Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House, so I popped my DVD into the machine and watched it for the umpteenth time. It is one of my favorite comedies of all time, and is one of the biggest earning films, based on ratio of cost to box office, in history. Though it is regarded as a raunchy, gross-out comedy, it is steeped in the traditions of movie comedy, going all the way back to the silent days, and has one of the great comedic performances of all time, by John Belushi.
The film was the first to come out of National Lampoon, the sophomoric yet hysterically funny humor magazine that flourished during the 1970s. It published many stories by Chris Miller about his fraternity days at Dartmouth. Along with Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney, a screenplay was fashioned. John Landis, who had directed Kentucky Fried Movie, was at the helm.
The story, for the very young or the very secluded, is the age-old battle between the cool kids and the snobs. Delta House, a decrepit frat full of guys who just want to have fun, are scorned by the evil Dean Wormer (a wonderful John Vernon) and the Omegas, young Republicans and sadists. When the Deltas are kicked out of school, they exact revenge in a “futile and stupid gesture” that wreaks havoc on the homecoming parade.
Little could have been expected of this film. Belushi had never made a movie, but was famous to young people for Saturday Night Live. Other SNL cast members turned down roles: Chevy Chase as Otter (Tim Matheson), Bill Murray as Boon (Peter Riegert), and Dan Aykroyd as D-Day (Bruce McGill). The only other big name in the film was Donald Sutherland, who actually got the film made. He took the standard day rate, turning down points on the film. He estimates it cost him 14 million dollars.
I was just the right age for this when it opened, seventeen (somehow I actually saw it with my mom). When I was a freshman in college the school film society played it, and a bunch of us went, reminiscing about the first time we saw it (just over a year ago). I went to a school that didn’t have fraternities, but like Larry and Kent (Tom Hulce and Steven Furst), I would have enjoyed the easy camaraderie of the Deltas (though I never drank that much).
Reading reactions to the film, it was described as anarchic, but it was anything but. Animal House had a very traditional style of comedy. Much of it was visual, with slapstick like the killing of the horse, or Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf) being dragged by said horse, or Chip (Kevin Bacon) being literally flattened by an onrushing mob. But there is also a great deal of verbal comedy, as it is one of the most quotable films of the era: “Drunk, fat and stupid is no way to go through life,” “They took the fucking bar!” “This is great!” and Belushi’s epic speech, which includes, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”
The writers of the film, who grew up during the fifties and surely had seen their share of old comedy films, learned from the masters. We have many instances of gags that would have been right at home in Laurel and Hardy or Hope and Crosby pictures: the rule of three, when Hulce throws a pebble against his girl’s window. Getting no reaction, he throws one a little harder. Still no reaction, so he throws a rock hard, shattering a window. Or the scene in which everyone is checking their synchronized watches, finally getting to Belushi, who has a completely different time. Or just a simple thing such as Mrs. Wormer (Verna Bloom), in the arms of Matheson, kicking off her shoe and breaking glass.
To speak of Belushi, in this viewing I realized how much he is to the film, though he is not the major character. He would have made a great silent film actor. The way he pretends he’s a spy when they’re about to put the horse in the dean’s office, or the face he makes trying to cheer Hurst up after his brother’s car is wrecked, or his breaking of the fourth wall when he looks back at us and smiles while he’s peeping on co-eds undressing. But he also has great verbal dexterity, such as the scene in which, after he has destroyed the folk singer’s guitar, he offers a meek “Sorry.”
Animal House has given many things to the world, such as “Food Fight,” “Toga Party,” and “Road Trip.” The performance of “Shout” by Otis Day and the Knights is one of the great musical scenes ever put on film. Elmer Bernstein’s score, which was serious in nature, turns out to be perfectly used, no more so than when it plays over the chaotic end of the parade. Some scenes were pretty edgy, and may not be made today: At the African American bar, when Hulce asks the girl what she’s studying, an she says “Primitive cultures,” and there’s a cut to Otis (DeWayne Jessie). In fact, that whole scene, with the open implication that white people are afraid when they are surrounded by black people, was pretty daring. Another is when Hulce finds out the girl he as had sex with is thirteen.
Though it’s called a “gross-out film,” it pales to later films, like the American Pie series. The only vomit scene contains no vomit, just a reaction (“Let’s face it, Kent. You threw up on Dean Wormer”). There are no masturbation jokes, no semen references, no accidental ingestion of urine (Belushi does piss on Hulce and Hurst’s shoes). Aside from a few naked boobs and some f-bombs, the film seems rather tame today.
Animal House’s success was often copied but never equaled. It stands up these forty years later, and points out how sad it was that Belushi’s life was snuffed out by over-indulgence.