at many a sport.

One of Conklin’s favorites from that era, and which set the stage for many imitators, was Harold Lloyd’s 1925 film The Freshman. Lloyd is Harold “Speedy” Lamb, a bumbling, good-hearted fool who in the end becomes the hero of the big football game and more importantly, wins the girl.

Click the play button to see a clip from the 1925 classic, The Freshman.

And even though many college movies in the early days featured carefree romance and football heroics, it wasn’t all fun and games. Take Soak the Rich, a 1936 Ben Hecht-written feature that revolves around radicals at a university defending a left-wing professor who is fired for advocating tax hikes for the wealthy.

“It and another movie, Make a Million, are pretty hard-hitting critiques of social inequality in the Depression, in which you have radical economist professors lecturing their students about the need for social reform,” Conklin says.

And while most of the romance on screen is between love-struck youngsters, the lure of faculty-student liaisons was never far off-screen. And it’s not necessarily what you’re thinking, that this must be a recent development. There’s the sex symbol Clara Bow starring in her first talkie in 1929, The Wild Party, having an affair with a stuffy anthropology professor. “It’s pretty open and modern-looking,” says Conklin. Then there’s the 1938 film, I Met My Love Again, starring Henry Fonda as a professor seduced by one of his students.

Conklin says about one in ten of the movies he watched included faculty-student intimacy. And contrary to the stereotype of a leering older male professor intimidating young coeds, in most of the films, it’s the young women who initiate the proceedings. But then again, movies have always been about fantasy; most of the movies, naturally, were written by men.

The Way We Were

Campus movies often traffic in nostalgia. Animal House, for example, was set the early 1960s, even though many people take it to be a comment on the college scene in the late 1970s, when it was made. And Carnal Knowledge, with a young Jack Nicholson, is set at Amherst in the 1940s, though it was made in 1971.

Animal House is not one I ever warmed up to—it’s overly broad,” Conklin says. Maybe that’s because he was a member of the same fraternity at a different Ivy League university in the early ’60s—the setting of the movie—and there were no Blutos in his life. “But the movie reflects stereotypes of the people,” he notes.

Those stereotypes live long in the movies. The dumb frat boys and the girls who are working on their M.R.S. degrees are just a few; so are lunk-headed football players. But not all movies play to the stereotype. Take the 1951 Saturday’s Hero, in which a working-class football recruit comes to a snooty school to learn, and has to overcome the biases of his classmates. “It deals with football in a somewhat critical way, as a number of films do, such as a coach putting in injured players because he wants to win,” Conklin says.

Then there’s the topic of race, which the movies faced in somewhat surprising ways. “A number of silent-era movies dealt with mixed-race couples on college campuses, generally Native American-white,” he says.

There’s the 1925 Braveheart, for example, about a Native American going to college to get a law degree so he can help his tribe fight for fishing rights; not surprisingly, he ends up romantically entwined with the daughter of one of the fishery’s owners. “He goes to a party, and finds the butler staring at him, clearly racist,” Conklin says. “And there are some racist comments made.”

Asked to pick his favorite, Conklin demurs, but when pressed, points to You Can’t Ration Love, an obscure World War II flick.

During the war, most consumer goods had to be rationed: there just wasn’t enough to go around. On the college campus in You Can’t Ration Love, the scarce commodity was men—95 percent were off fighting the war. “So the girls on campus decide they need to ration the dates on campus, and they create this rationing system,” Conklin says. “The women rated the men on a 25-point scale, and were given a ration book. If they wanted one date with a real hunk, it cost them 25 points; if they went out with a loser, it’s only 2 or 3 points.”

Needless to say, complications ensue, as the heroine tries to transform a geek into a dream man, sporting a bowtie and driving the gals wild with his crooning. “It’s really interesting, and it runs counter to the idea of men rating women, which is something that has a long history,” he says.

Given the hundreds of college movies that span so many decades, can it be said that life imitates art, or vice versa? Maybe neither. Conklin notes that the movies were created for their entertainment value—to make a buck—and most weren’t very true to life.

Maybe campus life is too tame; maybe students really are studying. Then again, as December finals approach here at Tufts, there will no doubt be another naked quad run on the Hill. You can just imagine a movie producer framing that scene.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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