[28 April 2014]
Above: John Belushi as John Blutarsky in Animal House
Wherever the bar was set for ‘70s college parties, Animal House took that bar, broke it into kindling, and made a bonfire.
Perhaps the silver lining in the recent passing of comic actor/writer/director Harold Ramis is that he received a lot of much deserved praise and tributes. Not that Ramis was ever overlooked, exactly, but when your colleagues are John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield, you just tend to get outshone. Still, Ramis’ comic resume is as solid as anyone’s. Ever.
Ramis acted in some films, such as in Stripes and Ghostbusters, but he was a legendary director, e.g. Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Groundhog Day, and a writer, in all of the above and more. Perhaps Ramis’ crown jewel as a screenwriter was his work on arguably the funniest film ever made, National Lampoon’s Animal House, co-written with fellow National Lampoon magazine writers, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller.
Animal House (1978) is low, low-brow, guy humor at its best. It is both a stupidly funny movie but, like all good dumb comedy, done smartly. After all, National Lampoon was an offshoot of Harvard University’s humor publication, Harvard Lampoon, and Miller, himself, was an Ivy Leaguer (Dartmouth), as well. These guys were far from dumb, just highly subversive and bent on pushing the boundaries of crudity, all in the name of a good laugh.
Animal House was the loose story of the uppity, WASP elites of fictitious Faber College and the Omega House fraternity, versus the rebellious, party animal rejects of Delta House, and the Deltas ultimate triumph. The Delta House heroes were deranged and rather debased, but they were extremely likable and even warm. Belushi’s legendary character, “Bluto”, for example, was a directionless slob, and he did not even have that many lines, yet in the film he became your new best buddy, as well as a comic legend. Landis had described him as a cross between Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster. (Karp, 2006)
What Ramis and the Animal House team had was loads of talent, crazy personal stories, and Kenney’s clear vision of America in 1962, the film’s setting. At that time, the innocent feeling of the ‘50s was ending and the country was on the precipice of a missile crisis and enduring assassinations, Vietnam, Altamont, and Richard Nixon, but it was also on the edge of the Beatles and the Stones, free love and a counter cultural uprising. On the one hand were those with the grown up responsibilities and lifestyles, including waging war, mindless authoritarianism, arbitrary abuses of power, and bad music, i.e., the Omegas. On the other hand was Delta House and, well, fun.
The film is 109 minutes of ridiculous gags – and virtually everyone hits its mark, a dozen classic catch phrases and quotes (“Seven years of college down the drain,” “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”, etc., etc.), and half dozen or more classic scenes (a horse has a heart attack, the performance of “Shout”, etc.). Further, I would put it to you, Greg…er, reader, that Animal House did indeed change the world in the following five ways.
Ramis, Kenney, and Miller each drew from their own fraternity experiences while jointly writing the Animal House screenplay. Miller’s frat experience was especially debased and thus his stories and characters served as the main template (and provided the characters with real-life nicknames, e.g. “Otter” and “Flounder”, and thus “Animal House”). Ramis had previously, no kidding, worked at a mental ward, which was a big plus, as well. (Simmons, 2012)
With the three combining and exaggerating all of their craziest stories, plus a lot of Hollywood creativity, Animal House became an idealized version of the craziest and most action-packed college experience ever, while it somehow still seemed fairly attainable. Never again would the college-bound youth of the world settle for simply going off to college to get away from the folks, throw a few keggers, have some sex, and get an education.
Wherever the bar was set for ‘70s college parties, Animal House took that bar, broke it into kindling, and made a bonfire. The whole notion of the college lifestyle was turned into a new and extreme art form. Chugging beers? Bluto chugs an entire bottle of Jack, Jack. Power-chucking? Flounder threw up on the Dean. You like your house band? Sorry, but they probably aren’t good enough to carry Otis Day and the Knights’ equipment. Think you are “sticking it to the man” by TP’ing the quad? The Deltas destroyed the Homecoming parade. A new standard, or a new lack of standards, rather, was established.
Upon its release, Animal House was a surprising and massive box office hit, eventually becoming one of the top grossing comedies of all time. Clearly college campuses responded to its extreme level of partying, loose sexuality, and rebellion of the disenfranchised against the authorities. Toga parties, a movie highlight, became a renewed fad, and at the time even garnered a full-page banner headline in the Washington Post; “double secret probation” became a part of the national lexicon; and American youth discovered that apparently it was not the Germans that bombed Pearl Harbor.
Hollywood creation or not, a whole lot of frat boys and sorority girls, as well as non-college students, all began trying to emulate the Delta life. Livers were sacrificed, dignity was lost, and exams were blown. But fun was had. The film’s legacy still carries on today as the movie DVDs continue to sell and new generations watch and re-watch what amounts to a college life training film and memorize the movie’s best lines.
It isn’t easy to measure the impact of something like an Animal House. A slew of comedies released in its wake all obviously mirrored its approach and style, including in just the early ‘80s alone, the Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, and Police Academy series’ (more on the film legacy, below).
Another college trend just so happened to occur immediately after the Delta’s arrival in theaters at the end of the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s: college spring break, too, went into overdrive. Coincidental or not, and I would suggest mostly “not”, spring break went from being a (relatively) innocent time to blow off some steam in Florida to, in some cities, 400,000-strong, Bacchanalian blowouts. By 1986, then-youth culture standard-bearer, MTV, had begun an annual week of on location programming from Fort Lauderdale and other spring break hot spots.
There was no war to protest, no obvious civil rights battles to fight so why not so how to fill that void? Animal House had certainly provide students some goals to shoot for and a whole new realm of possibilities for their leisure time. In 1987, the rap group the Beastie Boys put an exclamation point on the trend with the release of their self-parodying, tongue-in-cheek hit (though not everyone got the joke), “(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (to Party!)”.
Similarly, in fact, when you really break it down, Animal House is not only very smart in how it deals with authority, but it’s not as unscrupulous as it first appears, either. Recall that the character Pinto’s conscious literally appears in the form of an angel and a devil in one scene and the angel does in fact prevail.
Yes, I would credit/blame Animal House for most all of the above. The existence of the film Animal House has, by my calculations (though not published or peer-reviewed), caused a drop of American college students’ GPA’s an average of .18 grade points, per semester. This can in fact be directly attributed to two basic factors. First, to be frank, it is difficult to get to English Lit 101 at 9:00AM with a hangover. Second, generally speaking, partying and acting crazy with your friends is more enticing than studying. However, along with the drop in GPAs, both the “fun” and always-challenge-authority quotients did go way up during the same time period.
It almost goes without saying, but along with all of the previously mentioned, early ‘80s comedies, and National Lampoon’s own Vacation series, most every otherwise subversive, crude, and/or college comedy since, including the American Pie films, Old School, and The Hangover series, are all obviously heavily indebted to Animal House. Really, Animal House’s shadow is so long that even comedies that shoot for this gold standard, yet fall well short, can still be considered artistic and commercial successes, if not classics, in their own right.
Landis gets full credit as the first filmmaker to utilize serious, classical music in a subversive, screwball comedy. It was an ingenious and counterintuitive decision that not only elevated Animal House but altered the entire genre. The classical music helps highlight and contrast between the severely uptight and nasty Omegas, with the loose, fun-loving Deltas. The Deltas, by the way, are represented by some period music that is amongst of the best and wildest garage rock and R&B ever recorded (more on that, below).
Landis commissioned legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein, of The Magnificent 7, The 10 Commandments, and To Kill a Mockingbird fame, among others, to write the “Faber College Theme”, a proud and self-important sounding school song. Landis also used the similarly themed Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture”. In the opening shot, Landis used the Brahms’ piece as the camera pans to the noble statue immortalizing Faber College’s founder, Emil Faber. The overly-serious tone is upended as the camera pans down to Faber’s classic, stupid words: “Knowledge is good.”
As the film progresses, Landis then uses the classical music to elevate the Delta frat boys to heroic levels. The music swells as the rejects and rebels mount their “futile and stupid”, but highly effective, overthrow of the campus Establishment. The “Faber Theme” then plays out during the climactic and disastrous Homecoming parade, but now it is the Deltas on top. Now it is the cast-offs that have their own, new and proud legacy.
After Animal House, Landis, Ramis and other comedy-makers continued to collaborate with Bernstein, including the comedy classics The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Airplane!. The use of classical music has since become de rigueur for many of even the goofiest of comedies.
Both America’s official party-dance song, “Shout”, and the garage rock anthem, “Louie, Louie”, were popular in the early ‘60s, but Animal House gave the songs new life, and helped make them even more iconic, if not timeless.
Few songs have ever been presented in a better or more exciting context than “Shout”, as covered by the fictional Otis Day band at the toga party (and originally written and performed by the Isley Brothers). It’s pretty much impossible to watch the scene without singing along. The crowd is genuinely rocking and rolling and responding back to Day’s calls (“Hey-ay-ay-ay!”).
Other highlights are Chris Montez’s garage-dance gem, “Let’s Dance”, and two of soul legend Sam Cooke’s brilliant songs from the era, “Twisting the Night Away”, and the spot-on, “Wonderful Word” (“Don’t know much about history… but I do know that I love you”).
Through almost the first half of the movie, the only non-classical music is “Louie, Louie”, which is repeatedly played in the background as the Deltas party. The Kingsmen’s popular version is used and also a Bluto-led, late night, drunken sing-a-long version. Thus was the soundtrack for future college living set.
As to the film’s Establishment vs. counter culture theme, evil mastermind Dean Wormer was modeled on Richard Nixon and also partly on Miller’s actual dean at Dartmouth. Characters Greg Marmalard and Doug Neidermeyer then represented the political and military lackeys of the Establishment, respectively.
Nixon was, of course, the face of everything the counter culture came to hate about the American Establishment and authority figures. Nixon was the “crook” in denial, paranoid, self-loathing and, behind closed doors, spewing hatred of Jews and African Americans. Nixon was the man that allowed the Vietnam War to persist.
Yet by the time Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” arrived in 1980, one could certainly argue that those that stood for the drive for money, power, conformity, and social conservatism, that is, the Omegas of the world, had succeeded. However, that would depend on one’s definition of success.
Sure, Nixon and Wormer were at the height of success and power in their respective fields. Yet neither character exactly seemed to enjoy their lives in the slightest, either. That was really Ramis and company’s point. You could be disenfranchised, have the “wrong” background, wrong connections, wrong skin color, etc., but you could still live life more fully than the world’s power brokers.
As for Nixon, the man did not exactly seem warm, possess a lot of compassion, or otherwise ever, you now, smile. In short, Nixon, like Wormer, seemed utterly devoid of any sense of humor, whatsoever. Noted countercultural journalist Hunter S. Thompson once wrote of Nixon, “I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic, but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.” (Thompson, 1979). The Leader of the Free World but, and just like his film avatar in Dean Wormer, incapable of allowing himself a freakin’ laugh? So what’s the point? As Delta House’s top advocate, Otter, might put it, is that not “an indictment of the American way?”