ANIMAL HOUSE, 1978
At a 1962 College, Dean Vernon Wormer is determined to expel the Delta House Fraternity, but those roughhousers have other plans for him.
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In the late 1960s the baby boomer generation was coming of age, and, as they had influenced the social landscape in so many ways, so too would they begin to shape what was funny and acceptable in American comedy. Out were Milton Berle wearing a dress and aging Jewish comedians zinging one-liners; in were comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, talking about anything that came to mind, including the most untouchable of all topics: religion and sex. If there is one indication of where American comedy was heading in the late 60s, one only needs to look at the number one television shows in 1968 and 1969. In ‘68 The Andy Griffith Show, a quaint, homespun show about a small-town sheriff raising his son was the most watched show on television. In 1969, however, it was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a free-flowing variety show filled with political and hippie humor; a show that was as far from old style comedy as you could get. Comedy was about to become mutinous.
In 1970, three Harvard graduates, who had all been writers for the infamous Harvard Lampoon, started their own spin-off magazine called the National Lampoon, which specialized in the same kind of subversive parodies of political figures and current events as Laugh-In. The magazine became so popular during the early 70s that it spawned its own radio show, improvisational troop and, by the end of the decade, its own film series, starting with National Lampoon’s Animal House, co-written by one of National Lampoons founders, Doug Kenney.
The plot of Animal House is fairly simplistic. It is the story of Delta House, the wildest and craziest fraternity at Faber College in 1962. Delta House is responsible for numerous crimes and problems on campus, which put them at odds with the school dean, who secretly conspires with another fraternity, Omega House, to get Delta’s charter revoked and have all of their members expelled. Despite all of the warnings, they continue to throw wild parties. When they attempt to cheat on their midterms, only to fall into a trap set by the dean, they are expelled. In response, the members of Delta decide to take drastic action and pull their biggest prank yet.
If this plot sounds a tad familiar, that is only because it has been repeated and copied multiple times by lesser films over the years. What is more important than the plot, however, is the attitude and the mood of the film. This is a movie that encompasses all that the late 60s and 70s have come to represent: anarchism, change, rebellion. For the first time, the underdogs were the heroes, and the villains were the authority figures; the ones who represented the existing social order and benefited from the status quo were the enemy. Delta House, for all its debauchery and hedonism, were the fun ones; the guys that you wanted to hang out with, even if you slightly regretted the hangover you had the next morning. Mayhem, chaos, and lawlessness were suddenly not something to fear, but to embrace.
Animal House was an enormous success and it helped launch the careers of many of its cast members, who would go on to varying levels of fame. John Belushi, who played Bluto in the film, was the only person in the cast who was well known before its release, as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live, a show that was heavily influenced by National Lampoon Magazine and even hired some of its writers. Belushi would soon leave Saturday Night Live, using Animal House as a launching pad for a successful, however short-lived, film career before his death in 1982. The director of Animal House, John Landis, who had only directed one other movie before, would go on to be one of the most successful moviemakers of the 80s, with hits like The Blues Brothers (1980), Trading Places (1983), and Coming to America (1988). Other actors who got their starts in the film were Tom Hulce, who would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in Amadeus (1984), Karen Allen, most famous for playing Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and a young Kevin Bacon in his very first role.
The influence of Animal House can still be felt today, over thirty years after its release. Films still carry the name National Lampoon, despite the fact that the magazine closed its doors in 1998, hoping to repeat some of the magic that made Animal House so popular. The film was so groundbreaking though, so of-its-time, that is doubtful that any movie could ever hope to recapture the same spirit.