Friday, May 10, 2024

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The Affairs of Dobie Gillis,’ Showing How English Usage Has Changed in Academe)

[In the first class of his English course, freshman Dobie Gillis has said “Everyone has their,” only to be reprimanded by his professor that it should be “Everybody has his.”]

Dobie Gillis [played by Bobby Van, pictured with Debbie Reynolds]: “Gee, I don't know, sir. I think the way the people use a language is the right way and if the rule says no, then the rule ought to be changed.”

Professor Amos Pomfritt [played by Hans Conried]: “In the 25 years that I have devoted to this underpaid profession of teaching, I have heard many an asinine outburst but never one so asinine as yours. I can only assume that your recent passage through puberty has affected your mind, for you, sir, are a presumptuous driveler, a cretinous barbarian, a thick-tongued oaf, an ill-bred churl, and in the future, you will be good enough to keep your mindless opinions to yourself!”— The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), screenplay by Max Shulman, directed by Don Weis

Seven decades ago, when this musical was released, audiences would have looked at the accompanying picture of Bobby Van with Debbie Reynolds and smiled indulgently. No wonder poor Dobie couldn’t keep his mind on grammar! 

Professor Pomfritt was being hard indeed with that line about how “puberty has affected your mind.” A little remedial English—perhaps with an instructor whose looks wouldn’t distract Dobie—would be just what the young man needed to learn these rules.

Back in the Seventies, a debate opened up about the point of contention between Dobie and his prof. Edwin Newman, with his bestseller Strictly Speaking, could be counted on to take Pomfritt’s part, though there were others like linguist Geoffrey Nunberg who disagreed vehemently.

Nowadays, in many, many corners of academe—and a growing segment of the business world—it’s Professor Pomfritt and other grammar purists who would be in trouble. The prof could, in fact, trigger complaints by students who prefer gender-neutral pronouns.

The resulting academic board of inquiry might then charge him with being “an ill-bred churl” for showing insensitivity.

This is one of many examples of how films from the past might strike contemporary audiences in ways that its creators could never have remotely imagined.

If the movie is good enough—or, in the case of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, a harmless waste of a couple of hours—a viewer will just chuckle, without needing a “trigger warning” from the well-meaning.

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