In the summer of 1978, National Lampoon’s Animal House meant a great deal to me. I was on summer break between sophomore and junior years of high school. I had a high-profile job, working at the most popular ice cream store in the mall. I had a steady income and a steady girl, a steady girl I willfully ignored for the better part of three months as my best friend Terry and I embarked on a movie-going odyssey. From the day the film opened at the late, lamented Woodfield 2, Terry and I saw it every night for 86 days straight. From Friday, July 28th until Thursday, October 19th, no matter what else was happening in our lives, no matter what other friends either accompanied us or did not accompany us to the show, we made it to a least one screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House. (There were nights where we stayed straight through two showings.) What stopped our streak? Easy. Thursday, October 19th was opening night of my high school’s fall play, which I was in. That was it. Duty and the allure of the footlights called. Terry may have continued seeing Animal House. I know he wouldn’t be seen dead at the fall play.
The original Saturday Night Live show and National Lampoon had a lot in common. The first season of SNL featured writers Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beats, who had both written for the Lampoon and infused the show with the same sensibility. Original Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time cast members John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray had all written and performed in The National Lampoon Radio Hour. My friends and I were enjoying the same comic spirit, served up within two different forms of media. So when the movies soon followed, we were there for it.
What fraternity will the two freshmen pledge? What fraternity nick-names will they receive? What sort of hilarious hijinks will result when Dean of Students Vernon Wermer (John Vernon) decides to kick the rebellious Deltas off campus?
The bonus feature I would have loved to see would have been the NBC primetime “Saturday Night at the Movies” edit of the film that premiered in the fall of 1980. By then, my friend Terry and I were college roommates. We dutifully trooped down to our dorm’s TV lounge (NO ONE had a television in their dorm room!) with pencil and paper to jot down the differences between the film we had both memorized and the watered-down pap NBC was fobbing off to its television audience. That night we discovered that director John Landis had filmed separate “TV-Friendly” alternate takes of certain shots deemed to have “gone too far for television.”
When Bluto and D-Day convince Dorfman to kidnap a horse and stow it in the Dean’s office, and when said horse later has a heart attack, Bluto’s now-famous reaction is “Holy shit!” (Accent on the “T.”) As if watching the film in another dimension, that night on the TV edit Terry and I heard, for the first time ever, Bluto shouting, “Oh my God!” and “I don’t believe it!” You know, two interjections famous for being just as funny as “Holy shiT!” in no dimension anywhere.
I did enjoy spinning the new Universal 4K disc to remind myself of how much I still love this goddamn movie, how well it still holds up, and to once again enjoy all of the minutiae that I’ve noticed through the years:
Much like George Lucas’s decision to go with a standard orchestral score for Star Wars in 1977, John Landis asking Elmer Bernstein to write a “classical” movie score for Animal House was the stuff of genius. In the same way that an ultra-modern, gimmicky synth score would have made Star Wars a much worse film, a jokey score would have diminished Animal House. We take what is happening to the Deltas seriously because of the score. John Vernon is much more intimidating because of the score. I do love Bernstein’s loose, loping “Bluto” theme for the scene where Belushi checks out the campus’s quadrangle. Ba-da, ba-da, ba-da, ba-da, ba-bum-bum!
Cesare Danova is so funny simply playing the heavy the way he did in more than a hundred serious movies. (“And if you mention extortion again, I will have your legs broken.”)
During the cafeteria scene that precedes the big food fight (which made the nation’s cafeteria workers curse this film in the fall of 1978) it is so obvious that Tim Matheson is summoning every ounce of actor’s strength not to break up when John Belushi does his famous mashed potatoes bit.
I cannot imagine a single reader of mine having never seen this film. Still, if you have never seen National Lampoon’s Animal House, you should make it your business to see it. It is well made with great performances. There are a lot of jokes. It is very funny. It created its own new genre. It features a few beautiful nekkid women and one beautiful nekkid Sutherland ass. Maybe 86 screenings are too many… I don’t know; I was young, and I had the time... but you should see it at least once.
As it proclaims on the base of the statue of the college’s founder, Emil Faber: “Knowledge is good.”