As I was driving to work the other day, I started thinking about how professors' jobs and campus life generally were depicted in old Hollywood movies. Of course, there are more recent depictions: what about Ross from Friends, who held down a tenured position at NYU while having oodles of time to hang out at the coffee shop and got articles published without ever spending five minutes in writing them? The old ones, though, seemed to have a set of rules.
- College professors are poor, if by poor you mean having a beautiful old Victorian mansion and a maid. See The Male Animal for an example of this. Of course, in 1940s and 1950s movies, characters often yearn to get rid of that spacious Victorian heap with its 10' ceilings and move into a 3-bedroom split-level in the suburbs. In these movies, expect to hear a lot of talk about poor faculty salaries, even as the maid serves tea, and expect to think to yourself, "I wish I were poor like that."
- Football and other sports are the raison d'etre for a college. See Father Was a Fullback, etc. Sometimes pesky professors try to interfere with the big game by insisting that students do a little thing like pass an exam even in the face of the administration's and the trustees' insistence that beating State is much more important. Even the staid Mr. Belvedere gets into the act in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, setting a high-jump record after he teaches sorority girls to behave like ladies. Night into Morning is the most realistic picture of all these. In that movie, Ray Milland is an English professor who actually spends some time grading blue books in between bouts of handling his personal life. He agonizes about giving an oral exam to a failing student who's needed for the big game but finally does so.
- There is a place for women on campus. Indeed there is, and a woman on campus is there mainly to provide a disturbing element: distracting the quarterback of the football team (Campus Confessions), or, if she's older, to be a Wise Dean or an Easily Shocked Spinster Librarian (and yes, I know this is a stereotype, but these movies trade on stereotypes).
- Faculty-student romances are common, and a good thing, too. It's a sorry heroine who can't get her professor to marry her, and a lot of professors are single heartthrobs (Van Johnson in Mother is a Freshman, Fredric March in The Wild Party) just to make this possible.
- Administrators generally quiver like Jello at any hint of displeasure from the trustees. The Male Animal isn't as funny a movie as it thinks it is, especially in its mandatory drunk scenes, but there is a surprisingly effective plot thread: Henry Fonda insists on his right to read selections from the letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Sacco and Vanzetti) to his class even if he'll be fired as a communist sympathizer for doing so. Joan Crawford likewise stands up against censorship in Goodbye, My Fancy (pictured above), lambasting her former lover and weak-willed college president Robert Young with a few pithy quotations from Walt Whitman.
[Edited to add: Kiita has a good post on this with a lot more (and a lot more recent) films at chasing the red balloon: The thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy..]