“Princeton: A Search for Answers,” 1973

During a morning session of the President’s Conference in the early 1970s, a member of the student panel told the assembled alumni that she had come to Princeton “not to find a way of making a living, but instead to find a way of making a life.” Filmmakers Julian Krainin and DeWitt Sage used this statement in their proposal in 1972 for a new recruitment film for Princeton University. “It seems that it should be the responsibility of a great university not so much to answer the question of how to “make a life,” but to present the student with at least the tools and courage with which he or she might discover the answer.”

The resulting film Princeton: A Search for Answers won an Oscar  in 1974 for Documentary Short Subject. Film producer and director Joshua Logan ’31, who had started his stage writing and directing career in Princeton’s Triangle Club, was one of the first to see it. “I not only believe that it is a moving, funny, and stimulating account of a University I once knew but had almost forgotten,”  he wrote to his fellow members of the Academy. “It tells about the gleam that flits across the human mind and gives us all something to hope for, to live for. It makes the human race quite a bit more respectable then (sic) we have recently thought it to be.” The film which has recently been remastered (2013) is featured here.

In order to write the film treatment and script, Dewitt Sage spent several months on campus, attending classes and seminars, and talking with students, faculty and staff. Once the film treatment was approved, Julian Krainin took over to supervise the actual camera work. During 1972 and early 1973 fourteen and a half hours of 16mm color footage was shot for the thirty minute film. The outtakes are kept in the University Archives. To accompany the film, the Office of Communications produced a handsome brochure with quotes and information about the faculty featured (see SearchForAnswers.pdf).

As already suggested by the title, the film’s main emphasis is on education, scholarship, and student-instructor relations. The film includes footage of tutorials and lectures by physics professor and Dean of the Faculty Aaron Lemonick (1:50, 9:11), and professors Edward Cone (Music, 3:01, 29:48), John Wheeler (Physics 7:05), Daniel Seltzer (English, 12:39), and Ann Douglas Wood (English, 25:02). Wheeler is filmed during a lecture about the implications of black holes (he is credited with coining the phrase in 1967), while Dan Seltzer teaches a Shakespeare acting class and lectures about Henry IV (Part 2). Additional footage features Princeton president William Bowen during a question and answer session with alumni and undergraduates (9:55, 26:11, 27:49) and the work of two graduate students: Niall O’Murchadha (Physics, 5:10, 26:51) and Maury Wolfe (Architecture, 16:11).

Produced only a few years after the introduction of co-education in 1969, at a time when diversification of the student body was a priority for Princeton, women and African American students feature prominently in campus scenes (9:40, 20:56, 24:36) and in the class rooms. There is little emphasis in the film on extracurricular activities. In addition to footage of the Glee Club singing Bach in Alexander Hall (directed by Professor of Music Walter Nollner, 17:47), sport scenes are limited to marathon running and rowing (23:25). Additional footage includes students sharing their views of Princeton in a pub (19:45, the legal drinking age was still eighteen!) Some historical photographs and footage is shown at 22:27, including a fragment of a chemistry lecture by the famous Hubert Alyea (previously featured) and the Triangle Club.

Prior to winning the Oscar in 1974, Princeton: A Search for Answers had already won awards or citations at the International Film Festival in Florence and in the Atlanta International Film Festival, the Columbus Film Festival and from the Information Film Producers of America. After winning the Oscar it appeared on Channel 13  in the New York area, with a favored “black spot” billing in the TV schedule of the New York Times. Not everybody was in favor of the film, however. “The movie doesn’t focus enough on students. It narrowly emphasizes the strictly academic aspect of Princeton–the classroom experience, the faculty. It also concentrates too heavily on the science-technology fields. In all these ways, the movie presents a distorted view of Princeton,” wrote the Daily Princetonian. Admission officers experienced a problem with this too: when showing the film to students at secondary schools, they found that students were often over-awed and “left feeling they might not measure up to Princeton’s standards.” For this reason officers chose to show the film, which was used throughout the 1970s, only at the end of a general presentation about Princeton.

It is interesting to compare the recruitment film with the staged Orange Key Society film, made for prospective students in 1962 (before the revolutionary years that changed the face of the campus dramatically) and the 1991 recruitment film Princeton University: Conversations that Matter.  The latter film, which also focused on scholarship and the dialogue between students and faculty, followed a similar format, opening and closing with a music professor, and including a fiery class about Shakespeare. Princeton: A Search for Answers, had set a new standard.

This 16mm film is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (item no. 1466).

One thought on ““Princeton: A Search for Answers,” 1973

  1. >>pub (19:45, the legal drinking age was still eighteen!)

    Not “was still” but “had recently become”. In fact, the pub was new.

    The drinking age in NJ was lowered while I was an undergrad, along with that in many other states in the wake of the 26th Amendment which lowered the voting age. In 1984, the age was raised back to 21 by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

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