The National Film Preservation Foundation recently awarded the Washington University Libraries a 2023 Basic Preservation Grant. The $3,513 grant will pay for the photochemical preservation of a 1963 short film produced on the Washington University campus, titled Once Upon a Hill…There was a School! This film is part of a collection in University Archives.
WashU’s Radio, Television, and Film Office, under the direction of Richard Hartzell, hired Canadian filmmaker and actor Martin Lavut to direct the short film. But it’s not a promotional puff piece about the university. Lavut was in town as a member of the famed Compass Players, the early improv comedy troupe that was a precursor to The Second City. In designing the film, Lavut combined the cutting social satire of the Compass Players with the new style of observational documentary filmmaking that was coming out of Canada at the time. Though the finished version was significantly different than the original script, Lavut wrote the film’s treatment with Carl Gottlieb, who went on to co-write Jaws and The Jerk.
The short film follows students throughout their day as they wake up in their dorms, flirt over breakfast at a raucous cafeteria, are excited and confounded by a professor’s lecture, study in the new Olin library, and engage in student activities like judo. It is equal parts a subjective view of the exhilarating experience of campus life from the students’ vantage point and a clinical outsider analysis of the average American college student.
There is no dialogue in the film or a clear narrative. Instead, the emotional tenor of a scene is communicated through the piano music played by Billy Sleator and Lavut’s raw but daring cinematic flair that combined extreme, abstracted close-ups and wildly careening camera movements, with additional photography by Ed Menges, a student in WashU’s Daytime Adult Studies Program.
The film is a curiosity. But that’s what gives it its staying power sixty years later. On the one hand, it’s a quirky document of how college kids behaved in the early 1960s just before Beatlemania and the rise of the counterculture. You can definitely enjoy it for its fun look at the WashU campus in 1963. On the other, the film asks an important question about how successfully students’ daily college experience realized the learning mission of higher education. That’s a question worth asking in 2023 as universities face a compounding variety of political and economic challenges.
Once Upon a Hill is one of many films from the 1950s and 1960s in the collection, Washington University Radio and Television Office Records. The office planned, developed, and produced radio, television, and film programs for Washington University between 1952 and 1965. It was involved in the establishment of St. Louis’s public television station, KETC.
The National Film Preservation Foundation is an independent nonprofit supported by federal funds and is devoted to saving America’s film heritage. The grant pays for the creation of new photochemical preservation elements and projection prints. While the grant-supported films are digitized and will be available digitally, the NFPF, as well as WashU Libraries, work to preserve the technology of the film medium as much as a film’s content. The complete list of 2023 grant winners can be found on the National Film Preservation Foundation 2023 Federal Grant Winners page.