That Was Then: January 1929

Chester Conklin, left, and Charles “Buddy” Rogers in the 1928 movie Varsity, filmed at Princeton.
Chester Conklin, left, and Charles “Buddy” Rogers in the 1928 movie Varsity, filmed at Princeton.
Princeton University Archives

Today the scenic University appears regularly as a backdrop in Hollywood movies, but an early foray went badly when Paramount was granted permission to film a comedy called Varsity. 

Written and directed by two Yalies, the film capitalized upon the ’20s vogue for all things collegiate. Former Keystone Kop Chester Conklin starred as a salty janitor whose son, Duffy, enrolls as a student. Conklin tries to rescue Duffy from his sordid habits — the humor lying in the fact that the son doesn’t know the janitor is his dad.

Triangle Club actors played minor roles as undergrads, including Erik Barnouw ’29, later a well-known historian of television, who commiserated onscreen with Conklin regarding “Duffy’s growing tendency to dissipate.” 

Shot as a silent film around Nassau Hall, by ninth-entry Blair and elsewhere, Varsity was re-released almost immediately as a part-“talkie,” including Princeton songs and dialogue poorly synchronized with the actors’ mouths. But what horrified President John Grier Hibben 1882 was the drinking. 

One student appears ready to read As You Like It, then unscrews a corner of the book and sips whiskey hidden inside. Undergrads sneak away to bars in Trenton, where Duffy falls in love with the cowgirl in a Wild West show.

“It is unfortunate that the only side of Princeton life on view smells so strongly of alcohol,” The Daily Princetonian fumed. The one scene suggesting the place was an educational institution and not “a youthful Racquet Club” — students hurrying to class in McCosh — was left on the cutting-room floor. The New York Times concluded: “Sons of Harvard will be intensely amused.” 

With Varsity showing in 1,200 theaters nationwide, Hibben wrote to Paramount, demanding that it yank the film — such was the sway of Ivy presidents then. The movie giant complied in January 1929, and there has been no trace of Varsity since.