Revisiting Faber College (Toga, Toga, Toga!)
August, 25 2003
The New York Times, 08.25.03
As unlikely as it may seem, "National Lampoon's Animal House" is one of the most influential movies of the last 25 years, inspiring a cottage industry of subversive film comedies that have flourished at the edge of the mainstream. This year alone, two of its imitators did impressive box-office business: "American Wedding," the third movie in the "American Pie" series, and "Old School," which is basically an updating of the original. With a cast of nearly unknown actors, including Kevin Bacon in his first screen role, "Animal House" was released in 1978, when the fraternity life was the existence that dared not speak its name. Not so coincidentally, a DVD festooned with extras will be released tomorrow to cash in on, er, celebrate the film's 25th anniversary.
Set in 1962 at fictional Faber College - an institution of higher learning apparently named after a pencil - "Animal House" follows the scourges of the campus, the amiable, hard-partying reprobates of the Delta House fraternity who view the perquisites of frat life as rights rather than as privileges. Those rights include the duty to defame and undermine the status quo at all costs - essentially to extend childhood.
The movie's impressive box-office grosses - more than $140 million in North America - inspired a school of slavish mimicry with fare that reacted to honey-roasted and sentimentalized movie takes on youth like "American Graffiti," from 1973. Such imitations usually lacked the subversive anger of "Animal House" and the ingenuity of its script. One of the many sharp-reflex innovations of "Animal House" was that it was the first film to parody the damp, whatever-happened-to material that "Graffiti" ended with.
"Animal House" was written by Douglas Kenney, an alumnus of The Harvard Lampoon who was also a founding editor of National Lampoon magazine; Chris Miller; and Harold Ramis, an alumnus of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. (Mr. Ramis went on to help write the scripts for "Stripes"; the "Ghostbusters" movies; "Back to School," an "Animal House" descendant, with Rodney Dangerfield; and "Caddyshack," which he directed. He also directed "Groundhog Day" in 1993 and "Analyze This" in 1999.)
John Belushi - a fellow Second City member, and more notably a member of the first cast of "Saturday Night Live" - became a national treasure in his "Animal House" role as Bluto, which he played as a barnyard version of a silent-movie comedian.
"Animal House" had its own antecedents. There were college-circuit pictures like "The Kentucky Fried Movie," a 1977 picture that was essentially a series of skits. Its director, John Landis, was enlisted to make "Animal House." The ground had also been broken by Robert Altman's "MASH," and like "MASH," "Animal House" had the arrogance of the counterculture.
But there were rumors that the original script for "Animal House" carried blithe notes of misogyny and racism, that it veered closer to the exclusionary cruelty of National Lampoon than to the antibureaucracy thrust of "MASH." Mr. Landis, a raconteur who seems to speak in italics, concedes the truth in those rumors. "The first script was very rough and offensive," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, "but it was also very, very funny. I mean, everybody in the original script was a pig. There was a lot of projectile vomiting - and, by the way, I have nothing against projectile vomiting."
Mr. Landis said that he was originally hired to supervise a rewrite of the script, but he gave all credit to the screenwriters. "Doug and Chris and Harold did a brilliant job," he said. "especially Doug. That screenplay has never really been given the credit it should get. It's extremely literate, and very funny." He went on: "My major contribution was making it good guys versus bad guys instead of just all bad guys, though the heroes are antiheroes. I went to a lot of fraternities for research, and I was singularly unimpressed. I'm a child of the 1960's - I was born in 1950 - and the whole fraternity thing was totally alien to me. The fraternity wasn't dead, but it was dying. I thought, well, let's think of all the positive aspects of fraternity, which was basically family, and give that to the Deltas. And put all of the negatives, basically Nazis, and put that in the other house."
Mr. Landis acknowledged that there were similarities to "MASH," but added that there were even earlier signposts leading to "Animal House."
"When you look at the classic Hollywood comedies, there had always been college comedies," he said. "In the silents there was Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In the 30's there were not only all those Jack Oakie pictures, but the Marx Brothers made a college film. When I got the opportunity to make this picture - and this was me thinking, `I don't know what anybody else's intention was' - I set out to make a fairly classic college comedy. And though it didn't have Jack Oakie and Rudy Vallee in fur coats, it had John Belushi and Tim Matheson."
"Animal House" echoes the anarchic spirit of the college comedies Mr. Landis adopted as a model, but it also reflects a choice he made that the empty hedonistic "House" counterfeiters have missed: he softened the script, muting its National Lampoon ruthlessness.
"Here's an example of the kind of changes I did that were not in the script," Mr. Landis said, referring to a scene in which the Deltas abandon their dates at a bar where they felt threatened. "You see the boys running away and ditching the girls. Afterward, you then see the girls walking home and going, `Ew! He was terrible.' I just made up that scene at the moment, and it was my own basic liberal thing. I thought, `I have to show that these girls are safe.' "
He added, now speaking of an infamous voyeuristic scene in the film: "It's very much like the scene of Belushi looking in the window at those girls. People went, `Yikes!' I'm shooting over John's shoulder as he's looking at these topless girls and I'm thinking: `This is so shameless. How do I fix it?' And I was inspired at that moment to take advantage of Belushi's brilliant empathy and sympathy. I made him turn, look into the camera and make everybody a co-conspirator. And John was able to do that with just an eyebrow."
The movie also reflects the summer-camp experience of its making. One feature of the DVD is a documentary showing the on-set camaraderie. "There's even footage I'd never seen that they got from a TV station in Eugene, Ore., of us fooling around on the set," Mr. Landis said. "And in that you can see it was a really good experience for everyone. There is one great scene, where the actors talk about going to a frat house, and it turned into a brawl. All the frat boys wanted to beat up the Hollywood actors."
"It's been 25 years, which has given me a lot of time to think about it, and my theory now," Landis said with a laugh, sounding dangerously close to reflective, "is that the movie's extremely romantic. Remember, our fathers' generation used to talk about World War II as the best years of their lives. Why do people romanticize the military and romanticize college? You're 18, and you're out of the house. There's a great line in `Animal House': `We can do anything we want. We're college students!' In addition to everything else, the movie somehow captures that sense of youthful exuberance and excitement, of being out there in the world. Everyone, no matter if they're yellow, black or white, Commie or evangelical Christian, comes up and says: `That was my house. That was my college experience.' "