Our Top 5 Graduation Movies

By Maureen Lenker

As the days wind from spring into summer and we head towards memorial day, for many it means one thing -- graduation season. From early May when many colleges have their graduation ceremonies into June when high schools often wrap up the end of their school year, students across the world are graduating. Whether they’re going on to college or into the workforce or merely the unknown, it’s a time filled with a mixed array of feelings -- celebration, confusion, ennui, and perhaps even loneliness or isolation.

Hollywood movie-makers have been capturing graduation themes onscreen since its early days -- sometimes depicting them as momentous events of celebration and other times as a turning point in a character’s maturation. Though arguably, some of the most memorable “graduation” scenes have come in films post-1980 (Night Owl TV’s current cut-off date for what we define as “classic”), there are still plenty of great films that deal with graduation or at least feature memorable graduation moments. Here are our top 5...

 

5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

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This adaptation of Betty Smith’s 1943 novel marked legendary director Elia Kazan’s film debut. The story-line follows the coming-of-age of Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), a second-generation Irish American living in Brooklyn. Francie’s family struggles to get by with their alcoholic but loving patriarch, Johnny.

School and learning are central to Francie’s development with her reading Shakespeare aloud to her family every night and persuading her mother and father to lie about their address to send her to a nicer school. Francie reels with grief when her doting father catches pneumonia in a snow storm while looking for work and dies.  

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For Francie, her graduation day is filled with mixed feelings (her father had gone out in the snow to hunt for work to ensure she could stay in school), but ultimately it marks a new beginning for her. The actual graduation scene itself is quite emotional with Francie crying over flowers and a card from her deceased father. However, the event puts Francie on a new trajectory of hope and the promise that life can start fresh and be even better than it was for her parents.

 

4. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

A pseudo-sequel to Bing Crosby’s Oscar-winning Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s pairs the crooner with Ingrid Bergman as a dedicated nun who butts heads with him. Crosby and Bergman work to save their crumbling parish school despite their own rivalry. Graduation plays a central role in the film with the issue of whether to promote eighth grader Patsy (Joan Carroll), a student the school had taken in while her mother struggles to get back on her feet. Patsy’s success and triumph on her graduation day combined with her mother’s appearance make for an emotional and memorable scene.

The film was actually written prior to Going My Way, but it was produced by a different studio at a later date.  The Bells of St. Mary’s became the first “sequel” nominated for an Oscar. The role of a kind-hearted nun lent Bergman an air of saintliness that she would later cement as Joan of Arc.  It was this aspect of her public image that would work against her when she became pregnant in an extra-marital affair with Roberto Rossellini.

 

3. Grease (1978)

The film is constructed around the main characters’ senior year of high school. The story centers on adolescent cliques (the Thunderbirds and Pink Ladies) and their determination to make their mark and have one last hurrah before going off into the world.

Grease has become one of the most iconic representations of American high school, although its leading cast were well past the age of high schoolers (Stockard Channing was 33). While the film chronicles their entire year, their graduation and the senior carnival provide for a thrilling conclusion that makes all high school graduations pale in comparison. A Ferris wheel, other amusement park rides, cotton candy, and the infectious fun that jumps off the screen in the final two musical numbers (You’re the One that I Want, and We Go Together) make for a rousing finale that continues to be the envy of high-schoolers to this day.

The film’s themes that high school friendships and romance will endure past graduation are hopeful expressions of joy that still hit home for those who rightly fear that everything will change after high school.

 

2. American Graffiti (1973)

This slice of 1950’s teenage Americana put George Lucas on the map as a young director several years before Star Wars (and marks Lucas’ first collaboration with Harrison Ford). The film’s extensive licensing budget for the forty-five classic rock ’n’ roll songs it features caused many studios to pass on what was meant to be a low-budget independent feature about American youth. It ended up becoming a classic and launching a 1970s obsession with the 1950’s cemented by Ron Howard’s transition from this film to a leading role on the sitcom Happy Days.

Set in the course of one night, the last night of summer and night before a group of teenagers go off to college, the film tracks familiar graduation themes -- a sense of loss, fear of the unknown, and the terror that once you leave town, graduate, etc. nothing will ever be the same. With its mix of rock music and its look at the teenage psyche in the wake of graduation, the film became a classic of the genre and a crucial step in examining American youth culture.

 

1. The Graduate (1967)

The ultimate graduation film -- no movie, before or since, has so masterfully captured the ennui, terror, and confusion of being a graduate. Graduation is meant to be celebratory, a massive achievement, but for 90% of the population that graduate college (or high school) it is also a time of deep uncertainty, isolation, and bittersweet realizations. Mike Nichols and Buck Henry capture this sensation perfectly, from the film’s pitch perfect opening party to the main character’s (Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman) general sense of malaise and isolation. Benjamin turns to an affair with a married woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) in his quest to find connection and meaning after college. He then pins his hopes on her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) when he develops a bond with her.

In turn, Mrs. Robinson represents Benjamin’s greatest fear -- a woman who has bargained away her life for security and hidden her true self to meet the expectations of society. Hoffman imbues Benjamin with the perfect mix of underdog awkwardness and genuine sex appeal, while Simon and Garfunkel provide an unforgettable score that highlights Benjamin’s disillusionment and sense of swimming in waters out of his depth to a tee.

If you’re celebrating a loved one’s graduation or just enjoying the season, these are all great classic reflections on this unique rite of passage.


Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.

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