Tall Story: Jane Fonda’s Debut
January 24, 2012

Jane Fonda’s first movie, Tall Story, is an otherwise inconsequential college romance running a brief 90 minutes. In this debut, her voice is glorious and her face luminous, especially in the frequent closeups, with a big pouffy flip hairdo.

Tall Story

Fonda first sweeps into view on a madcap bicycle, running over two professors, and revealing that she’s majoring in home economics. She has the profs she’s smacked into compete for her elective course slot, subjects she’s chosen because basketball star Anthony Perkins is in those classes, and she’s come to school “for the same reason that every girl, if she’s honest with herself, comes to college: to get married!”

That quote is only the most obvious reminder that we’re watching a time capsule. I also found it insightful that she has to explain that a pom-pom girl is a “girl cheerleader” who wears a very short skirt. (Nowadays, we’d find specifying the sex redundant.) At least the school is integrated, based on the basketball team, which has one black player.

Anyway, she’s tall for a girl, or so we’re told, so she’s come to Custer College, known for its basketball, specifically to catch a taller boy. The whole thing feels very much like an Archie comic, set in a very small community where the girl students babysit for the professors. Perkins was said to be 6 foot 2 in real life, so he fits the role, but he’s not very convincing as an athlete. He does have gawky charm as a college boy, though.

The only other person in the film you’re likely to have heard of is Ray Walston as a blustery, self-important professor. He’s sporting a Van Dyke, thick-rimmed specs, and teaching modern ethics. You might recognize Murray Hamilton, the coach, though, when you see him — he was the mayor in Jaws. Reportedly, an uncredited Robert Redford is one of the other players, but I never spotted him.

Jane Fonda and Anthony Perkins in Tall Story

The jazzy theme song is sung by Bobby Darin. The film is black and white, which surprised me, but I guess they were still switching over in 1960. I found that a shame, just because I so enjoy seeing the fashion in these old films in all its glory. The stage play origins are visible, although the scenes have been opened up with different locations. The reaction shots are lengthy and the wisecracks telegraphed.

I can see how some of this was considered racy for the time, although what most surprised me was the locker room scene where Fonda is confronted with a naked player (not Perkins). One of the professors (Marc Connelly), visiting a colleague’s wife, asks if they have “time for a snort”. I haven’t heard that in decades! I was a little surprised when all the adults, knowing that she’s angling to snare him, thinks there’s nothing wrong with him joining her on her babysitting job alone in the house. The second half of the film turns into more of a sports story, as Perkins’ team is going to play some Russians in an exhibition game. There’s a bribery attempt and conflict over player eligibility.

The film has visible specks and lines at times, but the monochromatic tones are crisp. As with many of the more recent Warner Archive releases, there is also a trailer for the movie included. This one’s 3 minutes 42 seconds and features the director, Josh Logan, praising the “youth, beauty, and talent” of new discovery Jane Fonda.

This would make an excellent double bill with Where the Boys Are, also featuring 60s college girls, or for a more seasonal twist, pair it up with one of the beach party movies for an example of what the students did in the fall. You can see some images from the film online. (The studio provided a review copy.)

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