NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE strikes a culture gong (or smashes a guitar) insofar as one simple name-word designation, expressed in prideful wonder by frat pledge ‘Kent Dorfman’—“Flounder?”—-is enough to set off a blizzard of quotes and memories from this 1978 classic, an anarchic eruption spawned from some deeply disturbed minds, those with clearly a keener insight to modern American striving, authority and morality than you’d get in a football stadium full of philosophers. Or, as we all now fully grasp, “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
“The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me.” Back in ’62 (sigh), ‘Vernon Wormer’ (the immortal John Vernon), the hardass Dean of Faber College, has his hands full (and an office full of dead horse) with the unruly lads of Delta Tau Chi fraternity. They include such miscreants as the proto-slob ‘Bluto Blutarsky’ (John Belushi), a force of nature (or farce of it), suave ladies man ‘Otter’ (Tim Matheson) and practical brigand ‘D-Day’ (Bruce McGill). The hapless Dorfman (Stephen Furst) and genial fumbler ‘Lawrence Kroger’ (Thomas Hulce) are new to the toga & tequila curriculum, but they quickly fit in like red, white & blue-blooded lunatics. Blue blood, red faces and white attitudes are the stuff their opposite numbers are bred with, as shown by the Pat Boonish ‘Greg Marmalard’ (James Daughton), window parading p-tease ‘Mandy Pepperidge’ (Mary Louise Weller) and Pattonesque future frag ‘Doug Neidermeyer’ (Mark Metcalf). It calls for a road trip.
“We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.”
Inspired by their own checkered college careening, National Lampoon writers Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller had their distilled antics directed by audacious 28-year-old John Landis (a high-school dropout), who’d had a moderate hit with the sketch pastiche The Kentucky Fried Movie. The University of Oregon in Eugene was brave enough to host the menagerie, made for $2,800,000 in 28 days. Universal spent another $4,500,000 promoting it and scarfing, barfing, buns & boobs struck Americans where they felt at home: it became the 3rd most-popular movie of the year, ultimately grossing $141,600,000 domestically. The runaway success was a watershed, unzipping the gross-out genre in comedies: lowbrow honked the mainstream and hasn’t stopped goosing it. *
“No more fun of any kind!”
The Lampoon line has everyone and everything a fair target: it would be more offensive to be left out of the abuse. The comic thesis both tacitly acknowledges and helped feed what amounts to Spring Break Culture . Everyone in the mostly freshman class seem to be enjoying themselves mightily; the energy level is constant, and much joy is in the readily identifiable types like Marmalard and Otter (Matheson is in especially fine form). 28-year-old madman Belushi hits a home run, scene-stealing as the insane Bluto, his breakout movie; he only made seven before his in-character debauchery brought on death in 1982. He redefines the whole Sly and/or Quizzical Eyebrow Raise Technique, lifting that essential signal to the plane of Art. Hulce and Furst make endearing goofs, and Metcalf’s Neidermeyer is an instant icon or Irate. To-die-for Karen Allen, 26, makes her debut; she’s uber-sexy not just with that killer smile but because she promises smarts to go with it. Another opening bow comes from a 19-year-old kid named Kevin Bacon, as ‘Chip Diller’, dick. Cast straight out of acting school, Bacon was bound for degrees of separation with a good portion of the population.
While Belushi and his role got the most press and stand emblematic for the film, and all those mentioned fit like “Louie Louie” in a stack of 45s, we give a special salute to two pros, one no longer with us, another whose career continues to shine.
At 45, after dozens of film & TV credits since 1956, Vernon was finally tapped for an assignment to apply his menacing growl and pitiless cold-eyed stare to delightful deadpan comic effect: this was the role he’s most remembered for. He died after heart surgery in 2005 at the age of 72. Bruce McGill, 27 in his second film role when he ran that Harley Sportster up the staircase and played the “William Tell Overture” on his windpipe, went on to 157 credits & counting. A fine actor, one of the most dependable supporting players in the business, his rule-scoffing ‘D-Day’ replaced by someone fully believable donning the badges and suits of authority figures of all stripes. “Ramming speed!”
The amusing played-serious music score is from Elmer Bernstein, who was finally allowed to do a comedy, and the soundtrack rocks with period classics like “Tossin’ and Turnin'”, “Twistin’ The Night Away”, “Money”, “Let’s Dance” and “Shout!”
Evading studies or decorum are Peter Riegert, Sarah Holcomb, James Widdoes, Donald Sutherland, Martha Smith (‘Babs’), Cesare Danova, Verna Bloom, Otis Day (“My man!), Lisa Baur, Eliza Roberts and Stephen Stills, on guitar, briefly. “Sophomore dies in kiln explosion? Oh My God! I just talked to her last week… She was going to make a pot for me.”
* “You’re all worthless and weak, now drop and give me twenty!” Was Delta’s dawn the launch of the Raunch Age? College comedies go back a long ways, with an enrollment showing Harold Lloyd as The Freshman in 1925, 1932s Horse Feathers (the Marx Brothers), 1945s Here Come The Co-eds (Abbott & Costello), 1947s Good News (June Allyson’s student body vying against students of same Peter Lawford and Mel Torme—some choice), Clifton Webb, class of ’49, in Mr. Belvedere Goes To College, 1960 and High Time with Bing Crosby and Fabian, the dorkville Get Yourself A College Girl from 1964 and three years later, The Graduate. Daffy as they got, none of them were anything like Animal House.
Speaking of getting an Incomplete: as Karen Allen’s casually lecherous professor, guest star Sutherland, certain Delta’s destruction had zip box-office potential, took a flat $75,000 fee for his 3-day stint, rather than a percentage of the gross. It lost him a trifling $3,000,000. “Christ. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the fucking Peace Corps.”