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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

College Comedies, Part 2 (originally published 1/02)

Having spent the last couple of weeks laboring mightily, along with my departmental colleagues, to get another semester underway - liftin' that roster and totin' that syllabus - I'm not much in the mood just now for a movie with a collegiate setting. That's why I'll probably wait a while to see "Orange County," the recently released comedy about a student's efforts to get into Stanford. Soon, however, the trauma of kicking off the semester will subside, and I'll be ready once again to enjoy some campus comedies like the ones we looked at last week. Here are some additional titles in that vein to look for on home video.

"The Freshman" (1925). The flapper era of the 1920s saw a profusion of campus comedies from Hollywood. Silent comic Harold Lloyd's contribution was one of his finest and most popular films. He plays a naïve, college-bound young man whose entire concept of collegiate life has been gleaned from (where else?) the movies. He's even learned to do a little jig-like dance step that his favorite campus movie character uses to introduce himself. In short order he becomes the laughingstock of the campus. When he is given the job of football team water boy, he thinks he's made the team, and no one bothers to disabuse him of the notion. Then comes the day of the big game...

"Horse Feathers" (1932). Wherever the Marx Brothers went, dignity was inevitably put to rout. Knowing this, they particularly liked to take aim at institutions that pride themselves on their dignity, from the halls of government to grand opera. The pomp and circumstance of a university provided an irresistible target. Groucho plays Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College. Following his inauguration, he gets right down to the important business of hiring professional players for the college's football team, but mistakenly hires a dogcatcher (Harpo) and a bootlegger (Chico) instead.

"Bonzo Goes to College" (1952). Bonzo the Chimp had been introduced in "Bedtime For Bonzo" (1951), in which he is raised in a totally human environment by a psychology professor (Ronald Reagan) attempting to prove that environment is more important than heredity. In this sequel, which does not feature Reagan, Bonzo ends up on a college campus, where he is adopted by a professor's daughter. The college is badly in need of a star football player, so when the hyperintelligent Bonzo proves that he can pass the school's entrance exam, the inevitable consequences ensue. Like its predecessor, this film was directed by Frederick de Cordova, who would go on to produce NBC's "Tonight Show" during Johnny Carson's tenure there.

"Back to School" (1986). It is well known that Rodney Dangerfield excels at playing a boorish loudmouth. In this entertaining picture, however, he accomplished the neat trick of making that character loveable. A self-made millionaire who has become disillusioned with his sham of a marriage, he decides to go back to college in order to be closer to his son. The youngster is therefore exposed to what must be the ultimate teen nightmare: being away at school and yet still being embarassed by a clinging parent. Along with the amusing brand of vulgarity that has become Dangerfield's screen trademark, the film also manages to effectively lampoon the ivory-tower stuffiness of academe while still endorsing the value of higher education.

"School Daze" (1988). Set in a fictionalized version of Atlanta's Morehouse College, the director's alma mater, Spike Lee's comedy brings to the screen a provocative take on the African-American college experience. He deals with such touchy issues as complexion prejudice among blacks (light-skins versus dark-skins) and sexism among black men while still keeping the overall tone light and entertaining. Lee himself appears in the film as a hapless fraternity pledge striving to be accepted.

As someone who still labors in the halls of academe, I suppose campus comedies will always have a particular significance for me. After all, I have a wider range of college memories than most people, having attended two and having taught at three. My responses to particular college films vary, of course, but in the aggregate they pretty much come down to this: where was Groucho when I really needed him?

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