This little film from 1975 is a weird one.
Return to Campus aired on TCM last night. I DVR’d it because, just judging from the title, I assumed that it was either going to be a raunchy comedy from Crown International Pictures or it was going to be some sort of ultra low-budget slasher that I could potentially review for October. Instead, it turned out to be an odd little vanity project about a 55 year-old college football player.
Hal Norman (played by an actor named Earl Keyes, who basically looked like an old school driving instructor) is a semi-retired aviation engineer who is obsessed with football. Back in 1939, he was a college football star but then World War II intervened and he ended up not only giving up his athletic career but dropping out of college as well. He’s gone on to make a good life for himself but he’s still haunted by questions of what could have been. Being at “odds and ends,” he decides to re-enroll at Ohio State. Not only will he be finishing up his senior year but he’s also determined to try out for the football team! Hal wants to kick field goals.
A 55 year-old kicking field goals!? Impossible, you say? Well, not if you’re willing to cheat. Apparently, Hal has invited some sort of spring that, when he puts it into his shoe, allows him to kick a field goal from 80 yards away. There’s four separate scenes in which Hal tells another character that there’s nothing in the rules books that says that he can’t use a special spring when he does his kicks. Since I don’t know much about football, I’ll take his word on that but still, it all seems a little bit unethical. I mean, think about it. You’ve got actual athletes out there, risking injury and depending on their own carefully developed natural talents. And then you’ve got some jackass having a midlife crisis overshadowing them because he’s found a loophole in the rules. (I kept waiting for someone to point out that obvious, which is that the only reason the rules don’t mention the spring is because no one but Hal knows that it exists.) It may not be illegal but it’s hard not to notice that Hal is very careful not to tell too many people about his magic spring.
(And really, it seems like if Hal was smart, he would patent his magic spring and make a fortune instead of using it to humiliate a bunch of college students.)
Anyway, the strange thing about Return to Campus is that very little actually happens in the movie. Hal goes back to college. Hal kicks a lot of field goals. Hal starts dating his English professor. Hal moves into the dorms and get a roommate named …. I kid you not …. Pighead. (Even the dean of students calls him “Pighead.”) You would think that, with a name like Pighead, he’d be some sort of wild party guy but instead, he’s just kind of dorky. Pighead’s girlfriend, Joyce, gets angry at Hal and tries to steal his magic kicking shoes. It leads to a extremely leisurely car chase, during which a pizza deliveryman nearly gets run over and loses all of his pizzas. “Mamma Mia!” he shouts. Everything plays out at a very leisurely pace. You never have any doubt about whether everything’s going to work out in the end because it’s just that type of movie.
Return to Campus was filmed in the 70s but there’s not a hint of drugs or campus dissension to be found in the film. Instead, it’s kind of like a kid’s film for old people. Most of the dialogue probably would have seemed old-fashioned in the 50s. For instance, when Hal is told that he has a meeting with a referee to discuss his kicking shoe, his girlfriend offers to go with him for support. Hal tells her no because this is a discussion meant for men. And his girlfriend — an English lit professor! — smiles and nods as if that’s the most sensible thing that she’s ever heard.
As I said, it’s a strange film and it was obviously very much an amateur production. In fact, it was so weird that I actually did some research after I watched the movie and I discovered that Harold Cornsweet (who wrote, directed, and produced the film) was an actor who appeared in a few small roles before returning to his hometown of Cleveland and making this film. He also actually was a kicker at Ohio State in 1939 so it seems probable that there’s a heavy element of wish-fulfillment in this film. In fact, that’s one reason why I can’t be too critical of Return to Campus. As inept as the film may be, it’s also an obvious labor of love. According to the information that I found online, Cornsweet died just two years after this film was released so it’s actually kind of sweet that he got to film a love letter to both his college and his sport before he went.
Return to Campus is incredibly inept and it possibly made me even less interested in football than I was before I watched it but I can’t help myself. I just have a soft spot for these amateur productions.