from the Fall 2005 issue of
Pomona College Magazine
by Michael Balchunas

John Wayne smiled wistfully on the steps outside Mabel Shaw Bridges Hall of Music.

The filming of Trouble Along the Way, a dark look at college football, had not gone well. Wayne was feuding with the writer-producer, Melville Shavelson, over dialogue. They both vowed never to work together again. At the same time, Wayne’s personal life was becoming scandal-sheet fodder. The “Duke” was having an affair with a Peruvian actress while still married to his second wife. He and his wife filed divorce actions against each other during the production.

Wayne’s eyes narrowed as he gazed toward Marston Quad. Filmed from a low angle, he acquired a heroic dimension as Little Bridges’ fluted columns soared above him. Wayne had finally won the dialogue dispute and was about to deliver one of the denouement’s crucial lines. “Hey,” he yelled toward the quad, where the female lead, Donna Reed, would be shown walking in the movie’s final print. “Ya got nice legs, too ... for a copper.”

Wayne and Reed are just two names on the roster of famous actors who have appeared on the Big Screen by way of Pomona.

The presence of film crews on the campus has periodically reaffirmed a symbiotic relationship in which Pomona alumni have gone to Hollywood and found success as actors, writers, producers and more.

Duke on the Quad

Since 1920, the College has been used as a setting in dozens of feature films, television productions and commercials. Most audiences are in the dark when Pomona plays a role as something other than itself, but alumni, faculty, staff, students and parents often sit up and take notice.

“I always get kind of a thrill when I see a quick scene of the quad, Little Bridges, Big Bridges or the Carnegie Building in a movie,” says Edward W. Malan ’48, professor emeritus of physical education.

Malan worked as an extra in Saturday’s Hero, a 1951 release that starred John Derek and Reed. Like Trouble Along the Way, which reached theatres two years later, Saturday’s Hero depicts the seamy side of college football. Derek, as Steve Novak, a naïve high school gridiron star, arrives at Jackson University expecting to get an education, but soon learns that his production as a player seems to matter much more.

Malan and others from the College were happy to lend a hand.

“They hired a number of us from among the football players and the football team,” he says. “I was a coach at the time. We worked a week for them, and the pay was $32 a day, which was pretty good back then. When the movie came out, it was kind of a special treat to see it and to recognize things and to remember our part in it.”

Malan earned his pay. “In one scene I was playing middle linebacker on defense. There was a fullback on the offensive team, a big guy from UCLA, and he could hit like a ton of bricks. In this scene, he came through the middle, and I had to tackle him. We did that scene over and over again. By the end of the day, I couldn’t see! But I nailed him every time,” he says with a laugh.

When the cameras stopped rolling, the extras got an education. “One of the things that was most memorable to me, and still is, was the conversations we had with Aldo Ray, one of the actors,” Malan says. “Between takes, he would tell stories about all the things he had seen and done. He was a longshoreman before he got into the movies, and he had a lot of stories to tell. He really pushed the guys who listened to these stories to work hard in school, to buckle down and do it right.”

The message imparted by Ray and by Saturday’s Hero is no less applicable today, and the values expressed were consonant with Pomona’s. Ensuring that film depictions of the College don’t compromise its image or standards has for some time been a concern of the communications office. Donald M. Pattison, director of public affairs from 1984 to 1999 and now director of foundation and corporate relations, says, “I read many scripts that I turned down, simply because the subject matter seemed poor for a Pomona depiction—even when Pomona wasn’t named. I always looked for positive films of which Pomona might be proud. I wouldn’t say they needed to be ‘message’ films, but at least not ones dealing with themes like campus ax murderers.”

In its supporting role, Pomona has been hopelessly typecast. It has almost invariably played an educational institution, real or fictional, including Stanford University (Beaches, 1988), Groton School (in the 1976 TV movie Eleanor and Franklin), Medfield College of Technology (The Absent-Minded Professor, with Fred MacMurray, 1961), Summit Crest Military Academy (Over the Top, with Sylvester Stallone, 1987), Yale University (Gilmore Girls, 2002) and, somewhat notoriously, as the College of St. George, refuge of a sinister elite society, in The Brotherhood of the Bell, a 1970 TV movie that starred Glenn Ford. The College has occasionally shed its stereotype, with part of the Marston Quad serving incognito as the White House Rose Garden in 2001 in Pearl Harbor, for example.

Pomona’s frequent casting as an educational institution began with The Charm School, a romantic comedy released in 1921. The movie starred Wallace Reid, a major box-office attraction of the silent era. The following decades saw a steady flow of films, peaking in the 1980s, during which 15 feature films, TV movies or commercials incorporated scenes from the College.

“When we occasionally allowed filming, it was to be supportive of the industry, which was pleading to shoot in California,” says Pattison. “Even though a fee was charged, I don’t think the income for Pomona was an incentive, because there was so much work involved in negotiating a contract and then having someone present throughout the filming schedule—not to mention the disruption for others. Most approaches and scripts were turned down.”

Because of the overwhelming number of requests, Pomona’s policy now limits most location filming to periods when the College is not in session, and to projects that feature “significant involvement” by Pomona alumni, trustees, faculty, staff or students.

That the College has looked more favorably upon scripts that seem appropriate to its mission has not translated into blandness in the plots.

The Male Animal, one of the most admired entries in the College’s filmography, opens and closes on Marston Quad. Henry Fonda, playing a junior faculty member, faces the wrath of a powerful trustee when it becomes known that he plans to read his class a letter written by Bartolomeo Vanzetti before the accused anarchist’s execution. Fonda is threatened with firing if he does. “We can’t afford to have any radicals around here—we’re still paying for the new stadium,” blusters the trustee. “Americanism’s what we want taught here.”

“I believe a college should be concerned with ideas,” Fonda responds.

When The Male Animal was released in 1942, the country was straining under the war effort, and the movie’s treatment of the abstract ideal of free speech helped underscore what the country was fighting for.

Saturday’s Hero and Trouble Along the Way both conflicted with the cultural climate—and probably suffered as a result at the box office—by examining the corrupting influences of big-time college sports. The Program, a 1993 feature film directed by David S. Ward ’67, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Sting and now a Pomona trustee, also deals with abuses in university sports programs. The movie, filmed in part at Pomona, was recalled from theatres and re-edited shortly after its opening. A scene in which athletes lay down in the middle of a heavily trafficked street to demonstrate their manhood was alleged to have prompted imitative behavior.

Mass Appeal, which opens with a Marston Quad scene, portrays conflicts affecting a Catholic seminary and church. Released in 1984, it explores issues involving sex and the clergy, physical abuse, the drinking habits of a priest played by Jack Lemmon and the ordination of women.

The Brotherhood of the Bell, one of the most provocative movies to film at Pomona, has found a niche all its own. Its story line about an elite WASP cabal wielding unseen influence in American life still resonates with some, 35 years after it was shown on television. Blurry copies of the movie can be found for sale through outlets with non-mainstream political orientations. The drama’s resolution draws upon an inscription familiar to Sagehens: “They Only Are Loyal to This College Who, Departing, Bear Their Added Riches in Trust for Mankind.”

Not all productions that have filmed at Pomona feature plots knitted with threads of controversy. Joanne Woodward won an Emmy Award for her 1985 portrayal of a professor with Alzheimer’s disease in the TV movie Do You Remember Love? In the lavish Eleanor and Franklin, the young FDR, played by Edward Herrmann, declares his love for his future mate, portrayed by Jane Alexander, under a Marston Quad sycamore. The two-part TV movie, broadcast in 1976, won 11 Emmys.

Although the wooing of Eleanor was lengthy, and Little Bridges was prominently shown, Pomona was not among the locations listed in the credits. Filmmakers generally charge for such a listing, and the fees can easily offset those levied by the College for filming.

The well-regarded Trouble Along the Way, which was hindered by the infighting and by its contrarian view of college sports, is notable for more than John Wayne’s role. For one thing, it is believed by some film buffs that James Dean appears in it, very briefly, uncredited.

The movie also contains a brief line that has become so entrenched in the culture that some consider it emblematic of American character. Its origin is almost universally misattributed to the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, who later adopted and helped popularize it.

Wayne plays Steve Williams, a college football coach accustomed to breaking the rules to prevail. He is also a divorced father raising a streetwise 11-year-old daughter. Donna Reed plays a family court officer investigating Williams’ qualifications for child custody. While watching a crucial football game, the girl asks Reed’s character why she isn’t cheering, and Reed replies, “Is winning so important?” The girl is aghast. “Listen,” she responds. “Like Steve says, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’”

A highly regarded recent biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, by David Maraniss, traces the slogan’s origin and its circuitous path through the film and into American culture. Ironically, the resolution of Trouble Along the Way is a rebuttal of the win-at-all-costs philosophy.

“What made you believe you could save St. Anthony’s by destroying the very things it stands for?” the small Catholic college’s rector, played by Charles Coburn, asks Wayne after recruiting transgressions come to light.

But when the larger-than-life Wayne calls out to Reed’s character from the steps of Little Bridges in the finale, he is signaling that he has fallen for her and will soon be adapting to a different set of values—hers, St. Anthony’s, and, perhaps, Pomona’s.

Michael Balchunas is a freelance writer living in Claremont.