By J. Cavanaugh Simpson
Depression-era screwball comedies skewered the shallow upper classes with satirical glee. Similar plot lines—updated and adjusted for inflation—offer timely social sabotage of college and class in the unfolding aftermath of the College Admissions Scandal. Absurdly, and in tribute to tax day, a few storylines that are mostly three-quarters true:
Charming conman Rich Slinger—mastermind of madcap slacker student admission scheme—secretly records entitled clients’ anti-Kantian confessions: “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here.”
Toker’s head is Photoshopped onto torso of muscled crew team member, and, through series of college admissions errors, ends up rowing at 4:30 a.m. practices. On day of big regatta, team loses because he shows up higher than a wingsuit flyer.
Outside Fifth Avenue home of beverage magnate charged in scheme, son smokes “enormous blunt“ while plugging his rap album, “Cheese and Crackers,” a tribute to the Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers. Album includes song: “If I Lost My Money,” a thoughtful reprisal of Marx Brothers’ “Whatever It Is, I’m against It.”
In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, greed was not good. Movies depicted the rich as silly, vain, worldly-yet-willfully-ignorant-of-the-world. Millionaires bribed Ivy U to admit their idler offspring. Via money and celebrity, the entitled dodged legal jams, public scandals, and champagne droughts. The silk-stocking crowd could get away with anything.
To wit: In the 1937 film, Topper, bourgeoisie bohemians perish in flashy roadster crash and still don lavish clothes, attend soirees, and disappear at will. In 1938’s deliciously screwy Merrily We Live,the moneyed matriarch—the flightiest dame in a tony neighborhood—loses the family silver, indeed all the kitchen flatware, to an adopted “tramp” yet still feeds her family citrus in the midst of the Depression. The well-heeled sometimes slummed as celluloid “hobos” or butlers, My Man Godfrey, yet still got the girl.
Hollywood starlets don Golden Goose tennis shoes and write $500,000 checks to ‘Pied Piper’ fixer to fake kids’ SAT scores. Brilliant nerdy test-taker pens her own name in error and gets into Yale, while college wannabe waits tables at the university club. Wackiness ensues.
Lousy-with-cash youth, whose admission is revoked after scandal, goes undercover as struggling barista and still gets the girl or boy, or both.
Influencer daughter of TV Elite is remade as coxswain of high school crew team, including posed pic on “ergometer.” In post-scandal huff, daughter shuns parents and goes off to live with “gold digger” boyfriend. Question is: Will she be cut out of the will?
Despite FDR and the New Deal, most Americans in the 1930s lived under the motto “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” For a few hours at least, they could forget about bread lines, thrift gardens, and the Forgotten Man himself. They laughed as honey-voiced debutantes in swirls of shimmering sleeves got themselves into all sorts of scrapes. For about a quarter, moviegoers relished the chance to look down at (yet remain secretly enthralled by) unscrupulous young men who drank heavily, drove wildly, ruined girls’ “reputations,” and upset dear old dad.
College sports, even in the early 20th century, were depicted as cynical tickets to fame and future wealth. Harold Lloyd’s 1925 silent classic, The Freshman, sparked a series of movies ridiculing the outsized power that sports increasingly wielded on campus. In The Feminine Touch, a last-gasp screwball comedy made on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, a professor questions the eligibility of star football player Rubber-Legs Ryan. A dean suggests Rubber-Legs take an exam with one-syllable words and zero writing. The professor replies: “Which do you consider more important, education or football? The sheepskin or the pigskin?”
“College movies have often shown student-athletes being treated with favoritism,” John E. Conklin, Tufts University sociology professor, wrote in Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present, which chronicles numerous films lampooning or subtly criticizing campus elitism or sports. Institutions of higher learning “have increasingly used athletics to market themselves.” That has given coaches mostly unchecked power. Several coaches were charged with taking bribes in the current scandal.
Crew becomes hot new sport until Operation Varsity Blues II exposes that no student gets up before 4:30 a.m. or understands any crew lingo.
Clickbait headlines are ruining Junior’s future job prospects, so parents—accused of conspiracy to commit fraud for millions in bribes funneled through sham charity—silver-fork over $30,000 monthly retainers to a Public Relations Man to scrub son’s tarnished silver image. Big reveal: Junior is victim of mistaken identity.
Feds charge influencer parents with “criminal complaints” vs. indictments, leaving courtroom doors ajar. Prosperous parents hire high-power attorneys to fight back or take plea deals, facing fines and, maybe, a few months in jail. During trial, defendants approach the bench and are scolded by harried, balding judge exasperated by rapid-fire repartee between stylishly attired couples who, in a racy subplot, are embroiled in a Feydeau bedroom farce.
Perhaps nascent Hollywood was reluctant to completely tick off social classes with capital: Prosperous protagonists (as today nearly all white) faced embarrassing or financially fraught obstacles yet found redemption—albeit at the hand of a grounded, less-entitled character. And everything turned out okay. Reality and fiction coexisted in a hotbed of hilarity, which veiled yet exposed the darker undercurrents of inequity and injustice.
Well-heeled heroes or heroines face brief comeuppance in post-Millennial America. Yet, in the end, nearly everyone walks away with a slap on the Rolex.
— J. Cavanaugh Simpson is an essayist and Editor of 3QR: The Three Quarter Review. Also, among those first-generation undergrad college students who paid every dime plus interest on the way through.