‘Mother Is a Freshman’ Is a Study in Dwindling Fortitudes

This movie, which mines the dated territory of professor/student relationships, trivializes education while looking swank.

Abby Abbott (Loretta Young) is a chic widow on New York’s Fifth Avenue, beyond the means of her dividend checks. So that she can continue to pay bills, including her 17 year old daughter’s college tuition, Abby decides to take advantage of a $3,000 scholarship endowed to the college by her own grandmother for students called Abigail Fortitude, Abby’s maiden name. Having married at 16, Abby hadn’t taken up the chance, and neither had her mother, who married at 17. Now her grandmother’s desire to provide for her female descendants’ education will finally bear fruit, if only for temporary financial reasons.

This is the complicated set-up for Mother Is a Freshman, less a comedy than a light romance. When Abby’s daughter Susan (Betty Lynn) announces that she’s in love with English professor Richard Michaels (Van Johnson) and the feeling is mutual, Abby is startled that such romances are permitted, and Susan scoffs that such old-fashioned divisions between faculty and students don’t exist anymore. Michaels says the same thing when he uses his position to put the moves hot and heavy on Abby in a manner we’d call harassment. The college boys are no different: witness the twerp (Robert Arthur) who wants to prove to Susan that she needs a man who’ll muss her up. Perhaps there was a window when such student/faculty relations were permitted, or even required, but that’s only one element that dates this picture.

Abby soon announces that she loves the dreamy professor too, despite the lack of any evidence or indeed reason (she spends the whole movie is a state of lovely frazzlement), and the big problem is that she doesn’t want to hurt Susan. By the time we’re asked to believe that Rudy Vallee (as her lawyer) and Van Johnson are old Harvard chums, the story has long abandoned any pretense of credibility. There’s nothing left but for Susan to rush away in tears and spend several moments dry-heaving in close-up until she “grows up” before our eyes, realizing that her proper place is with the twerp her own age. Meanwhile, Abby’s happy ending is that she’s apparently going to drop this silly degree business and become a professor’s wife. Grandma rolls in her grave. So much for Fortitude.

This trifling effort was conceived in a similar vein to Fox’s recent hit Apartment for Peggy, which also uses the theme of mature college students and showcases the same school, Reno’s University of Nevada. Scripted by the married team of Mary Loos (niece of Anita Loos) and Richard Sale (later a director), Mother is inferior in every respect to Peggy, save that it has the same brand of creamy Technicolor that makes the whole movie a pleasure to the eye. Aesthetically, the movie’s stars are cinematographer Arthur E. Arling (whose career includes The Yearling, The Glass Slipper, and three Doris Day classics) and costume designer Kay Nelson, who got an Oscar nod for throwing many glamorous rags on Young and supporting co-eds Barbara Lawrence and Kathleen Hughes and, in one brief scene, upcoming starlet Debra Paget.

It’s a tribute to the brisk professionalism of director Lloyd Bacon that he puts over in 80 minutes what could clearly have dragged on much longer and deserved to be shorter. This was the final effort for 20th Century Fox producer Walter Morosco, released after his death. Now, a print of the film is available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives.

RATING 4 / 10