March 1, 2001

Cornell On The Silver Screen

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You still remember Tara Reid’s character in American Pie who got accepted to Cornell at the end of the film. Or maybe you remember when the owner of the resort in Dirty Dancing brags about his grandson Neil who goes to the Cornell School of Hotel Management. But few students know more of Cornell’s history in the movies than these limited references. Infrequently, Cornell is mentioned or appears in movies. But behind the scenes and on the silver screen, Cornell alumni are some of the most successful members within their particular fields of the industry.


Ithaca has film-making history that goes back to the industry’s beginnings almost a century ago. Despite its bad weather, Ithaca was once a prime location for silent film shoots, producing approximately 70 silent films before Hollywood took over as the movie-making capital of the nation. A particularly interesting discovery was that Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy) starred in drag as a female cook in a silent film titled The Lottery Man which was shot in Ithaca. Ithaca locals, Cornell students, and the Chi Psi fraternity house all appeared in this barely known film.

Once sound was incorporated into film, we heard about Cornell a lot more than we saw it. Many characters nonchalantly passed off Cornell as part of their academic background. In the 1941 classic, Citizen Kane, two characters, Bernstein and Thompson, are trying to solve the mystery surrounding Kane’s death, and mention how Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Kane went to school together: “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Switzerland. He was thrown out of a lot of colleges.” By simply mentioning Cornell in a script, a slew of connotations are made. Take this quote from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall for example: “There’s Henry Drucker. He has a chair in history at Princeton. Oh, and the short man with him is Herschel Kominsky. He has a chair in philosophy at Cornell.”

“Yeah? two more chairs and they’ve got a dining room set.”

While an Ivy League education is often revered, it’s also an easy target of a quick joke.

Impressive Alumni

Would you have guessed that The Wizard of Oz himself went to Cornell 27 years before the film was released in 1939? Or that Murray Burnett ’31, a student with a penchant for writing plays, would actually produce the play Everybody Comes to Ricks, upon which Casablanca is based?

While Cornell’s reputation on the screen may not always be the best, the crew — which is the backbone of many films — often counts an alumni as a member.

Christopher Reeve ’74, of Superman fame, and Jimmy Smits MFA ’82, formerly of NYPD Blue, are both quite famous. But, cult film actress, Mary Woronov, who left Cornell in 1965 to join Andy Warhol’s Factory (and never actually graduated) has a more extensive resume. She has acted in 73 films and made many notable television appearances.

But as you may have figured already, Cornell’s true place in movies is behind the scenes.

Two particularly notable film editors are Thelma Schoonmaker ’61, who has edited all of Martin Scorsese’s films, and Tim Squyres ’81, who has edited all of Ang Lee’s films and is nominated this year for a Best Editing Academy Award for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Another pair of alumni are screenwriters. Arthur Laurents ’37 wrote several screenplays, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, The Way We Were, and Gypsy. Currently teaching two sections of a narrative writing course, Richard Price ’71 penned the movies Shaft, Ransom, and adapted Clockers from the novel which he also wrote.

As heads of film distribution companies, Wendy Lidell ’77, vice-president of Winstar Cinema, a distributor of classic and new foreign films, and Jonathan Dolgen, the chairman of Viacom, Cornell alumni also shape what we audience watch.

I’d Like to Thank … Cornell

Students at Cornell can produce films independently of film courses through many methods. IFMAC and The Super-8 club hold joint meetings which introduce students to film equipment and editing. Throughout the year, student produce projects. Programs such as Aviate (see this weeks performance listings) showcase students’ work. Finally, a third option is to submit a screenplay to the annul Mel Shavelson ’37 Screenplay Contest (like staff writer Ed Howard ’03, who won) and have your film produced by the Theater Arts 493 class.

The film community is still alive and well at Cornell, Ithaca College, and within the Ithaca community. As always, Cornell Cinema is keeping the repertory theatre alive by producing outstanding film programs month after month, Besides getting one’s film education at the theatre, there are many opportunities for students to get hands on experience outside of the classroom.

Archived article by Diana Lind