Guggenheim film chronicles life at Washington University in early 1950s

In what is believed to be one of the earliest public works by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, Washington University in St. Louis has unearthed and digitized a slice of academia in the early 1950s called The Second Century.

Written and produced by Guggenheim as part of the university’s first major fundraising effort, the 30-minute film chronicles the attributes of not only Washington University, but also the merits of a university education — at the time.

Guggenheim documents university life, circa 1954, through the eyes of a young man, following his journey as he ponders his life as an academic and beyond beneath the archway of famed Brookings Hall.

Among the notable university figures who make appearances are future chancellor Thomas H. Eliot, a former Massachusetts congressman who was teaching political science at the time; a young Barry Commoner, years before his presidential run in 1980; and chemist Joseph W. Kennedy, a co-discover of plutonium, just three years before his untimely death at age 40.

Nobel Prize winners Arthur Holly Compton, Joseph Erlanger and Carl and Gerty Cori also appear, as does College Football Hall of Fame Coach Carl Snavely and three-term St. Louis Mayor Raymond Tucker. The voice of T.S. Eliot can be heard as he speaks in Graham Chapel for the University Community Centennial Lecture Series. Students huddle around loudspeakers set up outside for the lecture’s overflow.

The closing credits of The Second Century. (Credit: Washington University archives)

The Second Century is filled with much “gee-whiz” earnestness of the times, with students impeccably dressed, carting stacks of books at the waist and walking around a campus that looks a lot like today’s Washington University. Oak Allee, Francis Field and many of the buildings on the Danforth Campus can be seen.

The film even spends a few minutes on “night school” in the 1950s, and in one of the more prescient lines, states “many must come at night to find the light.”

To read more about the film, visit the Washington University Archives Bears Repeating blog post. The post also includes a link to a PDF with more information about the University Archives Second Century Convocation Collection.