There was a time when footage of 19-year-olds in tweed jackets and ties, smoking pipes around a piano in a college common room did not evoke laughter. That time seems to have passed.
Audiences this spring snickered when clips from two decades-old Yale recruitment films, selected by documentarian Julia Pimsleur ’90 to illustrate Yale’s legacy of sexism and snobbery, appeared in her film “Boola Boola: Yale Goes Co-ed.”
From the 1940 film “Yale: A Small College, A Great University,” Pimsleur selected footage of women being “imported” to Yale for the weekend prior to spring break, set to a Whiffenpoof song about the ordeals of remaining faithful to one’s girlfriend during term time.
Her selections from a film commissioned by the University in 1966, less than three years before the school went coed, were even less flattering in their portrait of the Yale that was. The film’s title — “To Be a Man” — evoked derision even before the accompanying footage of a sneering blond incarnation of old money proudly explaining that being a men’s college is part of the essence of Yale.
With his characteristic expression of bemused amusement, then-student Richard Brodhead ’68, now dean of Yale College, told the audience that “the film was not viewed unironically” by Yale students at the time of its making.
The tantalizingly ludicrous visions of bygone inanity served up that evening do not seem to have lured many viewers to seek out the original films in Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives reading room.
If anyone had, however, unearthed these relics in search of the old Yale at its most hilariously irredeemable, they would have discovered that neither film is actually the campy anachronism one might have expected.
To be sure, each film does include some screamingly funny moments, but each also contains elements that suggest that today’s Yale, both the institution and its students, have much in common with the Yale of 1940 and 1966.
While watching Erwin Scharf’s 1940 film, written by Joseph March, one is struck by how little the Yale recruitment pitch has changed in the last 60 years. The film’s title, “Yale: A Small College, A Great University,” reflects its emphasis on the importance of the residential college system, then a relatively recent innovation, in making the university experience an intimate one.
Scharf tries to reinforce his theme visually by contrasting images of the grandeur of Yale with scenes of student life. He seems to have some difficulty doing either; despite its color photography the film bears the marks of an era in which camera mobility was limited.
His favorite technique for evoking the grandeur of Yale is to include a very slow tracking shot down Harkness Tower, an attempt to make the tower seem far taller than it actually is. This shot occurs at least three times in the course of the film.
The film’s tone is unabashedly didactic; the narrator’s voice is the only we hear. In more than a few moments, you could close your eyes during the narrator’s description of residential college life and imagine the same words coming from a tour guide on a visit to Yale today.
Such an impression is undercut every so often by bursts of narrative pretentiousness, such as the one in which he describes the “perpetual stream of youth that flows through the University, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation.”
The film also features the familiar sight of two students moving a used couch into Bingham — familiar, that is, except for the fact they are still wearing their jackets and ties.
In one of the film’s most striking moments, we see two roommates, whom the narrator describes as emblematic of Yale’s commitment to “diversity.” One is a wealthy student from New York, the other, a student on financial aid from the Midwest.
Far from being a “rich man’s school,” Yale looks for “superior ability, high character, promise of future leadership regardless of pedigree or purse.” Presumably the word “pedigree” had less of a tendency to summon up images of snarling canines at the time.
The preoccupation with diversity as a selling point for the University — and the use of that very contemporary catchphrase — seems disarmingly familiar to today’s viewers.
Whether such platitudes were actually true in practice is open to question, but the very fact that the University wished to project such an image suggests a continuity between the old Yale and the present, one that few students might think to acknowledge.
“Diversity” meant something fairly different at the time, of course. All the students are clean shaven white males and look nearly identical in their suits and ties, which is still true in “To Be a Man,” made 26 years later.
If “A Small College,” seems the work of a University hack, the Yale-produced “To Be A Man” is unmistakably the work of a professional documentarian. There is no narration; rather the film moves through thematically linked conversations with students and faculty, scenes in lecture halls and classroom, and spectacular aerial shots of the campus, all rendered in elegant black and white.
Director/writer/photographer Murray Lerner later became obsessed with Jimi Hendrix and made three documentaries about him, including “Message to Love” about the Isle of Wight rock concert. The film features an original score by Chicago blues bandmaster Paul Butterfield.
Lerner loves to spice up his film with moments of comic relief by allowing his subjects to rant on camera, offering them just enough opportunity to appear truly ridiculous.
One architecture professor tells the camera that the material he presents in lecture “is kind of sacred” and that he is “damn well going to make [his students] pay attention.”
He continues in this vein: “I distrust the coffee break comradeship — [lecture] is where you break through all the sentimental, messy relations between human beings to communicate at the level of objective intellectual truth.”
The scene Pimsleur selected is one that, in context, seems to mock the snobbery of the speaker, rather than sharing it. Before prattling on about the virtues of the old Yale, the freshman in question griped about his roommate’s tendency to study, among other things.
The title notwithstanding, the film is actually not an exercise in unabashed chauvinism, but a more subtle examination of what one should derive from one’s college education. The title actually refers to the tension between learning for its own sake and the need for broader social involvement.
The film includes many speakers critical of Yale, most notably University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, who takes Yale professors to task for encouraging students to reflect rather than inspiring them to take action.
One only sees evidence that this is a Yale recruitment film when one considers the things that are missing. For all the talk about activism, the actual issues of the time — civil rights and the war in Vietnam — are alluded to only in a shot of a bulletin board bearing posters from the John Birch Society and the Black Panthers. Nor is any reference made to the possibility of coeducation, which materialized three years later.
Yet if the students in the film look remarkably different from those of today, their questions and concerns are close enough to our own to elevate the movie from the realm of camp, or even that of artifact.
If an afternoon spent with “To Be a Man” and “Yale: A Small College, A Great University” affords you moments of fleeting self-congratulation, they are matched, scene for scene, by shocks of recognition.