Letter to the Editor: The Film Center’s Early Years

“Lights Up On The Future of Filmmaking,” from the 2021–2022 Winter Issue reminded me of the first years of film at Wesleyan, before there was a Film Center and there was only one lecturer, Jeanine Basinger, and a few eager students. The story of those early years and the contributions made by the classes of 1971 and 1972, has never been told.

In 1969, while working for American Educational Publishers, then owned by Wesleyan, Jeanine befriended Russell “Butch” Limbach, chair of the art department, who asked her to help put together a campus film series.

“I did it for fun,” she said. “They didn’t know how to book films, or even which films to select. They wanted the series for faculty, but I insisted that it be open to students.” Jeanine became a faculty advisor to the Student Events Committee and developed a campus-wide film series with Larry Mark ’71, a member of the committee, and later a Hollywood producer.

“I then begged her to do a senior tutorial on film criticism and history,” Larry said. Her first course in Fall 1969 was Hollywood and the Studio System. She later added Ford, Hawks, and Walsh; a course on the American musical; and one on Hitchcock. Films were screened in a small conference room on the first floor of the Davison Arts Center. “Jeanine was a brilliant academic and critic,” Larry said, “but what made her special was that she never lost her ability to be a film fan. To see movies with popcorn in her lap.”

“The students were energetic, intelligent, and inquisitive, with a deep commitment to film,” said Jeanine. “I took a pay cut to teach one course a semester at Wesleyan. I would never have stayed on if it hadn’t been for the students of the classes of 1971 and 1972, who made teaching so enjoyable, and Colin Campbell, whose support was important. But I stayed because of the students.”

Colin Campbell hired her full-time into the Art Department in 1975 as an associate professor and he supported her promotion to full professor in 1978-1979. Campbell said: “I supported her in the institution and one of the reasons for the film program’s early success was the support it got from faculty. Joe Reed was a remarkable intellect and her strong advocate, as were John Frazer, and Richard Slotkin.”

Slotkin said: “Joe Reed introduced me to Jeanine in 1968 or ’69. I was teaching a seminar for the new American Studies Program called ‘Myth and Ideology in American Popular Culture,’ and for the first time I was going to incorporate film in the class. We shared enthusiasm for Warner Bros films of 1930s-40s, for John Ford and Anthony Mann – the difference was that she knew how the films were made and why, whereas to me they were just films.”

Michael Carlson ’72 took the course that Jeanine taught with Slotkin on the Western. “It was a juxtaposition of styles that worked well. Slotkin brought an American studies approach to the movies that was formally academic, analytical, and with a sense of social history. Jeanine approached the movies with an inside view of film.”

One of Jeanine’s teaching gifts was her willingness to listen to students. Raffaele Donato ’72, a long-time collaborator of Martin Scorsese, recited a story. “I wrote a paper for her called “Marx Brothers and Surrealism,” in which I examined all the Marx Brothers’ films in terms of Andre Breton and the surrealist manifesto, and that quite ‘shocked’ Jeanine. She used to say that, after she saw Hitchcock’s Psycho she could never take a shower again alone in the house, and after she read my Marx Brothers paper she said she could never look at the Marx Brothers films the same way!”

Jeanine brought guests to her classes in those early years. Raoul Walsh came to Jeanine’s class on American Cinema. “He had a patch on his left eye,” Donato said. “The moment he walked into the classroom he pulled out his index fingers like two guns.”

The Class of ’72 continued to have an impact on the film program years later. The Wesleyan Board of Trustees had become aware of the large number of highly successful alumni in the film business. This happened at a time when Wesleyan launched a fundraising campaign and needed to establish areas of excellence that would attract donors.

I sat on Wesleyan’s Board with Stewart Reid ’72 and he was impressed by the outsized success of Wesleyan’s film graduates. I introduced Stewart to Jeanine and from that meeting, and others that followed, Stewart became a significant contributor to Phase One of the Film Center. His generosity was a catalyst for the many gifts that helped build the state-of-the-art center that was named in her honor. Stewart never took a film class but he recognized the importance of her work.

A big dinner held on the occasion of the opening of the Film Center’s Phase drew many of Jeanine’s former students, as well as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and John Waters, who sat at Jeanine’s table. Former students, many prominent in the industry, came up to congratulate Jeanine and to express their affection.

Scorsese turned to Eastwood and said, “I can’t believe we’re sitting here and they’re schmoozing her.”

Paul Vidich ’72, P’00, ’03
New York, NY