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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

College Comedies (originally published 1/02)

Most of us look back on our college days with some affection. After all, it was a time when we had both maximal personal autonomy and minimal responsibilities at the same time. A lot of us didn't really appreciate what a neat trick that was until after graduation, so we have to be content with appreciating it in retrospect.

This widespread alumni nostalgia has not, of course, escaped the notice of filmmakers. Movies that take place on college campuses have been served up by Hollywood on a regular basis from the silent film era right down to today. They come in all flavors, of course, but it seems that the most consistent audience pleasers are the collegiate comedies, like the recently released "Orange County." If this tale of the trials and tribulations of getting into Stanford has you waxing sentimental over your own carefree university days, here are some classic college comedies to look for on home video.

"College" (1927). Campus comedies were already a movie staple by the time silent film comedian Buster Keaton weighed in with this hilarious take on college life. Buster was the valedictorian of his high school class, but in college it seems that you have to be a sports hero to have real status. When the girl he's stuck on spurns him, he resolves to take up a sport to win her approval. As he stumbles and fumbles his way through one sport after another, the film gets funnier and funnier.

"The Male Animal" (1942). This delightful adaptation of the play by James Thurber and Elliot Nugent features Henry Fonda as Tommy Turner, a soft-spoken English professor who feels his marriage is in jeopardy when a former star football player returns to campus. It seems that the jock and Tommy's wife were an item during their undergraduate days. At the same time, Tommy is being pressured by the administration to change his mind about reading a politically charged letter to his class as an example of eloquent writing. Thurber and Nugent's satirical barbs effectively skewer campus culture at all levels, from air headed jocks to narrow minded college administrators.

"Good News" (1947). Leave it to MGM to create the definitive campus musical. Peter Lawford stars as the captain of the football team and June Allyson stars as the co-ed who makes sure that his grades are good enough to keep him on the team. The story was already old when "Good News" premiered as a Broadway play in 1927, but MGM musicals are about style, not substance. That distinctive style comes through in musical numbers like "The Best Things In Life Are Free" and "The Varsity Drag." Reproduced below is the original promotional trailer for the film, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Affairs of Dobie Gillis" (1953). When freshman Dobie Gillis arrives at Grainbelt University, he has his priorities straight: chasing skirts first, studies second, if at all. This MGM musical production features Bobby Van as Dobie and Debbie Reynolds as the object of his amorous attentions. This screen incarnation of novelist Max Shulman's character was sufficiently successful to inspire a television series, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," in which Dwayne Hickman took over the role.

"The Nutty Professor" (1963). Jerry Lewis used a college setting in this comedy to do an offbeat variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story. As Professor Julius Kelp, he is lovable but socially inept. A formula he develops converts him into the attractive, smooth, and thoroughly insufferable Buddy Love. Some thirty years later, the film was remade as a very successful vehicle for Eddie Murphy.

"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978). Long before Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the Farrelly brothers elevated bad taste to an art form, the trail was blazed for them by the screen antics of the brothers of the Delta house. Led by John Belushi at his most outrageous, the cast creates a memorable portrait of campus debauchery triumphant. Although its excesses have since been rendered somewhat tame by comparison with the likes of "There's Something About Mary," it remains an entertaining look at a significant, if less than salutary, aspect of campus life.

Next time we'll consider even more examples of college comedies, including a look at what happens when the solemn dignity of a university campus is besieged by the irresistible chaos of the Marx Brothers.

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