Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Mother Is a Freshman’ (1949): Lighthearted Film Endorses Higher Education

July 21, 2020 Updated: July 21, 2020

| Comedy | March 12, 1949 (USA)

During trying times, escaping into films of the less-troubled past can be a relief—especially if the movies are lighthearted, and even more so if the Old Hollywood films are in color. However, in the 1930s through the ’50s, expensive Technicolor was usually reserved for musicals, costume pieces, or dramas, so very few nonmusical romantic comedies were made in color. A rare exception is “Mother Is a Freshman” from 1949, starring Loretta Young, Van Johnson, and Rudy Vallee.

Widow Abigail Abbott (Young) learns that she doesn’t have enough money to send her daughter, Susan (Betty Lynn), to her second year at Pointer College. Her lawyer, John Heaslip (Vallee), suggests marrying him to solve her financial problems, but Abigail has another plan. Her grandmother created a scholarship at Pointer that can only be used by her descendants named Abigail Fortitude. Since Fortitude is Abby’s maiden name, she enrolls at Pointer as a freshman to collect the $3,000 scholarship, which will sustain her and Susan until funds are available in February.

Loretta Young
A 1940s publicity portrait of actress Loretta Young. (Public Domain)

Abby adapts to college life while studying, wearing youthful clothing and treating fellow students like peers instead of children. With her motherhood secret, the beautiful 35-year-old is popular at Pointer. She decides to major in English literature because Susan claims to love Professor Richard Michaels (Johnson). She quickly realizes that her daughter’s romantic feelings are unrequited by the handsome 35-year-old professor, whom every female student idolizes.

Complications ensue when Professor Michaels falls for the mature freshman and she for him. While Abby worries about breaking Susan’s heart, she grows to appreciate education.

Mother is a Freshman-Van Johnson and Loretta Young
Van Johnson plays a professor and Loretta Young a student on scholarship. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Peace and Decency

Although considered a simpler time, Hollywood’s Golden Era (1930s–’50s) contained many turbulent events for America, including the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, World War II (1941–45), and the Korean War (1950–1953). Despite these trials, this era was a golden age because of America’s morality and decency.

After World War II, the United States enjoyed a peaceful period during the late 1940s, which produced many lighthearted romantic comedies, including “Mother Is a Freshman.” It depicts a very wholesome college campus. There are normal conflicts, such as love triangles and students’ infatuations with a professor, but all the main characters behave decently.

Mother is a Freshman-woman talking to men
The widow Abigail Fortitude Abbott (Loretta Young) finds herself the center of attention by John Heaslip (Rudy Vallee, L) and Professor Richard Michaels (Van Johnson), in “Mother Is a Freshman.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

The wholesomeness of this and other classic movies was not accidental but the result of careful self-regulation, which American films received from the Production Code Administration (PCA) from 1934 to 1954 under Joseph I. Breen’s leadership. The PCA reviewed films throughout production to ensure their compliance with the Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood’s moral guidelines. Since films were made decently in the first place, post-production censorship was unnecessary. By 1949, wholesome content was ingrained in Hollywood.

Some refer to Code films’ depiction of society as romanticized. Instead, I consider their depiction an ideal we should aspire to. Especially now, it is so uplifting to see a world full of decent, polite, and fashionable people. Although I’m sure the 1940s were not quite as glamorous and glorious as classic movies suggest, films of the time were meant to be escapes into a better world. Instead of depicting humanity’s worst, Code films often depicted the best, inspiring people to attain this standard themselves.

Education at Any Age

One would imagine that in 1949, most college students were 18 to 22. However, many students in this film are different ages. Numerous older-looking male students are more than a Hollywood oversight. They are supposed to represent former GIs getting college degrees after serving in World War II. The dialogue mentions GI education.

When Abby first enrolls, she tells Dean Gillingham (Griff Barnett) that her mother, who was also named Abigail Fortitude, didn’t use the family scholarship because she married at 17 and soon had her daughter instead of going to college. The dean replies, “Having a baby would scarcely have kept her from matriculating today. … With all our GI families, we all but have a maternity ward in the students’ hospital and a nursery in the gym.” Add Abby, a freshman at 35, and Susan, a sophomore at 17, and you really have a diverse age group.

Mother is a Freshman-taking to the dean
Dean Gillingham (Griff Barnett) talks to a prospective college freshman (Loretta Young), in “Mother Is a Freshman.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Although this film’s heroine doesn’t go to college for an education, it shows the importance of learning. Dean Gillingham tells Abby that the focus of college has shifted away from sports:

“College has changed much since my days as a student, and, I must say, for the better. It seems our students want an education today more than a good football team. And that is the primary purpose of any school.”

Having guessed her secret of being Susan’s mother, he adds that he is thus glad to see a parent like Mrs. Abbott at Pointer. “What’s the good of educating the children, I’ve always said, if we don’t educate the parents, too?” This presents the wise idea that education should not be limited by age and school years. Learning should continue throughout one’s life.

A Glimpse of the Past

If you are a romantic comedy fan who wants to explore Hollywood’s Golden Era, I suggest “Mother Is a Freshman.” Although some films are recommendable as introductory old movies to watch because they don’t seem too “vintage,” I recommend this film precisely because it is so old-fashioned. It is a filmographic tour of 1949. The clothing is so classic, flattering, and fashionable that Kay Nelson’s designs were nominated for Best Color Costume Design at the Academy Awards. The students use charming 1940s slang, which you will learn to understand throughout the film just as Abby does. The swing background music will delight any big band fan.

In our era of mostly R-rated entertainment, rejuvenate yourself by escaping to the Code years, when every Hollywood movie was more wholesome than modern G-rated films. Rather than catering to children, Code movies were appropriate for all ages yet serious and mature. Enjoy this Code film and thousands of others as wonderful entertainment for the present and, perhaps, an example of the hope for Hollywood’s future.

Epoch Times Photo
Van Johnson with a bust of himself, 1946. (Public Domain)

‘Mother Is a Freshman’
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Starring: Loretta Young, Van Johnson, Rudy Vallee, Betty Lynn, Robert Arthur
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Released: March 12, 1949 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.