In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I look at college-set movies and check them for plausibility and accuracy, I’m going to dig into the 1983 Dan Aykroyd comedy, Doctor Detroit.
The plot of Doctor Detroit, according to IMDb, is as follows:
A timid college professor, conned into posing as a flamboyant pimp, finds himself enjoying his new occupation on the streets.
The director for Doctor Detroit was Michael Pressman, who also helmed The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, numerous episodes of shows like Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Blue Bloods, and Elementary, and even produced the creature feature Lake Placid, which I have covered previously here.
There were three credited writers for Doctor Detroit: Bruce Jay Friedman (Splash, The Heartbreak Kid), Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3D, The Jerk), and Robert Boris (Little Hercules in 3D, Oxford Blues).
The cast of Doctor Detroit is made up of Dan Aykroyd (Nothing But Trouble, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers), Howard Hesseman (WKRP In Cincinnati, About Schmidt), Donna Dixon (Spies Like Us, Nixon), T.K. Carter (The Thing, Domino), Lynn Whitfield (Head of State, Eve’s Bayou), Fran Drescher (The Nanny), Kate Murtagh (The Car), and George Furth (Blazing Saddles, Megaforce, The Cannonball Run).
The cinematographer for the film was King Baggot, who also shot such movies as The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, and The Hand.
The editor on Doctor Detroit was Christopher Greenbury, whose other credits include American Beauty, Kingpin, Wild Hogs, Loaded Weapon 1, Where The Buffalo Roam, and Bio-Dome, among others..
The music for the movie was provided by Lalo Schifrin, whose long history of film scores includes Cool Hand Luke, Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, Rush Hour 3, The Dead Pool, Class of 1984, The Amityville Horror, Dirty Harry, and Enter the Dragon.
Doctor Detroit served as a major career and personal mark for Dan Aykroyd: not only was it the first film he did after his comedy partner John Belushi’s death, but it was also his first top-billed role. On top of that, he also met his future wife on the production: Donna Dixon.
Doctor Detroit was made on an $8 million production budget, on which it took in just under $10.4 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This was a significant financial disappointment for a film that most of the cast and crew assumed would be a hit. The critical reception was equally unenthusiastic: currently, Doctor Detroit has an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 41% from audiences.
To put it mildly, Doctor Detroit is built on an outlandish foundation, and by design it relies on zany characters to propel its comedy. Unfortunately, from the eponymous Doctor Detroit on down, the characters aren’t strong enough or memorable enough to support the movie, and the writing doesn’t do anyone any favors. Jokes routinely fall flat, the acting is terribly forced, and would-be comedic moments are whiffed through a lack of timing or chemistry. As a movie, Doctor Detroit is a bit of a train wreck. However, what Doctor Detroit lacks in cinematic quality, it compensates for with a litany of characters and subplots in the sphere of higher education.
While Doctor Detroit is not strictly a movie about higher education, there are some interesting higher education issues and topics brought up throughout the story, given the lead character’s occupation as a professor, and the campus setting for much of the story.
To begin with, the very premise of Doctor Detroit brings up a key question: has there ever been an academic who lived a double-life as a pimp? Apparently, there has been, though it occurred many years after the release of Doctor Detroit: David C. Flory, a Physics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, was arrested in 2011 in Albuquerque, NM on 40 counts of promoting prostitution. Professor Flory had apparently been running a website called “Southwest Companions,” which was a social networking platform utilized by “1,400 sex workers and johns.” Ultimately, he was caught because he used his official university email address to start the website. According to the Albuquerque Police Department:
[Professor Flory] was not in this for the money. He flat-out told us his thing was he wanted to create a safe place for prostitutes and johns to get together. He called it a hobby.
While professors moonlighting as pimps is far from a common practice in the field, there is a growing convergence between academia and sex work. Many higher education institutions have increasingly relied on adjunct faculty, who are typically part-time faculty who are paid minimally, and are rarely afforded any of the benefits or luxuries of their tenure-track peers. According to a feature in The Guardian in September of 2017, ill-paid adjunct professors are increasingly turning to practices like sex work to supplement their income, just to make ends meet.
Another key element of the plot of the movie surrounds a financial crisis for the fictitious Monroe College, which is on the verge of closing within weeks, unless a significant donation is made by a notable alum. While the idea that a college can secretly come within days of closure for lack of finances may seem ridiculous, a similar situation happened not too long ago. After a loan was denied from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, St. Gregory’s University abruptly announced on November 8, 2017 that it would close at the end of the calendar year, giving faculty, staff, and students roughly 50 days of notice.
Speaking of the college featured in the film, the Monroe College that serves as the backdrop of Doctor Detroit is fictitious. However, there is a real Monroe College in New York, though the fictional one in the film is located in Chicago. Northwestern University and the University of Southern California were both used as filming locations to create Monroe College for the movie, though neither school completely fits the details we are told about Monroe College.
While there doesn’t seem to be a specific stand-in, we know from the film that Monroe College is located in an urban part of the Chicago metropolitan area, that it is a private college, that it is almost certainly residential, that it offers four-year degrees (and specifically has an English department), that it is not outwardly religious in nature, and that it is likely liberal arts focused. Also, given its financial situation, I think it is fair to assume that it is a pretty small institution with a minimal endowment. Using the Wikipedia list of colleges and universities in Chicago, I narrowed the list down to a handful of likely candidates to be the “real” Monroe College: Roosevelt University, East-West University, Lake Forest College, and Columbia College Chicago. Of those, I’d wager that Roosevelt University is the closest approximation, given it also boasts a Presidential name, and otherwise matches the descriptions of Monroe College.
At one point in the story, Dan Aykroyd’s Professor Skridlow refers to himself as a “Full Assistant Professor.” As far as I can tell, that title is nothing short of academic word salad. Typically, an Assistant Professor is the beginning rank for a tenure-track professor. Once an Assistant Professor receives tenure, their title usually becomes Associate Professor. The title of “Full Professor” is usually given to senior, already-tenured faculty, who go through an additional round of approvals from peers from both within and outside the institution. The idea of a “Full Assistant Professor” is absurd: the best I can figure, based on the character’s age, is that he is an Associate Professor who recently achieved tenure, graduating from his previous rank of Assistant Professor. My guess is that the screenwriters didn’t do their research, and weren’t sure what terminology to use in that situation.
Speaking of Professor Skridlow’s title, there is something to be said about his position and the historic proliferation of nepotism in higher education. As is shown throughout the film, Skridlow has a tenure-track position at the university where his father is the President, and he is shown as being given opportunities for advancement and notoriety (interaction with large donors, speaking at school functions) that are never offered to his peers. Nepotism, as it is defined by the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, is “favoritism…based on kinship.” In most fields, nepotism is strictly frowned upon, but in higher education, the practice has a complicated history. It is not unusual for married faculty to be hired together at universities, for instance, or for spouses of administrators to be given faculty positions. That isn’t even getting into the popular role of nepotism on student admissions, which is a whole different can of worms. All of that said, many universities are quick to say that they strictly avoid the practice, such as The University of Chicago:
Nepotism is favoritism in the workplace based on kinship and ordinarily consists of making employment decisions based on a family relationship. Nepotism is inconsistent with the University’s longstanding policy of making employment decisions based solely on unit needs and individual qualifications, skills, ability and performance.
However, there is no denying that the practice of nepotism is alive and well at many higher education institutions, and there are many who go to lengths to defend it. In a piece for Inside Higher Ed titled “Is Academic Nepotism A Good Thing?”, Jane Robbins writes:
Universities go to great lengths to put a positive spin on…[nepotism]…They assert that it helps them in recruiting, increases loyalty, and adds stability to the university
In Doctor Detroit, Professor Skidlow’s “Full Assistant Professor” position at Monroe College is inarguably the result of nepotism, whether he was qualified for the position or not. The fact that his father is a top administrator at the school creates a clear conflict of interest. There are numerous occasions where Skidlow fails to complete tasks or responsibilities, for which he should face dire consequences. However, he never does, implicitly because of nepotistic favoritism within the institution.
Overall, I think that Doctor Detroit has been rightfully overshadowed by other comedic works, and is justifiably relegated to a footnote in Dan Aykroyd’s film career. There is a seedling of an idea here, but it doesn’t develop into much, outside of an obnoxious accent and one-dimensional persona. For the most part, this is a movie that should be skipped over. The only exceptions to that are higher education dorks like myself, who might find some interesting elements in the background, or die-hard fans of the career of Dan Aykroyd. For anyone else, I recommend that you continue not knowing (or remembering) that this movie exists.