[13 March 2012]
In her film debut, Jane Fonda plays a pert yet sultry damsel who’s in college “For the same reason that every girl, if she’s honest with herself, comes to college. To get married.” She explains this to two professorial fuddy-duddies (Ray Walston and Marc Connelly) after crashing her bicycle into them. That’s a particularly grating kind of “meet cute”, but she really plans to meet the school’s basketball star, played by a twitchy Anthony Perkins just before Psycho. She engineers love scenes in which he seems constantly about to have an aneurism.
It works and, after a cramped shower scene that was probably the movie’s chief sexy selling point (and yes, Perkins was in two shower scenes that year), they instantly want to get married because they obviously can’t have sex otherwise. There’s no reason in the world to suppose this marriage would last, but Hollywood has enough faith for all of us. Alas, our manchild gets mixed up in a hopelessly trivial gambling scandal about the upcoming big game with a Russian team, and this plot occupies the last third of the picture.
Hollywood movies are typically unreal, but rarely does one rub the audience’s collective noses so vigorously into bright-eyed artifice without actually turning into a musical. This one seems always on the verge. The campus kids sing a fight song and a weird dirge that sounds like the Winkies in The Wizard of Oz, and Fonda and Perkins visit a trailer park for married students in which everyone sits around singing “Cuddle Up a Little Closer”! There wasn’t a college moment so cornball since Bobby Van and Debbie Reynolds sang “All I Do Is Dream of You” along with a ukelele in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, and that was several years earlier.
This is while the movie pretends to be modern and contemporary with its glances at mating and Russians and academic politics. A line like “If it weren’t for the minor fact that he is part Jewish, Albert would have made a great Jesuit” is part of the movie’s frantic pretense of sophistication while it rushes toward drivel. Any allegedly serious points about ethics (there’s lots of talk about this, and a pop quiz) and the college’s financial dependence on athletics over academics is lost in the hoopla to make us root for the big game, and that doesn’t seem part of any satirical agenda.
What’s most amazing about this trivia is its prodigious pedigree. It’s “suggested” by a novel (The Homecoming Game) by Howard Nemerov, one of America’s most distinguished poets and a Pulitzer winner. His book was turned into a Broadway hit by the legendary team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, whose works include Life with Father (in which Lindsay starred), State of the Union (Pulitzer Prize), and the libretto of The Sound of Music. Their play was adapted by Julius J. Epstein, another legend whose work ranges from the Oscar-winning script of Casablanca to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day vehicle Send Me No Flowers.
I know nothing of how the film compares to its previous incarnations except that the romantic angle was clearly expanded at the expense of all else. A Wikipedia entry claims the novel has nothing about Russians and more about gangsters who fix college sports, which in this film is a device instantly forgotten.
Even Marc Connelly, who plays one of the professors, was a Pulitzer winner (The Green Pastures) and legendary wit of the Algonquin Round Table. It’s a cinch he wasn’t permitted to adlib. He introduces himself as teaching “physics, chemistry, all that jazz”. He’s trying to sound mighty hip, but it’s hard to believe in a prof who teaches all that. He also makes a would-be with-it remark about college pregnancy, but only to reassure us there’s hardly any. That’s the movie in a nutshell.
Finally, the producer and director is Joshua Logan, a Broadway titan who made a splash in ‘50s Hollywood with Picnic, Bus Stop, Sayonara and South Pacific. After all that, this black and white throwaway seems not only a step backward but a virtual collapse, and that partly explains why it was so bleakly reviewed. Another reason is that it’s never very good.
The title song exemplifies the movie’s firepower at the service of the forgettable. The music is credited to Andre Previn and Shelly Manne, the lyrics to Dory Langdon (aka Dory Previn, who later made intelligent, personal singer-songwriter albums and who just passed away), and the singer is Bobby Darin! It’s one of those bouncy professional things common to the era, but with no sticking power, which is why nobody remembers it. Like the movie, you forget it even as it’s happening in front of you.
In an excellent profile on the film’s making at TCM.com, the writer opines that it plays better today and should appeal to fans of Doris Day movies. As one such fan, I demur. Day’s self-sufficient persona would never have uttered a line like the one I quoted from Fonda’s entrance; even in 1960, it sounded backward, like we must have been determined to lose to the Russians.
I tolerate this movie only because of my masochistic fascination with what I call American No-Sex Comedies, in which everyone talks about sex but nobody ever has any—and in this case, it all gets sublimated into basketball. We get to see Fonda’s cheerleading legs and Perkins suiting up several times into his little shorts, and there’s even a “naughty” scene where Fonda follows Perkins into the locker room. (So technically, the movie has two shower scenes.) “STUDENTS: If you want to go to college don’t let your parents see this picture!” declares the poster of this “super-saucy production” that “made Broadway blush”. It’s all a tease.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/154859-tall-story/