Interpreting Broderick's Poem in "The Freshman"

I think "A Doorway on Boylston Street" is a poem worth analyzing, a doorway worth entering.

Brando visiting Broderick in his college dorm room

In this touching scene in The Freshman, Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) faithfully recites from memory the following lines after Don Sabatini (Marlon Brando) asks Clark to "tell" him one of his deceased father's poems:
A Doorway on Boylston Street
There's a certain doorway on Boylston Street
that I passed by on foot, suited and shod,
one of many each Tuesday,
toward lunch with a certain woman,
regarded each Tuesday by the perfect turning gaze of a white Persian,
regarding me, love-bound and sped by desire,
and returning to the certainty of his fur.

Since this poem was written by writer/director Andrew Bergman specifically for this scene (hence no author credit appears), we can assume that it has some deeper meaning So I'd like to offer my interpretations of the emotional symbolism of the animals featured here: the cat in this poem ("the white Persian"), the komodo dragon (a major character in the whole film), and the monkey Curious George (who also comes up in this scene).

The Cat = Brando
The cat in the poem is regal, self-assured, and a careful observer of human social interactionsjust like Don Sabatini in The Freshman and Don Corleone in The Godfather. Not only is Don Sabatini astute in guessing that the poem referred to a cat, but exactly at the point when Clark recites the line about the "perfect turning gaze of a white Persian," the camera zooms in on Don Sabatini and shows his eyes focusing intensely on Clark and his head titling slightly to the side.

Given that the cat stands symbolically for Sabatini, the poem creates a major turning point in the film: it gives Clark permission to accept Don Sabatini as a father, since it shows that Clark's biological father would have admired and approved of Sabatini, just as he celebrated the cat in the poemThis shift is smoothed over by Don Sabatini's respectful, delicate approach. He frames this exchange as a bedtime story, and he tenderly tells Clark how glad he is that he remembers his father's poetry.

This exquisite scene lays bare the emotional core of The Freshman: the son's search for the missing father. The same emotional core underlies The Godfather, notwithstanding its bloody horse head and lack of poetry recitals.

In You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan asks Tom Hanks, "What is it with men and The Godfather?" The father-son poetry exchange in The Freshman answers that question as well as anyone ever has.

Speaking of The Godfather, there's another, more speculative way to interpret the cat...

The Cat = the Cat in The Godfather, as well as Clark and the Komodo Dragon in The Freshman.
It's hard to think of Brando without thinking of this famous image of him holding a cat in the first scene of The Godfather:

(This image of Don Corleone and the cat appears on posters and movie boxes of The Godfather)
Even while he's besieged with requests on his daughter's wedding day, Don Corleone is so masterful and nurturing that he keeps this cat purring, like his clients. As many fans knowfrom reading Godfather trivia websites and books, even the movie's Wikipedia pagedirector Francis Ford Coppola found this stray cat wandering around the studio while shooting this scene and he put it in Marlon Brando's hands, knowing how much he loved both animals and theatrical improvising. Coppola says on the DVD "Director's Commentary" that Brando "immediately took to the cat and the cat took to him, and it just became part of the scene, not at all planned, just a random idea." This well-known fact Brando delivered one of the greatest scenes in film history while effortlessly petting an untrained, stray cathas only added to Don Corleone's luster and association with cats.

The cat in Clark's father's poem plays off this famous image, but the difference is that the Don's regal, masterful nature is symbolized in The Godfather by the way he toyed with a cat, as opposed to Don Sabatini's identification with the cat himself in The Freshman.

Then again, maybe that difference doesn't matter, and not just because distinctions between subject and object often blur in poetry, dreams, and other powerful emotional phenomena. The cat in the poem and the cat in The Godfather are also like the komodo dragon in The Freshman: all three are animals manipulated by the Don (Brando). Clark, too, like the komodo dragon in The Freshman and the cat in The Godfather, is being played with by the Don in the course of a "business" that mixes love, family, profit, and animals. In fact, Clark says Don Sabatini's plan for the Gourmet Club "involved using me and the lizard as bait," and inside the club just before the lizard is supposed to be killed, Clark says, "The lizard looked even more nervous than I was. We were in the same boat."

Clark and his roommate taking the komodo dragon to Larry London in New Jersey

 Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat

In this bedtime dorm scene, Sabatini also says his daughter Tina used to love hearing Curious George books at bedtime, and Clark says he thinks his father used to read him those stories, too.
There's deep animal-human symbolism at work here. Clarkwho just spent the afternoon trying to secretly follow Sabatini through the streets of Little Italy, and who has both the "FBI" and the "mafia" out to get himis like Curious George: a monkey who starts off innocently but quickly gets in over his head, tangled up in messes that spin out of control. 

Broderick following Brando through Little Italy
And Sabatini is the Man with the Yellow Hat: a kindly, powerful surrogate father, always forgiving of the little monkey's transgressions. Sabatini gets Clark to confess he followed him in the street, but then let's it go when Clark starts to apologize ("No, you don't have to explain," Sabatini says, as he pulls up a chair), the same way that Curious George always gets found out by the Man with the Yellow Hat, but never gets harshly punished by him. Like the Man with the Yellow Hat, Sabatini is even wearing a wide-brimmed hat when Clark follows him through Little Italy, and he's still wearing that hat when they talk in the dorm (see first photo). After recalling his "real father" reading him Curious George stories as a kid, Clark asks, "Who was the guy who used to take care of Curious George?" Sabatini raises his hands near his head to outline an imaginary, wide-brimmed hat, then answers, "Oh, you mean the Man with the Yellow Hat."
Don Sabatini outlining the large Yellow Hat

Clark is delighted and stunned by this answer ("the Man in the Yellow Hat...Jesus!"), only half grasping its extraordinary emotional significance. What he must be realizing, at some deep unconscious level, is that The Man with the Yellow Hat is his own father on two levels: his biological father who used to read him these stories, but also his new father, Sabatini, sitting right there at the foot of his bed, talking about Curious George, ready to forgive Clark and tuck him in for the night after he's gotten into a mess.

This little interchange about Curious George clinches the father-son union that the film has been driving toward. Clark can never turn back now. In the very next scene, after Professor Fleeber rhetorically asks the class, "In this there anything more important than loyalty?", Clark spontaneously answers under his breath, "No." He now understands that loyalty and love are everything. In the next couple scenes, Clark confesses everything to Sabatini and puts his life on the line for him at the Gourmet Club. He's all in, and will never leave his new father.

In fact, completing the father-son union, the cat in the poem could be both Broderick and Brando at the same time, in which case my two interpretationsthe cat as Don Sabatini/Corleone, the cat as komodo dragon/Clarkwould work together.

The Fleeber Factor

These twin interpretations make sense to me, but whenever I get this deeply immersed in analysis of a Hollywood comedy, I have to ask myself whether I'm turning into Professor Fleeber, who is so enthralled with mafia movies that he goes so far as to compare Karl Marx's Das Kapital, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and the Lake Tahoe scene from The Godfather, II. I take Professor Fleeber as a hilarious cautionary tale, a reminder not to get too carried away with my interpretations.
Professor Fleeber, unable to resist mouthing the dialogue to himself while his students watch The Godfather, II ("Senator, you can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing").
Nonetheless, if somebody wants to see my film interpretations as over-the-top in a Fleeberian way, that's fine. At least Fleeber tried to understand the social and emotional meaning of film without recycling cliches, unlike some scholars. And at least he actually liked the films he studied. If, like Fleeber, I'm going to lose myself within a world of mafia movies, I'm just glad this one has Brando, Curious George, and a dragon in it.

Broderick and Brando walking the komodo dragon together, just before the final credits roll.

Related Posts:
My defense of Professor Fleeber, including comparison with Shakespeare.

Post about two songs ("I Wanna Be Around" and "Mona Lisa") in The Freshman.

All posts about The Freshman and The Godfather

Links about "The Freshman":
2010 Interview with Matthew Broderick and Director Andrew Bergman. Contains gems like this: Laurence Olivier wanted to play Larry London.

DVD of The Freshman. Doesn't contain any special features, but the Spanish voice-over for Brando is fantastic. This actor masterfully captures in Spanish the nuances of Brando's voice and speech patterns. If anyone knows his name or what other films he dubbed, please let me know.

Roger Ebert's 1990 Review. Even when other film critics didn't get "The Freshman," Ebert called it right, as usual, from the very start. He wrote, "He [Brando] is doing a reprise here of his most popular character, Don Vito Corleone of 'The Godfather,' and he does it with such wit, discipline and seriousness that it's not a ripoff and it's not a cheap shot, it's a brilliant comic masterstroke."



Unknown said...

This page is so interesting and made me think. I looked it up because I remembered the poem, since also write poetry. I hadn't thought about interpreting it but since we are doing that, maybe I have a slightly adjusted interpretation. I agree about the contrast between Sabatini's being so sure of what he is doing, but the contrast is about the man in the poem's rushing toward a love he is obviously smitten by, and we all know how uncertain that is. I think the cat does represent Sabatini, and the man is Clark being rushed toward an uncertain fate (in the film) as well as a possible rendevous with Sabatini's daughter. The lost father, is indeed replaced by Sabatini as a father figure, especially is Clark ends up with his daughter.
And there is also, the contrast of his step father who Clark remarks should have been more of a father to him and trusting he may have trusted a real son. Thanks for making us think of the poem having a connection to the film,(other than the points in the scene).

Peter Wogan said...

Thanks for this very interesting response. What you’ve said really adds a lot by looking at the poem from Clark’s perspective, and I really like the way you emphasize Clark’s sense of uncertainty and being overwhelmed as he falls in love with both Sabatini and his daughter, Tina. That says a lot about both the poem and the film. Indeed, at this point in the film, Clark is at a crossroads: he’s told Sabatini and Tina he’s leaving them, yet he can’t quite commit to that decision (he considers running away or turning in Sabatini, but he can’t do either). He could have still gone either way when Sabatini arrives in his room, and Sabatini even tells him while in the room that it’s OK if he wants to leave the business, but, by the end of this scene, after the closeness it evokes, you can tell Sabatini has pulled Clark back to his side, even closer than before. You’re making me think about how important uncertainty is in the scene. As you have nicely spelled out, the poem alludes to the uncertainty of this new love (“love-bound and sped by desire”). And then Sabatini is there as the antidote, reassuring certainty. That is, after Clark finishes reciting the poem, Sabatini sort of mumbles/echoes the line about “the certainty of his fur.” (As you can tell, I really like this scene, but I have to say I really love that little touch: the way Sabatini lingers on and repeats the exact phrasing of the poem. As a poet, you know better than anyone that it all comes down to that—the exact wording.) So that further echo from Sabatini would also support your interesting interpretation. Thanks for the comment and further thoughts. Btw, this movie and poem must have really touched a nerve because this post has always gotten a lot of views, though, interestingly, not a lot of comments—so thanks for yours.