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I can't imagine the movie made money. There's no real action, the love interest is secondary, and the story deals with a narrow topic of interest-- sororities and fraternities on college campus. Yet, for those concerned with class privilege and how it perpetuates itself within a democratic society, the movie remains an eye-opener.
Because of her beauty and personality, freshman Liz Erickson (Jean Crane) is accepted by the best sororities on campus. She's been primed for sorority life by her mother, an alumnus of the Tri-U's (Upisilon, Upsilon, Upsilon) and now a solid upper-class citizen. Liz is enthralled by the Tri-U's, where she finds girls just like herself, uplifting rituals and "friends for life", just as Mom said. It's everything she thought a sorority would be, so she pledges. On the other hand, there may be overt snobbery from the flashy Dallas (Jean Peters) and sarcastic barbs from the non-conforming Casey (Carol Brannon), but Liz hardly notices.
Nor does she take seriously critical comments from hunky upperclass man Joe Blake (Dale Robertson), who says that sororities are just a stage she will have to get through. He is, after all, an older ex-veteran and, more importantly, an independent, non-fraternity man. He may not be much like her or her background, but Liz is drawn to his maturity anyway. At the same time, however, she's overwhelmed by pretty-boy fraternity man Chad Carnes (Jeffrey Hunter), the Big Man on Campus. After a brief dating period, he"pins" her ("engaged" to be engaged). All in all, life among the Tri-U's appears to be going swimmingly.
But unlike her mother, there is a depth to Liz that she has yet to realize. Thus, she gets upset when Janet, her life-long friend, leaves campus because the Tri-U's did not pledge her. At the same time, she befriends Ruthie, an inept plain-Jane shunned by the others, whom the the Tri-U's are obliged to pledge because her mother was a Tri-U. So, at a pivotal point in her young years, Liz finds out that life may be more complicated than she thought and that important values she's taken for granted may in fact conflict with one another. The dilemma is that her upbringing and expectations are drawing her toward the Tri-U's, but her instincts are taking notice of unsettling signals that Mom likely passed over .
With one exception, it's an excellent screenplay that tries to provide a balanced view of the fraternity-sorority system. (The exception-- I thought Chad's corruptive cheating scheme was too prejudicial to the movie's outcome.) The story's core lies with the Tri-U's deliberations over who should be pledged and why. There we find out in fairly subtle fashion that a moneyed background makes a definite difference and that the Tri-U reputation cannot be risked by trying to raise a hapless candidate like Ruthie up to their elite standards. In short, status is ultimately more important than the human costs.
To the movie's credit, the deliberative process is not depicted in a vicious or one-sided way. Rather it's portrayed as a fairly thoughtful discussion in which status finally overcomes all other considerations because the girls respect tradition and have an understandable self- interest in maintaining exclusive standards. Thus, should Liz follow through with initiation (Hell Week), she is on track to a secure future guaranteed by her sorority status and a circle of the right associations. On the other hand, dropping out of the system guarantees nothing, except maybe Joe and a risky new independence of mind. I like the way the script has her waver right up to the end. It is a difficult life-shaping decision.
The terms of the plot are worth elaborating because movies have seldom made the subtleties of class distinction central to story-line. After all, America is defined by two foundational institutions-- democracy and capitalism. The former enshrines equality, while the latter depends on privileges of wealth. Exploring how much the two conflict, as well as combine, is the sort of touchy topic never popular in Hollywood. Nonetheless, the movie's basic conflict ultimately involves these two key American ideals .
I suspect the film was conceived as a vehicle for Fox's younger stars. Then too, this 1951 release was likely too low-key for its own good, such that the only notice came from its attractive stars. Certainly, professional reviewers largely skipped over the film, focusing on the glossy Technicolor surface instead, a Fox hallmark of the period. Still and all, the topic is sensitively handled by both the cast and ace director Jean Negulesco, while the subtext remains as relevant now as it was then. The movie may have been intended as a vehicle, but the Epstein brothers managed to come up with a screenplay of some depth. In my book, the movie remains a neglected little gem, with one of the more memorable last lines in all filmdom.
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