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A top 25 of the big films on campus

(Universal Pictures)
By Gerald Peary
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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It happens each fall, the chaos and circumstance of a new college year, and nowhere is this rite of passage more vivid than in and around Boston.

What inspired raw material for the cinema: the fabric of collegiate life, the formative dance of education! So, why with the rarest exceptions, have America’s best filmmakers skipped past the university to non-academic subject matter? They’ve left campus-set features to derivative genre directors, who can’t get past lecherous professors, bosomy coeds, and frat-house keg parties.

How many college movies adhere to this vapid, formulaic plot? A nerdy undergraduate pines for the dashing blonde, but she’s involved with a haughty frat man. The nerd becomes educated in life by a pot-smoking, womanizing slacker, who has been chilling past his graduation time. The blonde catches her boyfriend philandering, and she instantly shifts her affections to the nerd. Happy ending!

Surely, there’s more to higher education. Empathetic professors, perhaps? The existential drama of being on your own as a college student? There are rare American features, spread through 85 years, which do have something to say, humorous or serious, about the university experience. The very best are, curiously, the most ancient and the newest: Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman’’ (1925), the Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers’’ (1932), and last year’s “The Social Network.’’ The most rabidly popular college picture is also the very best of all: “National Lampoon’s Animal House “(1978).

The finest 25 college movies, last to first:

25. THE GREAT DEBATERS (2007) Denzel Washington directed this important saga of African-American history, celebrating the debate team of Wiley College in 1930s segregated Texas. Too bad that the film culminates in a fictitious debate against Harvard. In real life, there was a clash between Wiley and the University of Southern California, formidable enough.

24. OLD SCHOOL (2003) Todd Phillips’s practice film for “The Hangover’’ puts in motion his key mantra: Married men want to be boys, pining for the dude camaraderie and, yes, the beers and chicks of bachelorhood. His three post-30 amigos - Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughan - set up a fraternity house on the edge of campus so they can party like undergrads. Sexist, yes, but Ferrell and Vaughan sure are funny.

23. GOOD NEWS (1947) Here it is, “College: The Musical,’’ a colorful MGM remake of an earlier 1930 song-and-dance film about innocent, pie-eyed 1920s campus life. The librarian (June Allyson) falls hard for the football hero (Peter Lawford), and the predictable on-and-off romance - there’s a vamp in the way! - is surrounded by a classic score including “The Best Things in Life Are Free.’’

22. THE WILD PARTY (1929) The first talkie from the effervescent “It’’ girl, Clara Bow, takes place in a girls’ college, where flapper Clara majors in Jazz Age hoofing. Her educational attitude shapes up when she becomes enamored of a new, serious teacher (Frederic March). Dorothy Arzner was the only woman directing in Hollywood between 1927-1943. The tight, sensual relationship of the female students reveals Arzner’s shadowy lesbian subtext.

21. GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997) It’s improbable if not impossible that an untrained Southie janitor could do advanced algebra, but who is going to argue with the unfathomable success of Gus Van Sant’s schmaltzy MIT-set tale? It put young Matt and Ben on the movie map, leading, respectively, to the Bourne connection and J-Lo.

20. LOVE STORY (1970) Yes, it’s cheesy, and disease-of-the-week, and yet there’s something undeniably touching about this fated romance of a Harvard blueblood and a working-class Radcliffe girl. If you can get past the nonsense adage, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,’’ check out the Harvard settings, from a halcyon time before film crews were banned from the campus.

19. THE WAR AT HOME (1979) A superb documentary tracing the shifts over a decade at the University of Wisconsin at Madison from straight and square to a center of protest, both pacifist and violent, against the war in Vietnam. One of the co-directors, Barry Alexander Brown, became Spike Lee’s regular editor.

18. THE MALE ANIMAL (1942) An unusual college comedy of ideas, from a Broadway play by humorist James Thurber. An English teacher (Henry Fonda) at a football-mad Midwestern university reads to his class a death-house letter from Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Afterward, the conservative trustees wish to fire him as a communist. The teacher’s line of defense, brave for Hollywood, is standing strong for freedom of speech.

17. WONDER BOYS (2000) Curtis Hanson’s classy adaptation of Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel. Michael Douglas is a floundering creative writing professor whose love life is complex and messy, and who just can’t finish that essential book. Katie Holmes plays a gorgeous student and, amazingly for this genre, the indulgent Douglas resists sleeping with her.

16. ELEGY (2008) This smart adaptation of Philip Roth’s “The Dying Animal,’’ directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, is the winner among professor-beds-his-student features. A proud academic (Ben Kingsley) can’t resist when an enticing Spaniard enters his classroom. It’s Penélope Cruz as his sexy, willing pupil.

15. BACK TO SCHOOL (1986) Comedian Rodney Dangerfield is a charismatic presence as a zillionaire businessman off to college for the first time. There’s a tiresome Hollywood lesson that Dangerfield must learn, that “everything can’t be bought,’’ but it’s balanced by super performances from Ned Beatty as a servile administrator and Sam Kinison as an insane professor. Plus, there’s a cameo by Kurt Vonnegut.

14. THE PAPER CHASE (1973) The most infamous professor in all of cinema is John Houseman’s tweedy, imperious, insulting Harvard Law teacher. Will he win a battle of wills with a stubborn first-year student (Timothy Bottoms), who is also in a love affair with the professor’s prized daughter? More important, will the student be co-opted by the patrician, establishment values of the Ivy world?

13. THE WAY WE WERE (1973) It’s only the first section of Arthur Laurents’s screenplay which takes place at college, but what a unique act one slipped into a mainstream Hollywood movie. Barbra Streisand’s Katie is taken seriously as a Jewish campus activist, and Robert Redford’s Hubbell, in a classroom scene, is treated with respect when he reads aloud a literary short story.

12. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963) The French adore this Jerry Lewis-directed movie, in which Jerry plays a clumsy, introverted, bucktoothed science teacher who, after gulping down a magic formula, transforms into a coed-obsessed, vainglorious lounge singer. This movie is funny and clever, and Lewis is delicious sliding between the two parts. Does anyone care that the good professor is nutty for one of his female students?

11. THE SURE THING (1985) Rob Reiner’s beloved road trip comedy puts quarreling students John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga on the highway, but their estrangement ends, to our satisfaction, with true love back at the university. The deus ex machina is provided by a capable, caring professor, played with aplomb by Viveca Lindfors.

10. ACCEPTED (2006) Eccentric, intelligent kids rejected from college open their own ersatz university in a painted-over mental institution. Steve Pink’s winning Hollywood satire has teeth, for the fake campus actually has a philosophy, part Rousseau, part ’60s hippie, by which students teach and/or take whatever courses interest them, to heck with a formal curriculum. For example, there’s a class with comedian Lewis Black delivering tirades against big business.

9. BERKELEY IN THE SIXTIES (1990) Mark Kitchell’s excellent documentary about campus politics on the University of California campus, from the Free Speech Movement through antiwar protests and the Black Panthers, with Joan Baez and Huey Newton on the left, and then-California Governor Ronald Reagan on the unapologetic right.

8. SCHOOL DAZE (1988) Spike Lee based this fictional film set at a black college on his own days at Atlanta’s Morehouse University. In contrast to the apolitical agenda of most studio college films, Lee’s feature is an audacious, insider’s critique of what’s politically wrong at an African-American university, starting with fraternity-sorority prejudice against darker-skinned students.

7. REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984) A savvy rebuttal to “Animal House,’’ Jeff Kanew’s pro-nerd feature seemed radical then, in a time before Comic-Con and new-media geeks. It’s still a hoot to watch the outcast computer science majors, in an alliance with a dorky woman, an Asian, a gay man, and a black fraternity, foil the odious white-boy Greeks.

6. HARVARD BEATS YALE 29-29 (2008) Kevin Rafferty’s documentary reminiscence of a legendary 1968 football game, with the pigskin participants from both Ivy League teams providing wry, savory commentary. Even non-gridiron folks will relish the company of the now-60ish players, including ex-Harvard lineman Tommy Lee Jones.

5. HIGHER LEARNING (1995) “Boyz in the Hood’’ director John Singleton masterminded this sinfully overlooked tale about race relations at a contemporary university. Singleton segues between white and African-American students, showing their glaringly different perspectives on the same issues. The beautifully choreographed interracial cast includes Omar Epps, Ice Cube, and Jennifer Connelly.

4. HORSE FEATHERS (1932) A wonderfully loopy, anarchic Marx Brothers film in which Groucho is cast as the new president of Huxley College. He’s there to save the sinking school by hiring ringer footballers. The behemoth athletes morph into Chico and Harpo, and the rest is insanity, including Groucho’s hilarious wooing of the campus widow. The fourth Marx Brother, Zeppo, plays Groucho’s idiot son, in his 12th year as a Huxley undergrad.

3. THE FRESHMAN (1925) Bespectacled comedian Harold Lloyd goes to college, desperate to be popular, in this silent masterpiece, as genuinely side-splitting as it is sweet and charming, whether Lloyd is practicing his goofy, patented handshake or running wild in an uproarious football game.

2. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) A major filmmaker, David Fincher, and a splendid screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, fix their sights on a gaggle of snarky, genius Harvard types vying for financial control of cyberspace. Here’s where the Oscar should have landed, “The King’s Speech’’ losing to Facebook.

1. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) If you’re going to be politically noxious and flagrantly incorrect, then do it with audacious style and flair. Filmmaker John Landis charms even the most priggish into chortling along with the outrageous antics of a devilish Greek house, and the amoral frat boys are raised to the level of rakish wits in a Restoration comedy.

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary@geraldpeary.com.