When College Kid was about to turn 17, I decided that there were certain movies she needed to see so that she would know what the hell I was talking about when I used lines from them. After all, MinivanDad can't spend his whole life quoting only Cinderella and Ariel. That would be wonderf- I mean weird.
We begin with Animal House. (Wikipedia details here).
This was the first of these movies I had CK watch. It wasn't because I wanted to share my college experience with her. I wasn't in a fraternity. Writers Chris Miller, Doug Kenney, and Harold Ramis, as well as producer Ivan Reitman, may have been jusssst a bit more wild than I was. Other than drinking beer and occasionally wearing a sheet to a party, I don't think a single thing that happens in Animal House happened to me in college. Sound lame? Believe me, I'm aware.
That doesn't stop me from quoting it more than almost any other film. Why? It's not just that it's so damn funny. I started college in the fall of 1984. Animal House was released in July 1978. (No, I was not allowed to see it!) Even as the caricature it is, how many other films are there that defined expectations for a period of life the way Animal House did for my generation's expectations of college? Did they really have toga parties in college before 1978? I don't think so. Doesn't matter. We were going to have them!
"Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, damn glad to meet you..."
Animal House opens simply enough. Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) are new freshman roommates at fictitious Faber College, walking from fraternity rush party to fraternity rush party, wearing their freshman blazers and block beanie caps. They begin at Omega House, where they meet Mandy Pepperidge and Babs Jansen, who smile and stab them in the back ("A wimp and a blimp!"). After being guided through the room of star campus leaders (all white, all clean cut, conservatively dressed) by Greg Marmalard, they are deposited in a corner with a group of ethnic and physically challenged boys ("Clayton, Jug-less"). Larry realizes they are being thoroughly dismissed, and clearly hates the process, but Kent is a clueless, outgoing ball of corn, who encourages Larry to try a little harder. He reassures Larry that he has to be accepted at their next stop, Delta House, because his brother Fred was a member, and that he'll put in a good word for him. "They're the worst house on campus!" groans Larry. The stage is set.
Larry and Kent arrive on the front lawn of Delta House to breaking glass, howling music, and John Blutarski (John Belushi). They ask "Bluto" if this is the correct party. He is holding a beer, back to the boys, clearly urinating on the ground. He turns to them, without speaking, and continues to pee on Kent's shoe. He leads them to the door. He reaches for the doorknob, pauses, turns his head to the boys, and raises his eyebrows as he slowly leans in and swings the door open. "Grab a brew. It don't cost nothin'."
Delta House is in full swing. Beer bottles are flying. A girl just walks up and takes Kent's cap. Kent tries to mingle ("You guys playing cards?"). Larry goes off to join in, where he meets Katy (Karen Allen, before Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Hoover, (James Widdoes), who is the President of Delta. Katy is tending bar in front of a life-size drawing of a naked woman, who has fish bowls containing actual fish in place of breasts. Katy is clearly used to all of this. "Nice fish, huh?"
Hoover is looking for "Otter", Eric Stratton (Tim Matheson), who he assumes is with Katy's boyfriend "Boon", Donald Schoenstein (Peter Riegert). "No doubt. They're noted homosexuals," responds Katy. (A slightly uncomfortable scene for MinivanDad follows, as we meet Otter and Boon in Otter's frat room, decked out like a smooth urban seduction palace, complete with a full bar. They are discussing Boon and Katy's love life, and Otter's plans for his evening's conquest. These are the lines men quote with their friends, not with their daughters! Google them, and start with "major league y----s"!) Hoover bursts in to the room and reminds Otter that since he is "the Rush Chairman, (he) should be at the Rush Party."
Larry has gone exploring, and finds himself on the second floor landing with "D-day", Daniel Simpson Day (Bruce McGill), who has just ridden his motorcycle up the indoor stairs. Otter and Boon walk out the door of Otter's lair. "D-day!", exclaims Boon, who is followed by Otter:
"Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, damn glad to meet you."
D-day cracks up.
"Larry, I see you've met D-day," says Hoover, who is desperately trying to maintain civilization all by himself. D-day doesn't speak, but greets Larry by playing the William Tell Overture with his fingertips on his larynx.
"Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, damn glad to meet you." Otter says it twice more. The first time, he greets random boys at the bottom of the stairs. Boon follows with "That was Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, he was damn glad to meet you." The second time, Otter approaches a young, attractive woman, "introduces" himself, and dips her out of sight. The boy she is talking to just stands, emotionless, and drinks his beer.
There are some people who are just so... cool. Otter embraces the chaos around him. He uses it. He absorbs it and cuts a swath through from beginning to end.
When College Kid was 13, in 7th grade, we sometimes had 3 or 4 Bat Mitzvahs a weekend. We would see the same people we knew at every party, and we would all shake hands. I would drop the line on my friends, who would laugh, and then we'd have to explain the whole thing to the kids, who would look at us like we were fossils.
Not anymore. It's the best line I know to greet someone you've already met 800 times.
"Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, damn glad to meet you."
"To-ga! To-ga! To-ga!"
It's hard to explain John Belushi to kids. When I was 12 or 13, I wasn't allowed to watch Saturday Night Live. I wasn't allowed to see Animal House. The kids now have seen Will Ferrell, and Chris Farley, and Andy Samberg. They've seen Melissa McCarthy. They've seen comedy bits online that my parents would have considered X-rated. They've seen angry, physical comedy. But they've never seen anything quite like Belushi. Animal House becomes Animal House the moment he pees on Kent's shoe. When he opens that door to Delta we're a little afraid, but we've just got to know what's behind it.
Look at the guitar scene during the Delta toga party. As Bluto descends the stairs, a guitar playing, sensitive-poet type (Stephen Bishop, who was a pretty accomplished songwriter) is sitting on the stairs, strumming and singing for a group of girls. Bluto stops to listen to the words. "I gave my love a cherry, that had no stone; I gave my love a chicken, that had no bone; I gave my love a story, that had no end; I gave---" Bluto's face registers the absurd lyrics, yes, but also the deep disgust that this travesty could be taking place on his beloved Delta steps. He reaches down, takes the guitar by the neck, and smashes it in a rage against the wall above the singer's head.
For most physical comics, that's the gag. What makes Belushi so special is what's next. He gently hands the shattered guitar back to the terrified singer, stands next to him with a sheepish, embarassed look, and mumbles a remorseful "sorry." Every split second is absolutely genuine, start to finish.
When one of CK's friends saw Bluto shout "To-ga!" for the first time, she started laughing and said "He's so cute!" I never thought of him that way, but that's Belushi. He could be innocently astonished by a jiggling plate of Jello, then surreptitiously slurp the whole thing down in one gulp. (This!) He was... everything.
As I've already said, it doesn't really matter if there were toga parties at colleges before 1978. Because of John Belushi and Animal House, we had them. CK probably will too.
This is really still part of the toga party, but it deserves it's own spot. The song was originally written by the Isley Brothers. (One of their band members lived around the corner from me growing up. True Story. Unfortunately that's also the whole story.) Ask anyone on the street my age who performed "Shout," and they'll say Otis Day and the Knights. Actor DeWayne Jessie portrays a fictional front man, Otis Day, and his band plays the basement of Delta for the Toga party. Otis Day and the Knights became a real-life touring band because of this scene.
Play this song at a wedding or a Bat Mitzvah, and 50-year old men will jump up and down, wiggle down to the ground, and lie on the floor shaking. "Gator!" (Our wives join the knee bends but skip the floor part.) The kids just look at us with a strange mix of amusement, embarrassment, and pity. "Shout" is just one of those things they have to see to understand. Not that the look changes, but I feel better knowing that CK and her sisters know why they are being humiliated!
"Wait 'til Otis sees us. He loves us!"
There are a few scenes in Animal House that haven't quite traveled, but it's fascinated me how CK and her friends see them. Contrary to most people's belief, we may actually have a future as a civilization.
Larry's encounters with the Mayor's daughter, who turns out to be 13?!? Underage drinking and sex isn't quite as much of a shock to kids now (understatement), and since Larry decides against what we would now consider date rape, it's a lot less disturbing than it used to be.
Bluto ogling Mandy and Babs from underneath a set of bleachers? There are 12-year old girls who wear less to school now than most of the women in this movie (most of the time), so what he's doing doesn't really even make sense to this generation of kids. They just think it's creepy.
A different scene in which Bluto climbs a ladder and stares into Mandy's dorm room? Given what we know about stalking and violence against women on college campuses, it isn't funny anymore. Especially not to the girls. Uncomfortable is the word they use to describe it. And not in a good way.
There's some references to anti-Semitism on the waspy college campuses of the early 60s, when Animal House takes place. Hoover realizes the stolen answers to a midterm exam are all wrong because he talked to the guys in the "Jewish House." Boon's family name is said twice, elongated and slithery for effect. The kids don't really register the name thing, and the "Jews are smart" thing? Let's just say that joke played better a generation ago. A remake would likely choose a different ethnic group.
Race jokes are not so subtle. When the boys pick up dates from the local women's college (Emily Dickinson, of course), with Otter arranging it by posing as a dead freshman's "fiance" - "we were engaged to be engaged" - Boon convinces them to stop unexpectedly at a club where Otis Day and the Knights are playing. He is convinced that Otis will be thrilled. "Wait 'til Otis sees us. He loves us!" When they walk in, they realize that everyone is African-American. The place stops dead to look at the white kids in the doorway. "We... are gonna die, " figures Otter.
There's a little stereotyping going on. Okay, a lot. A customer at the bar flicks a switchblade. Kent innocently asks one of the men where they go to college. He's serious, but in context it's dripping with irony. Larry asks what his date is studying, and she tells him "primitive cultures." The biggest guy in the bar comes over, rips out the table, and puts out his hand. "Do you mind if we dance with your dates?" The camera then cuts to one of the girls, being offered a large, dark hand, almost like Fay Wray in the original King Kong. Again, not so subtle. The boys run, interrupting Otter and his half naked date in the car, and they bolt the place, carelessly destroying half the cars in the parking lot on the way out. As the capper, Kent squeals "The Negroes stole our dates!"
Not really, though. And nobody dies. The next cut is of the girls walking back to school, discussing how rude the boys were. The implication is that the girls danced, and left, none the worse for wear. I watch this sequence completely differently than I used to. Sure, there are plenty of racially insensitive bits here. More than plenty. It's the boys, however, who actually misbehave. Boon shouts "Hey Otis!" to the singer, in the middle of a song verse. They abandon the girls, even though they themselves are afraid for their own safety. For all the perceived menace of the crowd in the bar, the girls are fine, and the Delta boys are the jerks. In fact, CK and her friends have never actually found any of the racial remarks or actions to be funny. I'm not sure they really understand why people originally thought that they were. That's a good thing.
Kent, nicknamed "Flounder" by Bluto, becomes a sensitivity trainer later in life, the closing credits tell us. He earned it. Flounder is the butt of jokes and hazing from the minute the door is closed in his face in the opening scene at Omega House. Although his own fraternity takes advantage of his gullible nature, they come to his defense when he is being bullied by Omega Douglas C. Niedermayer ("Sergeant-at-Arms"). "He can't do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges!"
The degree to which the Omega brothers are demonized, beginning with Niedermayer (later "killed by his own troops" in Vietnam) goes well-beyond their well-heeled appearances and obvious social status. ("Let the unacceptable candidates worry...") The Deltas are screwups but they're fun, singing Louie, Louie and dousing each other with beer at their initiation. The Omegas' initiation approaches a homoerotic pagan ritual. They're given character traits as physical abusers, military wannabes, and political allies of the college administration, rather than the simple good-looking jock bully that would later suffice in Revenge of the Nerds, or even The Karate Kid.
Now, kids take one look at the Omegas and immediately think they are jerks. The uptight, conservative, Republican (Greg Marmalard is said to have become a member of the Nixon administration, later "raped in prison") appearance is more than enough to convince them. In 1978, and particularly in the film's time frame of 1962, they needed to be a little more evil ("Greggie, Dougie, the rest of the Hitler youth...") lest anyone be left thinking they'd still rather be an Omega at the end of the story! By the time Bluto gives his impassioned call-to-arms, lamenting "7 years of college, down the drain," it's easy to be fully on his side. "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?"
"The time has come for someone to put their foot down, and that foot... is me!"
I saw Director John Landis say once that he cast actor John Vernon in the role of Dean Vernon Wormer because of a scene in Clint Eastwood's awesome, early revisionist Western The Outlaw Josey Wales, in which he tells a US Senator, "Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining." Vernon delivers his lines here with exactly the same intensity, except with nothing remotely similar at stake.
The more times I watch, the more complex I find Dean Wormer. Maybe I'm overthinking it. It's not just a golf ball coming through his window, or a dead horse in his office that he has to endure. He's confronted by a relationship between one of his students and the Mayor's underage daughter, and his alcoholic wife is so bored by him and his position ("Besides, I've got the goddamn Senior honors dinner") that she voluntarily surrenders to Otter's advances ("...vegetables are sensual. People are sensuous.") This is serious stuff Dean Wormer has to deal with, and he blames Delta for all of it.
He's already exasperated when we meet him. He's under pressure from the Mayor, Carmine DePasto, to keep his fraternities under control and provide a little something for the Mayor's trouble - "If you mention extortion again, I'll have your legs broken" - so the college can have its homecoming parade in town. "Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets... explode." He has to enlist the Omegas' help to make sure the Deltas violate their "double secret probation," after finding out that they're already on regular academic probation. It just sounds so ridiculous. He's fully aware of the level to which he's had to stoop, and as much as he despises what the Deltas represent, he isn't all that enamored by his sycophant Omega bedfellows either. "Put Niedermayer on it," he tells Greg, "He's a sneaky little s--t like you..."
He gets his wish. He revokes the Delta's charter, expels them, and tells them that he will notify their local draft boards so that they will have to serve in the military. (He gets unexpected immediate feedback.) The end credits, though, suggest that he relents, at least from the military threat. All of the Deltas are reported to have successful lives, with the exception of one whose whereabouts are "unknown," (and even that is presented in a good way). Maybe the Dean's "triumph" is ultimately as futile a gesture as the Deltas' destruction of the homecoming parade.
Maybe it's that, or just because I'm older now, that I find more poignancy when I quote Dean Wormer to my kids. When he tells Flounder "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son," is it because he is trying to rescue Kent from the influence of Bluto, D-day, Boon and Otter? Maybe he still thinks he can save the weakest of them?
As parents, our roles have changed. We don't physically intimidate our children. We can't really take away their computers or electronics, because they need them for schoolwork. Grounding them, or not letting them use the car, usually just ends up heaping work back on ourselves, because they have organized teams that they are responsible to and school and community projects that they have to attend. The fact is, riding around in MinivanDad's reclining middle seats, doing homework, is actually a hell of a lot easier than having to finish in time to drive yourself somewhere.
Sometimes I just have to make a tiny point to my kids that really doesn't matter, but they're just so - annoying - that I have to say something:
"The time has come for someone to put their foot down, and that foot... is me."
Ok. We've established that Animal House is funny, but it doesn't represent my college experience. Otter is cool, Bluto is wild, and I was neither. So what's the big deal?
Sometimes, a movie becomes more than a movie. It doesn't have to be a great one, though Animal House surely is. Sometimes, a movie comes to represent a shared experience, even if the experience is only that of watching the movie together. Ideally, like Animal House, it has a few useful lines that can be used to recall that experience.
Maybe College Kid will be amused when some friend of hers melodramatically talks about putting her "foot down." She might walk into a concert with a group of girls and laugh because "Wait 'til Otis sees us!" pops into her head. Even better, she might be at a toga party at school (sober, of course!), dancing to "Shout," and think of me for a second, because she watched Animal House for the first time on our drive through Niagara Falls to a hockey camp in Ontario. That's cool, right?
And, best of all, every once in a while I can just walk up to her in a crowded room in front of her friends and introduce myself.
"Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, damn glad to meet you."