It's unreasonable to expect any movie to overcome the obstacles posed by a pretentious literary tone, so it's a wonder "Fraternity Row" generates the modest human interest it eventually does.
To make matters more difficult, the narration has a bad habit of returning to instruct the audience, as in this effusion, intoned by Cliff Robertson, representing the grown-up voice of one of the collegiate characters:
"I was a man of ideas. But I met a man of dreams, a high-bouncing, gold-hatted dreamer, riding his dreams like a flying carpet high above what my mind insisted was reality. The dream has stayed with me, rooming in my ideas as a ghost haunts a fortress, walking in my mind, calling me not to forget, and finding resolution in a past I can barely touch."
Producer-screenwriter Charles Gary Allison can thank his lucky stars that songwriter Don McLean surpasses even this with a theme called "If You Can Dream," ladled over the closing credits and distinguished by the year's most circumlocutory benediction: "If you can dream as dreamers do, then guard the deepest part of you . . . But do whatever you must do, if you can dream." Fortunately, there's a core of authentic remembrance and regret in the scenario that emerges in spite of the tenderizing embellishments. Gaucheries in a college setting seem less damaging than they might in other settings. If the content interests you, the movie's faults, obvious as they are, may seem forgivably superficial in the long run.
Set in the spring of 1954 at an apocryphal exclusive Eastern School called Summit College, the story recalls the circumstances that led to a fatal accident during a fraternity hazing ceremony. Although the ostensible locale is Erie, Pa., the movie was shot on the USC campus, mostly during the summer of 1975, and inspired by a tragic incident that occurred at a USC fraternity in 1959.
The movie evolved out of Allison's inability to find a producer willing to cooperate with his Ph. D. thesis, "the problems of a producer," when he returned to graduate school a few years ago. He transformed an abandoned short story into a screenplay and eventually supervised an independent production, drawing upon USC film students for the crew, fraternity and sorority members for the supporting roles and relatively unknown young actors in the leads.
The screenplay appears to have interested agents and studio executives from the beginning, and the finished film justifies that interest. At least three of the principal players - Greg Harrison as Zach, an idealistic pledge president at the prestigious fraternity Allison has chosen to call Gamma Nu Pit Nancy Morgan as his girl Jennifer, the most skeptical pledge at the equivalent sorority. Kappa Delta Alpha; and Scott Newman, the son of Paul Newman, as Chunk, the hearty, reactionary guardian of house traditions at GNP - make distinctive impressions in the course of "Fraternity Row." The movie was acquired for distribution by Paramount, which paid off the deferred salaries on a pro rata basis with its purchase price of $937,000.
"Fraternity Row" belongs to the tradition of stories like "The Sterile Cuckoo" and "A Separate Peace," which were turned into movies under the auspices of Paramount. The animating emotions are persistent guilt and regret, with the narrator feeling that he has failed or injured a good friend sometime in the past and trying to derive what consolation or wisdom he can from recalling the episode.
One presumes that Allison himself is the prototype for the liberal, ineffectual house president Rodger, played by Peter Fox, who loses his authority to Chunk shortly before the hazing session that results in the death of a pledge, who chokes on a piece of raw liver dropped into his mouth. Allison quit has fraternity in the wake of an identical fatality.
Allison acknowledges the jolly times and agreeable fellowship that typify GNP as much as snobbery and recklessness. In fact, the depiction of the accident is especially frightening because it suggests how difficult it may be to know when things have gone too far until something awful and irrevocable has happened.
Director Thomas J. Tobin, a 30-year-old graduate firm student at USC, handles this crucial episode admirably: One can appreciate the shock that must have attended the real-life incident, the feeling that nothing harmful could have happened in such goofy circumstances, that it must all be a ghastly but somehow correctable mistake.
Although the movie doesn't look in gauche tendencies, but he tries to be the least fashionable, the fact is that the current revival of fraternities has given it a curious topical interest. One can even imagine it having a salutary, cautionary influence on its likeliest audience, high school and college-age moviegoers. Allison may have his emotionally honest. The film isn't a hatchet job on the customs and ethics of frat members. It's a note of warning from someone who still feels nostalgic about the good times.