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'Admission' Granted: 20 Great College-Set Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
March 21, 2013 3:59 PM
8 Comments
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Ah, the college experience. Success through opportunity! Or uh, something like that. For many, it's the first real taste of unchaperoned freedom, mixed in with girls, guys, sex, parties, experimentation and if you’re lucky, a bit of higher learning, too. Like the high school film, the college movie is a tried and true genre, and ironically, generally less mature than high school pictures which are mostly centering on coming-of-age, outsider blues and the like. These themes can be similar in college movies, but with much less adult supervision, the genre tends to get wilder, crazier, more vulgar and more unhinged. Though that’s obviously relative depending on the era.

“You hardly ever even hear the word 'wisdom' mentioned!”  J.D. Salinger wrote in his novel “Franny and Zooey,” and that sounds about right. While college is supposed to be about education, the movies that chart this rite of passage are generally anything but.

With "Admission" hitting theaters this weekend -- a college-set comedy starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, albeit a not crazy good one -- we decided to use the excuse to delve into some of our favorite college films, most of them comedies of course.

"Damsels in Distress" (2011)
Whit Stillman's first film in over a decade, "Damsels in Distress" is set at a pseudo-Ivy League college, with seemingly recognizable character-types, a hipster-pop soundtrack and the usual accoutrements of an indie campus comedy, but the angles just never quite seem to add up. Stillman’s previous movies "Metropolitan," "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco" were both talky and populated with proto-Fitzgeraldian urbanites, and "Damsels in Distress" is similarly anachronistic, with the girl-gang the film centers on dressing like forties and fifties WASPs, obsessed with soap and fragrances, and trying to cure the suicidal students of Seven Oaks University with Fred Astaire-style tap-dancing. A new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who they adopt, turns out to be something of a rebel and causes a significant loss of mojo for their leader Violet (Greta Gerwig). Around this paper-thin plot are the variously eccentric boys competing for the girls' attention, who are all engaged in their own bizarre and/or ridiculous personal quests. At times the movie amounts to little more than a collection of quixotic vignettes, but what really makes it stand out is the oddball-chic which has long been the director's hallmark. Stillman’s attention to aesthetics is more pronounced here than in any of his other films; from the crisply photographed classicism of the campus to the immaculate wardrobes and vintage score, which offers more than a few nods to Hollywood's Golden Age. To explain the plot of "Damsels in Distress" is very much to miss the point. Even to call it a comedy is to yoke it to a somewhat easier-to-swallow label than it deserves; it is funny and it does have a plot, but its sheer outlandishness suggests that there is something else entirely going on in this timewarped-oddball curio.

"The Freshman" (1925)
Though the image of him hanging off a clock face in "Safety Last!" is one of the most famous in cinema, Harold Lloyd doesn't quite have the reputation today that some of his silent slapstick contemporaries like Chaplin and Keaton maintain. Which is a shame, because it means all too many are missing out on the little comic gem "The Freshman." The bespectacled star plays one Harold Lamb, who enrolls at a university and swiftly falls in love with Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), his landlady's daughter. He joins the football team to impress her, but is demoted to water boy, only to go on to to lead the team to triumph, and win Peggy's heart in the process. It's a simple story (essentially remade, or homaged, by Adam Sandler with "The Waterboy"), but then the story was hardly really the point of a film like this; instead, it's all about the comic set pieces, and there are some killer ones, not least a literally bruising scene where Harold steps in for the team's tackling dummy, taking the kind of punishment that you're pretty sure would kill a lesser man. But there's a sweetness to the film, and even a kind of naturalism, that makes it more than just a string of gags, and it holds up remarkably well today.

"The Freshman" (1990)
He's forever associated with high school (or more accurately, not going to it) thanks to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," but Matthew Broderick also went on to star in one college comedy which, while not as unimpeachable a classic as the John Hughes film, is definitely one of the better examples of the genre. In "The Freshman" (unconnected to the earlier Lloyd film) Broderick plays a sheltered Vermont native who comes to New York to study film, only to end up falling in with Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando, in an extended riff on his legendary performance from "The Godfather"), a mob boss who seems to make his living by smuggling endangered animals to be eaten at a secret dining club. On paper, it sounds like the sort of thing that someone like David Spade might star in, but it's in the hands of underrated comedy hand Andrew Bergman (who co-wrote "Blazing Saddles" and "Fletch," and penned "The In-Laws"), so it's infinitely more charming and funny than it sounds. Broderick is perfect, and Brando appears to be having a lot of fun, doing the same kind of thing that De Niro would later make hay with in "Analyze This," to much greater success. There's a fine sense of farce throughout, the supporting cast (including Bruno Kirby and Penelope Ann Miller as Brando's right-hand-man and near-psychotic daughter) are ace, and it zigs where you expect it to zag. Brando dissed the movie soon after filming wrapped, only to later retract, but the damage was done, and the film tanked in the U.S. It's a shame, but if you can dig it up, it's well worth a watch.

"Good News" (1947)
This sanitized, “American as apple pie” remake of the 1930 pre-Code original is about college life in the Roaring Twenties and went on to be an inspiration for the satirical tone of many college comedies and parodies to follow. Originally meant to be a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney vehicle after the success of “Babes in Arms”, “Good News” is chock full of schmaltz and corniness, with an old chestnut of a story, even by 1947 standards. Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) is the college BMOC and football star who starts to forget to tackle his studies when he falls for the town vamp, a stock character seen throughout many college movies (see Thelma Todd’s “college widow” in “Horse Feathers”, the bookstore owner’s wife (Vivien Leigh) in “A Yank at Oxford”, and the dean’s wife (Verna Bloom) in “Animal House”). June Allyson plays the wholesome and bookish Connie Lane, who helps him study and ultimately wins his heart. Oh, did I mention there’s music? Song titles include “Be a Ladies’ Man”, “Lucky in Love”, and “Varsity Drag” but the tunes haven’t quite stood the test of time, unfortunately. With great Technicolor, catchy albeit dated tunes, and old-timey values, it was a hit for MGM and is a great watch with the grandparents.

"Higher Learning" (1995)
After "Boyz N The Hood," which made John Singleton the youngest nominee for the Best Director Oscar in history, and "Poetic Justice," expectations for "Higher Learning" were up there. And while the film was perceived as a disappointment -- though the notices weren't dreadful -- time's been fairly kind to it, particularly in comparison to Singleton's more recent work. Set at the fictional Columbus University, it's an ambitious and sprawling piece of work that focuses on three students: Malik (Omar Epps), a track scholarship student who finds new racial awareness, Kristen (Kirsty Swanson), who's raped by another student, before being drawn to a lesbian classmate (Jennifer Connelly), and Remy (Michael Rapaport), who falls in with a group of skinheads, led by Scott (a terrifying Cole Hauser). There's a strong cast (also including Ice Cube, Tyra Banks, Busta Rhymes, Adam Goldberg and, only a few years after he played a student in Spike Lee's "School Daze," Laurence Fishburne as a professor), and while the material verges on soapiness, it's mostly powerful and intelligent stuff, if a little heavy-handed at times. Singleton's direction is impressive too, and his take on race at college is complex and nuanced in way we haven't seen from him in a long time, with nary such intelligence in his various gigs-for-hire. It's not a classic like 'Boyz,' but there's still a lot in "Higher Learning" to be impressed by.

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8 Comments

  • No | March 25, 2013 10:53 AMReply

    I've never understood Wonder Boys, and Damsels in Distress is pretty bad. Only reason I kept watching was Greta Gerwig's good looks. Social Network is one of the best movies of the last decade.

  • Bustermarx | March 22, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    What about Buster Keaton in "The College"?

  • Max | March 21, 2013 11:10 PMReply

    I got a soft spot for Legally Blonde

  • cirkusfolk | March 21, 2013 9:55 PMReply

    Wonder Boys is my absolute favorite. One you could've mentioned is Breaking Away even though its more about them not going to college. Go IU!!!!

  • Andrew | March 21, 2013 6:41 PMReply

    I just want to say how happy I am to see you that you linked a Cracked article in this piece. Great job on this list!

  • richard corliss | March 21, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    did you guys consider over the edge?

  • Kieran | March 21, 2013 4:36 PMReply

    Love that JD Salinger quote, kind of a shame there will probably never be a film or play of Franny and Zooey, so much great dialogue in that book!

  • I'm A New Yorker | March 21, 2013 4:15 PMReply

    defently my 10 favorite collage comedies are
    1-Animal House
    2-The House Bunny
    3-American Pie 2
    4-Collage(with Drake Bell)
    5-Back To School
    6-Old School
    7-Accepted
    8-Road Trip
    9-The Nutty Professor(the eddie murphy one)
    10-Pitch Perfect

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