Jane Fonda and campus unrest at the dawn of the 1960s

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Warner Archive has released a DVD-on-demand version of the 1960 comedy that gave Jane Fonda her first screen role — “Tall Story” — and while it by no means qualifies as a good movie, as a Hollywood and pop culture time capsule it’s fascinating.

Fonda plays June Ryder, a freshman who has enrolled at Custer College for only one reason — to seduce and marry basketball star Ray Blent (Anthony Perkins).

In the opening scene June explains to two of Ray’s professors — played by Ray Walston and Marc Connelly — that she is a home ec major, but wants to enroll in their very challenging science and ethics courses simply to be near Ray.

When the profs ask June why she is in college if she isn’t really interested in studying, she tells them, “I’m in college for the same reason every girl goes to college — if she’s honest — to get married.”

“Tall Story” was directed by Joshua Logan who did some of the prestige films of the 1950s — “Picnic” and “South Pacific” among them.

According to a few film scholars, the director took on this second tier assignment largely as a favor — to launch the screen career of the daughter of his old pal Henry Fonda.

The movie has the look of a rather low-budget affair — shot in black-and-white in generic Southern California settings.

And while the movie was based on a fairly recent Broadway hit by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, “Tall Story” looks and sounds like a campus tale that might have been sitting in a drawer at Warner Bros. since the 1930s. The students sing as they carry conquering hero Ray around campus and while they don’t wear raccoon coats, we do see one group of campus cut-ups exiting a Model T that pulls up at a pep rally.

The star casting is the real fascination of “Tall Story” — watching Fonda in such a retrograde role and seeing Anthony Perkins in the film he made just before Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” changed his image, turning his career upside down (he went from being a teen heartthrob to being typecast as a wacko).

It’s fun to see some good actors in the supporting roles, including Anne Jackson and Murray Hamilton (the latter would be part of the cast of the revolutionary 1967 film “The Graduate”).

“Tall Story” also has some oddball delights, such as seeing Tom Laughlin show off considerable light comedy skills as an oversexed married college student. A decade later, Laughlin would become famous for scowling his way through the “Billy Jack” pictures.

“Tall Story” now is startling and amusing as a demonstration of the vast changes Hollywood and Jane Fonda would go through between 1960 and 1969 — by the end of the decade, Fonda would be an Oscar nominee for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and one of the most controversial political activists in the country.

Joe Meyers

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