Features - November 3, 1999

Princeton in the movies
The university's cinematic image lags behind campus realities

by Steven G. Kellman

Princeton University and American movies had the Garden State as their common cradle. In 1896, the College of New Jersey officially changed its name to Princeton, at about the same time that Thomas Edison's laboratory, up the road in East Orange, was creating the first commercial motion pictures in the United States. But it wasn't until 1915 that the campus itself was used as a set, in a long-lost forgotten silent called Satan Sanderson. A year after the movies learned to talk in 1927, Princeton showed up again, in a Paramount piffle called Varsity, starring Charles "Buddy" Rogers. University officials keenly regretted their decision to allow movie cameras on campus after they saw Old Nassau portrayed as rife with wine, women, and other wrongs.

But has Princeton's celluloid image changed over time?

Not much. Directors and writers still tend to use Princeton to provide their films with a touch of class, or just a tincture of alcohol, or even to evoke country-club academe. Its hallowed ivy halls are a convenient shorthand for the long hand of tradition, a reminder of privilege and its obligations.

In director Wayne Wang's new film, Anywhere But Here, a Beverly Hills matron impresses two scruffy strangers by observing that her daughter is away at school back east, at Princeton. In Porky's (1981), a coming-of-age comedy centering on six high school rogues, an athlete named Meat (Tony Ganios) gets drunk after getting rejected from Princeton. "But didn't he get offers from, like, 60 other schools?" asks one of his buddies. "Yeah," comes the reply, "but he had his heart set on Princeton."

Picture at left: Scent of a Woman offers a scent of Princeton University.

One Meat's plan is another man's raison d'être. Though his oldest sister accepts a marriage proposal from a Yale senior, Lon Smith, Jr. (Henry H. Daniels) yearns to start his freshman year at Princeton in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Studying business is the goal of Tom Cruise's Joel Goodsen, the 17-year-old entrepreneur in Risky Business (1983), who turns his house into a successful brothel while his parents are away. But Joel is unlikely to realize his academic ambition, because Princeton has never offered a business major. Nor has it ever had a department of primate paleontology, though Jeff Bridges plays a Princeton professor of that subject in the 1976 remake of King Kong.

Despite the absence of a film department at Princeton, everyone, including moviemakers, seems to want to go to Old Nassau. There are enough films mentioning Princeton, or involving Princetonians, that the Young Alumni Committee of the Princeton Club of New York periodically presents a Princeton film series, screening such films as The Great Gatsby and The Blue Lagoon, starring Brooke Shields '87. And a popular offering at official alumni gatherings is an illustrated film lecture by A. Scott Berg '71, the eminent biographer of Maxwell Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, and Charles Lindbergh. Princeton already had a notable presence on the screen in 1977, when Alexander Wolff '79 published "Princeton in the Movies" in Princeton Alumni Weekly. Despite the rising profile of the sons and daughters in the world of film, Princeton's movie image has lagged behind campus reality.

There's something about Princeton

The narrator of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which was adapted for a theatrical film in 1957 (featuring Mel Ferrer '39 as Robert Cohn) and a TV film in 1984, avows indifference to the mystique of Princeton. "Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title," says Jake Barnes. But many movie people do buy into the idea that others are impressed by Princeton credentials. In The Peacemaker (1997), all that is necessary to establish the linguistic fluency of Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman), a physicist intent on tracking down a stolen nuclear warhead, is to note that she learned her Russian at Princeton.

In Six Degrees of Separation (1993), it is a matter less of what picaresque Paul (Will Smith) has learned in class than his knowledge about class that enables the young scam artist to gull a wealthy New York couple by pretending to be a Princeton student, and the son of Sidney Poitier. In Some Like It Hot (1959, pictured at left), another charlatan uses Princeton to catch a coney with the right cachet; when he is not disguising himself as a woman, Tony Curtis's suave saxophonist Joe wins the heart and the head of gold digger Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) by passing himself off as a rich Princeton graduate.

In There's Something About Mary (1998), we are supposed to believe that Cameron Diaz's Mary Matthews actually did attend Princeton, before becoming-improbably-an orthopedic surgeon (presumably not by attending the nonexistent Princeton Medical School). To the hopelessly infatuated Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller), Mary is a paragon of beauty and poise who manifests noblesse oblige in her generosity toward the disabled and disaffected, including Ted himself, a plebeian nerd who attends Providence College but pines for the Ivy League princess. If there is indeed something about Mary, her Princeton credentials are-29 years after the school went coed in 1969-part of it.

No signature movie

If applications to Indiana University increased in 1979, it was doubtless because of Breaking Away, a sympathetic story of competitive bicyclists in Bloomington. Knute Rockne, All American (1940) probably did more than anything else except football to give national prominence to the University of Notre Dame. And The Paper Chase (1973) made Harvard Law School both formidable and fashionable. Princeton University, however, lacks both a law school and a signature movie. While many alumni have enjoyed productive careers in Hollywood, none has quite put the alma mater on the map of popular culture, west of Woody Allen's Manhattan and north of Barry Levinson's Baltimore. The Graduate (1967) made Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock the archetype for a generation and (though campus scenes were actually shot at the University of Southern California) the University of California at Berkeley the quintessential '60s campus. But, despite all the films at and about it, Princeton's place in the popular imagination is not the product of any particular movie.

In She Loves Me Not (1934), a light-hearted, lightweight farce, a showgirl (Miriam Hopkins) hides out from Philadelphia gangsters in a Princeton dorm and falls in love with an undergraduate (Bing Crosby). But the Princeton setting is so incidental that when Nunnally Johnson remade it as How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955), the mischief is easily moved to fictional, generic Bristol College. A 1942 version of the same story, True to the Army, was able to transpose the college dorm to a military barracks.

An Arden for idealists

Though only its opening scenes are set-and shot-at the university and though it ignores entirely its subject's undergraduate career at Princeton, Wilson (1944, picture at right), an Oscar-winning biopic about the 28th president of the United States, probably comes closest to being the ideal Princeton film. It is at least the film that best projects the school's image as a Forest of Arden for idealists. Written by Lamar Trotti and released in the midst of World War II, it celebrates a Princetonian who led the United States to victory in a previous world war and lost his health campaigning for world peace. For Alexander Knox's Woodrow Wilson, a gentleman and a scholar who boasts to the political bosses, "I'm a schoolteacher," the American presidency is not necessarily a higher calling than the Princeton one. From his campaign against privilege in Princeton social clubs to his crusade for human rights and disarmament following World War I, the celluloid Wilson is portrayed as a kindly if somewhat prissy don who tries to use the world as his classroom.

During his first run for public office as governor of New Jersey, reporters question Wilson's lack of political experience. "No political experience?" Knox's Wilson says, beaming. "Have these gentlemen ever attended a faculty meeting?" Introduced at the Democratic National Convention of 1912 as "the Princeton schoolmaster," Wilson exults in defeating both a Harvard man, Theodore Roosevelt, and a Yale man, William Howard Taft, during the general election. No bonfire is lit on Cannon Green, but after victory is announced, a large group of adoring Princeton students materializes outside his window to serenade the president-elect and his wife with "Old Nassau." During the 1916 campaign, a Republican antagonist insists: "We must rid ourselves of this college sissy," but Wilson and Princeton win again. A wistful hagiography, Wilson begins with Princeton's loss to Yale, 6-0, in football, and it concludes with the American rejection of Wilson's righteous League of Nations. But it is a triumphant portrait of a principled Princetonian.

An '80s moratorium on filming

Though Wilson shows Princeton in such a favorable light that Nassau Hall administrators might have commissioned it, the university never pays for favorable representation in the movies. But Justin Harmon '78, the university's director of communications, takes an official interest in how Princeton is portrayed on screen, more, he explains, "to prevent dumb and vicious things from being said than to foster understanding of our educational mission." In 1928, when it became apparent that Paramount Pictures had violated its promise that nothing in Varsity "would be derogatory to Princeton or university life," President John Grier Hibben 1882 persuaded the studio to take its movie out of circulation. Campus authorities have been wary of movie cameras ever since, to deter disorder as much as disparagement.

During the 1980s, following a stampede of production crews through Chancellor Green, Princeton imposed a moratorium on further shooting. After restrictions were lifted about four years later, Harmon began to vet scripts seeking to make use of Princeton. Nassau Hall, he notes, is off-limits to all commercial lenses, as is any project that would disrupt the primary functions of the university.

Most proposals are for advertisements and TV programs, but under current procedures at least one feature film, Rounders (1998), was denied permission to come on campus, because of the unfavorable light it might have cast on a Princeton club. It was shot, instead, in Newark, where Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) attends generic "City Law School" before chucking it all for poker. Once a project is approved, Eric Hamblin, assistant director of Princeton's Visitor and Conference Services, works with the guests to determine locations and schedule shoots. Hamblin helped secure Rockefeller College for the opening shots in Scent of a Woman (1992).

Though the initial images in Scent of a Woman are supposed to be of a private boarding school, they were actually filmed in and around Holder Court. In One True Thing (1998), McCosh Hall serves as the site for the office occupied by Professor George Gulden (William Hurt), though the unnamed college he teaches at is supposed to be in a town called Langhorne, somewhere in upstate New York. If there is one true thing about this movie, it is not the way it reappropriates the campus. And the filmmakers compound their perfidy toward Princeton by specifying that both Gulden and his daughter Ellen (Renée Zellweger) are graduates of Harvard.

Popcorn with Einstein

Cameras are often drawn to Princeton because of its collegiate gothic buildings and bosky, bucolic setting rather than because of the institutional identity. Most 30- and 60-second commercials are intended to focus on the product they are pitching, and a recent spot for Folger's coffee appropriated Princeton's pleasant ambiance but not its famous name. In People Will Talk (1951), Princeton serves merely, anonymously, as a leafy old campus, and the Princeton footage inserted into Class of '44 (1973) sets the story at a fictional college somewhere in the Midwest.

By contrast, the setting for I.Q. (1994) is explicitly-and misleadingly-Princeton. A romantic period comedy about Albert Einstein's fictional niece Catherine (Meg Ryan), I.Q., which was shot in part in Palmer Hall, Alexander Hall, and Cottage Club, confounds the Institute for Advanced Studies, where Einstein spent the last 22 years of his life, and the nearby university, where he did not. Like her famous uncle, Catherine, a mathematician, is brilliant, but she suddenly finds herself smitten with an unschooled car mechanic, Ed Walters (Tim Robbins), while still engaged to pompous pedant James (Stephen Fry), who teaches psychology at something in Princeton called the Paine Institute for Experimental Studies. For all her intelligence, Catherine's dismissal of men without degrees almost results in amatory calamity. "Don't let your brain interfere with your heart," advises Uncle Albert (Walter Matthau), and with that sentimental piety, I.Q. plays on perennial stereotypes about intellectuals and one of their preeminent institutes.

In Ball of Fire (1942), Gary Cooper is a fusty professor, a Princeton graduate whose brush with stripper Barbara Stanwyck provides the human element absent from the erudite dictionary he is compiling. Princeton has long been vulnerable to populist resentment toward arid academicism, particularly because of its prominence in mathematics and the abstract sciences.

However, in Infinity (1996), a portrait of Richard Feynman *42 as a young physicist and uxorious husband, Princeton's premier thinkers are revealed as soundly in touch with their feelings. Feynman in this film is anything but a monster or a mockery of cerebration. Directing himself in the lead role, Matthew Broderick concentrates on the period of Feynman's precocity and ends his story in 1945, 20 years before his hero received the Nobel Prize in physics. In Infinity, Feynman's growing accomplishments as a scientist and his participation in the Manhattan Project are background to the anguish of his doomed marriage. After graduating from MIT, Feynman is so profoundly in love with his neighborhood sweetheart Arline Greenbaum (Patricia Arquette) that he has to be talked out of marrying her immediately, lest he forfeit his graduate fellowship to monastic Princeton.

Not much of Infinity is actually set at Princeton, but we do see Feynman's father help him move in to bachelor quarters in Little Hall, where Arline later visits. The head of Princeton's physics department, Bill Price (Zeljko Ivanek), eventually recruits Feynman to join the secret government operation to separate uranium. Though his fiancee is dying of tuberculosis, Feynman insists on marrying Arline and on settling her in an Albuquerque hospital, where he visits her faithfully from the federal compound in Los Alamos. Beginning with its solemn title, Infinity insists on placing the accomplishments of even the brightest of mortals within a cosmic perspective. In its emphasis on Feynman's tender dedication to his fading wife, it offers a successor to Woodrow Wilson as Princeton's cinematic saint. Its celluloid sinner would have to be Aaron Burr 1772. In Magnificent Doll (1946), a costume drama written by Irving Stone and directed by Frank Borzage, David Niven's Burr kills hapless Alexander Hamilton (Arthur Space) in their infamous duel, but cinematic justice is restored when Ginger Rogers's Dolley Payne dumps him for Burgess Meredith's James Madison.

"I went to Princeton for this?"

In 1896, when movies were being born, a college graduate was a rare figure, a Princeton graduate even rarer. For decades, Princeton could function as the prototypical private university, a pastoral enclave of Prince Hals biding their time before mounting the throne. Though it was never directly adapted to film, This Side of Paradise, the 1920 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 in which protagonist Amory Blaine is drawn to Princeton "as the pleasantest country club in the world," influenced many screenplays. But in the new mass medium patronized by audiences unfamiliar with the inside of a country club, Princeton-on-the-Screen becomes the capital of popular envy and enmity. In All the King's Men (1950), all that Jack Burden (John Ireland) has to say to reveal his disappointment in populist politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) for selling out to the elites he claims to be opposing is: "And you send your son to Princeton!"

A battlefield is no country club, and in all those combat movies in which the military unit is a microcosm of American society, it is not unusual to find, among the re-quisite Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Texan recruits, a Princeton man whose patrician background has sheltered him from harsh realities others immediately comprehend; for examples, see Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Lieutenant Joseph Cable (John Kerr) in South Pacific (1958). In To Hell and Back (1955), an adaptation of World War II hero Audie Murphy's auto-biography, a military novice fresh out of Princeton freezes under fire, causing the death of his buddy.

The common assumption that Princeton is a passport to privilege is mocked in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968), when the exasperated factotum to an aging, fussy movie star questions: "I went to Princeton for this?" In Deep Cover (1992), DEA official Jerry Carver (Charles Martin Smith) explains exactly why he attended the exclusive New Jersey university. When Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne), the undercover agent he has assigned to infiltrate a ring of cocaine dealers, asks him whether he has ever killed anyone, he replies: "Are you kidding? I went to Princeton to avoid all that [expletive]!" In The Young Philadelphians (1958, pictured above), Paul Newman's Tony Lawrence cannot avoid aspersions about his dubious past, but attendance at Princeton augurs an auspicious future.

Dreaming of Jadwin

By the end of the 20th century, when colleges have spread like kudzu-if not ivy-across the land, campuses also proliferate on movie screens, and even the nation's fourth oldest institution might seem less special. In Jim Thorpe- All American (1951), Carlisle College's football prowess is dramatized by showing it, inaccurately, defeating Princeton, but a contemporary screenwriter would likely choose Florida State as a gridiron rival. The basketball documentary Hoop Dreams does include a scene in Jadwin Gym, but it is a neutral site for showcasing high school hoopsters, not the talents of any Tigers. The multitude of writers, directors, and producers who passed through Princeton probably guarantees that Orange and Black will continue frequently to color the silver screen. Yet old stereotypes persist, even-or especially-in work by alums.

In Deceiver (1997), writer-directors Jonas '93 and Josh Pate perpetuate the figure of the Princetonian as rich and effete; snooty textile heir Wayland (Tim Roth) may or may not be responsible for the grisly murder of a prostitute, but his Princeton background sets him apart from the blue-collar cops investigating him. The demographics of Princeton University are much more diverse now than they were in 1928, when Varsity portrayed the campus as a bastion of the white American patriarchy. On screen, the university has become at least sexually eclectic. In the gay romantic comedy Trick (1999), written by Jason Schafer and directed by Jim Fall, a stud named Mark (John Paul Pitoc) boasts of his musical conquests: "Hey, I've done tons of singers. I've slept with six Whiffenpoofs. I've even had three Tigertones."

Yet, except for There's Something About Mary, The Peacemaker, and Anywhere But Here, a moviegoer might never know that Old Nassau has been coeducational for 30 years. Other than Will Smith's imposture in Six Degrees of Separation, the cinematic Orange and Black remains resolutely white. The Nude Olympics might have vanished with the snows of yesteryear. But it is likely that movies will uncage more Tigers of different stripes before at last all fades to black.


Steven G. Kellman is Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the editor of Perspectives on Raging Bull (G.K. Hall, 1994) and the author of the forthcoming Translingualism and the Literary Imagination (University of Nebraska).

A. Scott Berg '71 picks his favorite Princeton movies

The editors of Princeton Alumni Weekly asked A. Scott Berg '71 to select his "favorite Princeton movies" from "Princeton in the Nation's Cinema," a lecture with film clips he has presented to alumni around the country. And the winners are . . .



Wilson (Warner Brothers, 1944) is a patriotic tribute to Princeton's favorite son, and its first act is an orgy of Princeton images. Much of this biopic was filmed on campus -in loving color-including a crucial dramatic scene shot in Prospect House and a glimpse of the Marching Band performing a few rousing bars of "The Princeton Cannon Song." My favorite moment is the night Woodrow Wilson learns that he has been elected President of the United States and a throng of Princeton students comes to his back porch to congratulate him-singing "Old Nassau," then breaking into a Princeton Locomotive.


Each year more and more Princetonians are writing wonderful scripts for motion pictures and television. I've long admired two smart, Oscar-winning works by Ring Lardner, Jr. '36-Woman of the Year (in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy met on screen) and the irreverent M*A*S*H. My favorite screenplay written by a Princetonian, however, is Melvin and Howard (Universal, 1980) by Bo Goldman '53-a beguiling, eccentric comedy based on the purported meeting in the Nevada desert between a hapless Melvin Dummar and the billionaire Howard Hughes. Goldman won an Academy Award for his utterly original script.


F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 has certainly been the victim of more unsuccessful renditions than any other alumnus, including lifeless productions of Tender Is the Night, The Last Tycoon, several short stories, and the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby, which takes more time to watch than it takes to read the book. Princeton's most successfully adapted author remains Booth Tarkington 1893; and my favorite movie based on one of his books is Alice Adams (RKO, 1935), with Katharine Hepburn portraying his yearning heroine.


Princeton often pops up in a film character's resume as a kind of shorthand to suggest his (or, recently, her) background. My favorite such reference is dropped by Professor Bertram Potts (played by Gary Cooper) in Ball of Fire (RKO, 1942). In this charming Billy Wilder script, Potts is one of seven stodgy professors working on an encyclopedia; when they get stuck writing their entry on "Slang," they enlist the help of Sugarpuss O'Shea, a stripper on the lam. Check out the moment Potts asks Sugarpuss's "sugar daddy" for her hand in marriage and mentions that he studied at Princeton, suggesting not only his erudition but also his solid character. Is it just me, or is that the very instant Sugarpuss realizes she's in love with this guy?


While many superb performances by Princetonians are preserved on film, few will ever top José Ferrer '33's portrayal of the title character in Cyrano de Bergerac, for which he won an Academy Award in 1951. And I've always been a sucker for the work of character actor Myron McCormick '33. (See No Time for Sergeants.) But, like much of the world, my favorite actor has long been James Stewart '32. And of his 75 films, I'm voting my heart-It's a Wonderful Life (RKO, 1946), Jimmy's favorite as well.


A. Scott Berg, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Lindbergh (Putnam 1998), is currently writing a biography of Woodrow Wilson 1879.

Tigers in Hollywood

Princeton has never had a film program and has only recently begun to offer a major in theater, but immigration from Tigertown to Tinseltown has been active enough to populate a P-rade through the back lot of Universal Studios to celebrate Princeton's 250th anniversary. Alison Graham '84 had many alumni to draw on when she organized a four-part "Princetonians-in-Hollywood" panel series at Paramount Studios. And a Princeton Film Festival held on campus in 1997 offered work by 10 alumni directors: Dick Atkins '73, Alicia Dwyer '92, Victor Fanucchi '94, George Figueroa '86, Chris Freilich '92, Susan Kirr '86, Ray Mount '41, Javier San Miguel '93, David Shaw '86, and Emory Van Cleve '87.

Any roster of eminent Princeton actors has to begin with the man who knew too much, who shot Liberty Valance, and who made dozens of cherished movies throughout a wonderful life on screen. James Stewart '32 appeared, along with Joshua Logan '31 (director of Bus Stop, Camelot, South Pacific), in The Golden Dog, the premiere production of the McCarter Theater. Both belonged to the University Players, a group started in the '20s by Bretaigne Windust '29, who later directed Humphrey Bogart in The Enforcer. A Princeton degree, along with starring roles in Cyrano de Bergerac and The Caine Mutiny, is among the credits of Jose Ferrer '33. After Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon, and Endless Love, Brooke Shields '87 was already a movie star when she began her freshman year at Princeton, and an A.B. in French did not deter her from a continuing career in front of a camera. Ethan Coen '79 earned a degree in philosophy before joining his brother Joel in creating a distinctive oeuvre that includes Barton Fink, Fargo, and Raising Arizona.

Worth watching among current actors are Stephen Bogardus '76 (Love! Valor! Compassion!), Dean Cain '88 (For the Cause, Best Men), David Duchovny '82 (The X-Files), Mark Feuerstein '93 (The Muse, Practical Magic), and Ira Wheeler '42 (The Killing Fields, Manhattan Murder Mystery).

Princetonians who have served as movie producers include Mark Carliner '60, David Field '67, Victor Simpkins '76, Tom Sternberg '59, Jonathan Taplin '69, and the late Claire Townsend '74.

-Steven G. Kellman

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