Whether you’re heading to college, packing off your kids or just remembering the campus craziness of your youth, it’s the right time of year for a little movie nostalgia.
Higher education has been a gold mine for humor since the silent-film era, long before animals partied in togas or nerds took revenge on jocks. There are lots to choose from but start with this dozen, in no special order, for a good cross-section of bygone fads, clothes, slang, comedy–intentional or otherwise—and pranks.
1. Animal House – The undisputed king of the genre, this 1978 glimpse of collegiate life in 1962– when frat rats, not protesters, were wreaking havoc—is credited with reviving the Greek system after the counter-culture 60s. If you’re among the few who haven’t seen John Belushi and his Deltas’ food fight, road trip, frat-house orgies and explosive parade, rent it now or you may wind up on double-secret probation.
2. Good News – Another dose of retro times two, this 1947 musical is set in the 1920s, when student sheiks dressed like old-time golfers and courted their sweeties in crowded jalopies and malt shops. Mel Torme out-sings bookworm June Allyson and letterman Peter Lawford, of course, but the dancing and tomfoolery are the cat’s pajamas all the way around.
3. Back to School – Rodney Dangerfield mortifies his shy son by registering at his college, joining his diving team, turning their dorm into a lavish man cave and wooing their lit teacher. Besides the star in top form, this 1986 film’s wonderful cast includes Burt Young as his bodyguard, Robert Downey Jr. as the class geek, Ned Beatty as “Dean Martin” and Sam Kinnison as a deranged professor.
4. Horse Feathers – With Groucho as the dean, Zeppo as his son the perpetual student and Harpo and Chico mistakenly hired as football ringers, what could go wrong at Huxley College? From their competition for the favors of the campus “widow” to Dean Wagstaff’s anatomy class to the big game finale, this 1932 entry is a witty, uproarious must-see.
5. College – Finding that brains don’t impress his schoolmates, bookish Buster Keaton strives to become an athletic hero in this silent 1927 movie. As he looks for a sport he can play and a job to pay his tuition, he keeps bungling badly but finally redeems himself by winning a race and rescuing his imperiled sweetheart. Sure he’s in his 30s while playing a teen but he’s Keaton, the master of deadpan humor, so just go with it.
6. The Affairs of Dobie Gillis – No, this 1953 tale of romance-minded slackers at Grainbelt University isn’t as clever as the sitcom that followed. But you get to watch Debbie Reynolds go undercover with Happy Stella Kowalski’s hillbilly band, in between blowing up chemistry labs, and some first-rate hoofing by Bob Fosse and Bobby Van.
7. High Time – Widower Bing Crosby matriculates at age 50, bunks with Fabian and his pals, falls for his French instructor and does his own “varsity drag” in ball gown and wig for a pledge initiation. This 1960 fish-out-of-water story also features the biggest bonfire ever and Tuesday Weld as the roommates’ flighty mascot.
8. The Freshman – Harold Lloyd’s 1925 silent-film classic finds klutzy, hapless “Speedy” Lamb trying to become popular and win the heart of a classmate. Like Keaton in College he’s old enough for his tenth reunion, but who cares when Lloyd finds himself in a breakaway tux and becomes the football team’s water boy only to score the winning touchdown?
9. Revenge of the Nerds – This raunchy underdog yarn pits computer-science misfits of 1984, when geeks had little or no cool factor, against their popular frat-boy tormentors. It spawned several sequels and clones, but the original broke ground with its feel-good, prophetic message that the techno-dorks of the world have game, so bully them at your own peril.
10. Mr. Belvedere Goes to College – Middle-aged fussbudget Clifton Webb leaves his nanny gig to attend Clemens University in this 1949 followup to Sitting Pretty. Navigating campus rituals like Whisker Week and athletic meets, a sorority house job and a false peeping Tom charge, the prissy genius manages to earn a diploma in one year and set a pole-vaulting record.
11. Here Come the Co-Eds – Abbott and Costello, billed in the 1945 promos as “teacher’s petters. . . in a girls’ school,” flee from the police and land caretaker jobs at the snooty college where Bud’s sister is becoming a basketball phenom. The inevitable goofy mishaps culminate in a big game, in which a befuddled Lou takes part disguised as hoopster “Daisy Dimple.”
12. Mother is a Freshman – This romcom finds widowed socialite Loretta Young, broke and unable to work–since it’s 1949 and people would talk—enrolling at her daughter’s school on an obscure scholarship for women named Abigail Fortitude. Going incognito with a coed wardrobe and vocabulary, the new MILP (Mom I’d Like to Pin) is a hit with everyone but her offspring, who has a crush on Abby’s most ardent suitor, English prof Van Johnson.