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Landmark films don't always look like Citizen Kane (1941) or The Seventh Seal (1957). Take National Lampoon's Animal House, for instance, a low-budget ($2.7 million) comedy of questionable taste set at some fictitious college, that earned more than $141 million in the U.S. alone, the highest-grossing comedy ever made at the time of its release. But box office take isn't enough to make a landmark film; Animal House (the shorter title by which it's now universally known) also marked a new era in American comedy, bringing together the anarchic Ivy League sensibilities of the Harvard Lampoon and the freewheeling, sketch-driven style of Chicago's legendary Second City improv troupe. It was a match that would come to define and dominate the approach to modern comedy, reaching its greatest audience through its TV proving ground, the now nearly 30-year-old Saturday Night Live.
As a cultural phenomenon, Animal House was one of the first big studio comedies aimed at the teen/college demographic and has the dubious distinction of spawning the toga party and making food fights seem like a venerable American institution. In a recent New Yorker magazine profile, one of the film's writers, Harold Ramis, was lauded as a key force in creating movies that "attack the smugness of institutional life," thereby rescuing Hollywood comedy from its "smooth, polite perfection." In the same article, the movie is credited with heavily influencing the current kings of high-concept gross-out comedy, the Farrelly Brothers. Animal House also figures largely in the image of the comic actor as dangerous, iconoclastic rock star that has been so much a part of the culture in the last 25 or more years, a fairly direct line from John Belushi to Jack Black. Finally, this is likely the only film in the National Film Preservation Board Registry to feature a character imitating a zit with a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
At its inception, however, no one expected to make such a mark. Ramis and Doug Kenney were working on a bizarre comedy script based on the concept of Charles Manson in high school. The crazy spirit of that script eventually became folded into co-writer Chris Miller's experiences as an undergrad at Dartmouth, with a heavy dose of Nixon White House parody. Director John Landis was brought in on the basis of his fast, efficient work on two low-budget independent movies, Schlock (1973) and The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). "It was an indication of how little the studio thought of the movie that I got the job," Landis later said.
By the time Universal agreed to make the picture, Saturday Night Live had become a major hit, and both the studio and the film's creators wanted to cast many of the people associated with the show, but Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray and Dan Aykroyd all turned it down for other commitments. One actor, however, was an absolute must for the studio and the director - John Belushi. The role of Bluto had been written with him in mind, and his casting (in his first feature film role) sealed the deal. Also making debuts were Karen Allen (whose work here got her cast by Steven Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981), Kevin Bacon and Peter Riegert (in a role that Ramis never quite forgave Landis for not giving him). Landis also had to accept disappointment on his choice for the roles of Dean Wormer and his nympho wife; he wanted Jack Webb and Kim Novak. Donald Sutherland, the biggest-name actor in the cast, signed on because of his friendship with Landis, but he had so little faith in the project, he opted for an up-front payment of about $50,000 (the highest salary of the cast) instead of a percentage of the gross (which would have earned him millions). The next highest-paid cast members, at $40,000 each, were Belushi and Junior, the horse ridden by ROTC fanatic Neidermeyer.
The movie was scheduled to be shot at the University of Missouri until the school's president read the script and withdrew his permission. The University of Oregon finally agreed but insisted shooting be completed in 30 days. Because almost the entire production, including interiors, was done on campus, cast and crew had to put in 6-day weeks, with Belushi flying back and forth to the East Coast to work on SNL. The famous toga party scene (in which Belushi's real-life wife Judy played his date) was shot in two 12-hour days. Landis finished principal photography at the school in 28 days.
Landis and the previously skeptical studio executives were stunned by the response of preview audiences and the subsequent booming box office receipts. What had started as an almost throwaway project about a renegade frat house making a shambles of the conservative (fictional) Faber College in Pennsylvania quickly became the second highest grossing release of the year (behind Grease). It remains an often-quoted and for many people fondly remembered movie today. The film concludes with a coda - a take-off on the ending of American Graffiti (1973) - in which we're told what happened to each of the character's in the years after college. Not only was it a fun device to reveal the success of the unruly Delta House members versus the miserable futures of their clean-cut nemeses, but it also served as a springboard for keeping the movie alive in references elsewhere. For instance, the overly disciplined and belligerent Neidermeyer is revealed to have been killed by his own men in Viet Nam. In Landis' Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), a segment set during that war has some soldiers discussing "fragging Neidermeyer." The Babs character from Animal House is revealed to have become a tour guide at Universal Studios. For years, the studio used to offer discounts or free entries for anyone who asked for Babs at the start of their tour. The movie also spawned a short-lived TV sitcom, Delta House, featuring several members of the original cast (and a young Michelle Pfeiffer) and other copycat TV shows and movies. Dean Wormer's wife Marion (played by Verna Bloom in the original) turns up again as a photo of the wife of Lt. Kellaway (Peter Riegert) in The Mask (1994), and some of the TV viewers seen in the comedy EdTV (1999) are shown watching from the Delta Tau Chi fraternity house, the full name of the fictional Delta House.
Director: John Landis
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Matty Simmons
Screenplay: Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, Chris Miller
Cinematography: Charles Correll
Editing: George Folsey, Jr.
Art Direction: John J. Lloyd
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein, songs by Stephen Bishop, Sam Cooke
Cast: John Belushi (John "Bluto" Blutarsky), Tim Matheson (Eric "Otter" Stratton), Peter Riegert (Donald "Boon" Schoenstein), Tom Hulce (Larry "Pinto" Kroger), John Vernon (Dean Wormer), Karen Allen (Katy), Verna Bloom (Mrs. Wormer).
by Rob Nixon