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Eat Me – Animal House at 40

by Dennis Cozzalio Jul 29, 2018

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be brief. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests. We did. But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational systems in general? I put it to you, Greg— isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you bad-mouth the United States of America!”

— Eric “Otter” Stratton, ’63, Gynecologist, Beverly Hills, California

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Forty years ago, on July 28, 1978, National Lampoon’s Animal House was unleashed upon the world.  A modest, low-budgeted comedy in which its own studio, Universal Pictures, held little faith, it quickly became not only a well-reviewed hit, for a time the highest-grossing comedy in US box-office history, but a genuine cultural phenomenon which inspired a tidal wave of on-and-off-campus food fights, toga parties and general collegiate misbehavior, as well as a seemingly endless parade of movie comedies strung out over the following four decades that would strive to duplicate (with wildly variant degrees of success, of course) its underdogs-vs.-the establishment formula and unapologetically anarchic spirit.

Later this month, in Eugene, Oregon, there’s a 40th-anniversary toga party-centric celebration of the movie being staged to mark the occasion, headed up by the movie’s local casting director, Katherine Wilson, and others who participated in the filming of Animal House on and about the campus of the University of Oregon, many of whom still live in and about that community. But other than a recent onstage cast reunion at the Turner Classic Film Festival, where the movie played to a packed house of nearly 1,000 audience members, who laughed as if it were still 1978, there hasn’t been a whole lot heard from Universal or the press to celebrate Animal House’s 40th birthday, certainly nothing comparable to the reception it received—multiple cast reunions, newspaper articles, a features-packed anniversary DVD, et al.—when it turned 30.

Could they be nervous? The situation is that the 40th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House is occurring during a time when many modern collegiate viewers are looking back on the movie through self-corrective lenses provided by a society of social arbiters who want to insist that art (yes, I used the words “art” and “Animal House” in the same sentence) not be truly representative—that is, voicing opinions, perspectives and notions of propriety they may not be comfortable with which coexist with the ones they feel no hesitation in endorsing.

Yesterday, the current affairs website Vice published a finger-wagging takedown of the movie’s perceived sins of cultural insensitivity entitled “Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Animal House by Tossing It in the Trash.” (The piece’s subheading: “Drunken frat boys don’t seem so charming anymore, and the film’s gender politics are fucked beyond repair.”) The headline and subheading tell you everything you need to know about the piece, written in an unsurprisingly condescending tone by one Harry Cheadle, but it’s worth noting a couple of Cheadle’s observations for the way in which they reflect and attempt to instruct upon the proper way to assess and compartmentalize an “artifact” like Animal House.

First on the writer’s checklist, Cheadle makes much hay of the “boring” use of nudity, especially in the scene in which Bluto spies on a sorority through an upstairs window which, according to him, only horny 14-year-old boys would respond to. (To which I can only respond, “Thank you, God!”) Cheadle also wants to point out that the only “sympathetic” characters in the film are Katy (Karen Allen), the uber-patient girlfriend of Boone, one of the senior Deltas, or perhaps some of the other women exploited by the film’s protagonists. He also notes, with exceeding generosity, that “At one point, one of our heroes thinks about molesting (a) 13-year-old while she sleeps, but decides not to.”

It will undoubtedly come as news to Cheadle and anyone else armed and ready to topple the statue of Emil Faber which stands in the center of the Faber College quad, but movie history is rife with examples of men and women ogling each other’s unclothed or partially unclothed bodies, and often not with the added benefit of a fourth-wall-breaking visual joke which ties Belushi’s oversexed voyeurism with our own. But that, like Animal House itself, I suppose, is just history.

Cheadle’s noting of the exploitation of Animal House’s secondary female characters reads less like honest concern, or even fair representation of what’s actually on screen in terms of the characters and how they are presented, than the scribbling of someone slightly more worried than he should be about staying on the correct side of the current cultural debate about “fucked-up gender politics.” Cheadle offhandedly tries to score points in favor of his thesis by noting Karen Allen’s comment, made during a recent interview about the film, that “You cringe at (Animal House), but it’s an interesting kind of cringe.” The writer, apparently too absorbed in the sensation of rubbing his goatee in contemplation, forgets to add the rest of Allen’s comment: “What’s great about the film is that it really makes fun of everybody.” (Italics mine, all mine.) Best to forget that last part, I suppose, within a brave, humorless polemic like Cheadle’s.

All this is, of course, to completely ignore the presence of Dean Wormer’s wife (Verna Bloom), hardly a victim in her own extramarital sexual escapades with Otter (Tim Matheson) Delta Tau Chi’s rush chairman and resident playboy. (Except, of course, when the dean, in retaliation, has her shipped off to Sarasota Springs for a “vacation.”) And finally, it seems to escape Cheadle’s eagle eye that during the moment in which Pinto (Tom Hulce) decides not to “molest” the 13-year-old Clorette (Sarah Holcomb), he believes her to be a college-aged girl. Pinto only sleeps with her after she confesses to him that’s she’s deceived him about her age—how’s that for offensive? Again, the joke is on Pinto—he’s been played like the horny freshman he is. But while harvested for a laugh, the ensuing situation, however clearly a case of legally-defined statutory rape, hardly qualifies as a National Lampoon primer on how to bang underage chicks and get away with it. (Our last sight of Pinto is of the offender fleeing the violent clutches of Mayor Carmine DiPasto, Clorette’s bad-tempered and clearly mob-connected father. Calling the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League!)

The Deltas visit to the Dexter Lake Club is the nexus of the critical case against Animal House in terms of race relations, as Cheadle and others have been quick to point out. In another equally depressing piece published in the most recent issue of Oregon Quarterly, “The Magazine of the University of Oregon,” Jason Stone, “staff writer for University Communications,” notes how the movie “mines uncomfortable humor from racist stereotypes” during the Dexter Lake Club sequence. The scene, in case you claim, as do both these writers, to not have seen it for decades or to have almost entirely forgotten it in the pursuit of more worthwhile endeavors, involves the Deltas transporting their dates (obtained through an awful, and awfully funny, bit of deception involving an obituary and a kiln explosion) to the Dexter Lake Club in pursuit of their favorite Negro bar band, Otis Day and the Knights. Earlier in the picture, of course, OD&TK provide the soundtrack for the Deltas’ infamous (and almost quaintly tame, as measured by the 21st-century bar) toga party, where Boone (Peter Reigert) can be spotted wearing dark sunglasses and sitting apart from the dancers, instead positioning himself on a stool, facing the party alongside the band, visibly soaking up their cool and occasionally shouting “Otis!” And now Boone shouts again— “Otis! He loves us!”—as he leads their group, including their unsuspecting dates, into a roadhouse dive packed with, well, Folks Who Don’t Look Like Them. (“We’re the only white people here,” Pinto whispers to Boone, stating the obvious with hushed, deadpan desperation.)

Cheadle, as part of his dismantling project for Vice, mentions that no less than Richard Pryor blessed and anointed the movie, including this scene of the Deltas’ squirming and sweating amongst the black patrons within the leopard skin-lined confines of the Dexter Lake Club. According to an oral history about the movie published in The New York Times in May 2018, Pryor sent a note to the head of the studio who, according to the film’s director, John Landis, was convinced the scene would cause “riots across America.” The great comedian proclaimed in the note that “Animal House was [expletive] funny, and white people are crazy.” That’s a particularly telling comment not only because of the knowledge of Pryor’s own incendiary way with approaching racial politics in his stand-up comedy, but because it provides a clue to the true perspective of the scene itself. Unfortunately, the observation holds little water for Cheadle, who thinks Pryor’s commentary occurred too far in the past to have any relevance for today’s viewers.

It will surprise no one, except perhaps the likes of Cheadle and Stone, that the actual butts of most of the humor in the Dexter Lake Club scene are the Deltas themselves and their misguided attempt to crash an insular social situation which in 1962 naturally would not have welcomed them with open arms. The Deltas, Boone in particular, are targets in a satirical jab over what amounts to cultural appropriation— they want the cool associated with Negro culture by making a show of bopping along with Otis Day, dipping their toes in for a double rock and rye and seven Carlings, and then running for the safety of the frat house when they get called on their game. (Outraged charges have yet to besiege Landis’s follow-up, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, the movie that much more thoroughly follows through on and fulfills the cultural appropriation “crimes” satirized in Animal House, a fact which might have something to do with the glow emitting from all those supremely talented Black folk with which Landis, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd surround themselves.)

The one joke in the Dexter Lake Club scene that lands perilously close to indefensible is the cut from Emily Dickinson College’s Brunella (Eliza Garrett), as she announces her major– Primitive Cultures– directly to Otis Day vocalizing the “Ooh-mau-mau” refrain from “Shama Lama Ding Dong.” Perhaps a step too far even for a movie which, as Allen insisted, makes fun of everybody. (Who’s equating primitive cultures and Otis Day? Not Brunella.) But even if it is too much, the joke is no more justification for a green light to scrub National Lampoon’s Animal House from our cultural history than would be Groucho Marx’s racist crack in Duck Soup for getting rid of all traces of that classic film. (Groucho’s joke, “My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that’s why darkies were born,” is a reference to/jab at Kate Smith’s 1931 recording of a popular song entitled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which some claim to be a joke on racism, but which never fails to inspire crickets among modern audiences who are engulfed in laughter for the rest of the movie’s 68 minutes. As a time traveler Kate Smith doesn’t travel well.) 

As for politics, Animal House clearly stood not only as a refutation of the innocence myth of American society, in which we’re all supposed to believe that the United States existed in some sort of pristine bubble of purity until Kennedy was assassinated (or until whatever other awful or even trivial political development occurred which you might want to slot in there instead), but as a refutation of the cynicism of the fallout caused by Nixonian politics from which it emerged in 1978. But Cheadle would rather twist the tried-and-true framing of the movie’s central conflict for the sake of a smarmy retort than actually think about what establishment, what swamp, is being attacked by the movie:

“The slobs vs. snobs dynamic seems dated, especially with one particularly nasty slob now running the country and doing a pretty bad job of it. (It makes you nostalgic for the previous generation of country club asshole, who were at least better read.)”

If he’s suggesting that there’s a fundamental social and political difference between Donald J. Trump and, say, Caddyshack’s Judge Smalls, the closest and most primary descendant of the reactionary evil of Dean Wormer, well, then I’d say Cheadle ought to heed the Faber College motto, “Knowledge is Good,” and get himself some right quick.

Cheadle’s holier-than-thou tirade is pretty much par for the course in a culture hellbent on turning the sentiments of liberal politics, once based in freedom of expression and the liberation from confining attitudes to which everyone is expected to subscribe, into hardscrabble conservative dogma about what can and cannot be tolerated in art and culture. It’s a pitiful move which seeks out a roadmap for social behavior and acceptance in art rather than a forum for posing questions and thoughtfully considering them, one which presumes that movies are to be used as guideposts along life’s highways and not as a means for gaining understanding of experience through independent thought. It’s clear what Cheadle thinks about the frat boys in Animal House who behave outside the margins of proper behavior. I wonder what he makes of folks like, I don’t know, the aimless youths of Bande à part, or the familial gangsters of The Godfather, or the ruthless killers who compose the worn heart of The Wild Bunch. Are these also movies to be shunned because their characters exhibit behavior which society in our enlightened times would find “inappropriate?”

So where does Cheadle’s nonsense lead him? Quick. Remind yourself of the title of Cheadle’s piece. And then read his final, withering paragraph:

“We could never wipe Animal House from the face of the earth even if we wanted to; its influence is too vast, and its best jokes are justifiable classics. So put the movie on a pedestal, induct it into whatever hall of fame, move it into a museum, fine. You know who visits museums? Nobody.”

“Even if we wanted to.” And it sure sounds like folks like Cheadle want to, if for no other reason that they can continue to pretend they’ve got it all over the unenlightened cretins who came before and left the world in such a fucked-up state. And if you’re not wasting time watching cinematic stains like Animal House, why, that’s all the more time to spend, like Cheadle, not going to museums or availing oneself of any of the other cultural opportunities one might have at one’s disposal. Unless they’ve been previously approved by whatever committee or social movement programs your thinking at the moment, of course.

But as frustrating as Cheadle’s point of view is, I have to say I found Stone’s fence-straddling in the Oregon Quarterly article, entitled Animal House: Still Funny at Age 40?” just as dispiriting. This is a piece that seems like a J. Edgar Hoover-commissioned hit job, its foregone conclusion prescribed by the dean’s office, or perhaps by the wet-noodle head professor of the Cinema Studies department, who openly frames the perspective of the piece early on:

“`Over the years, as the film endured and grew in local legend it also became an acknowledged part of Oregon culture and the brand of the university,’ notes Michael Aronson, head of the Department of Cinema Studies… `The problem is, the film is bad, really bad… It might be fondly remembered if you haven’t watched it in 30 years, but Animal House is awful; wildly misogynistic, homophobic, and racist.’”

This arrogant quote from a man in a position of power to condition and guide a generation of students to a greater understanding of the power and possibilities of film art (or any other kind), and the way he shuts down all discussion with loaded catch words without bothering (and this may be thanks to Stone and his editors as well) to articulate his claims, gives me chills. And Stone, the dutiful reporter, marches right along under the professor’s guiding principle, accepting claims about the movie, its subject and context, without much investigation. According to Caitlin Roberts, the UO’s director of fraternity and sorority life, “The film does not represent what fraternities were founded on or what our organizations are truly about.” This is an argument that sounds suspiciously akin to the one proffered by Greek system representatives at Oregon in 1977, when the movie was being proposed to school administrators and they were actively protesting the university’s involvement, an argument from which they quickly backed away once the movie became a local phenomenon during the fall of 1977 and then a national one a year later. If Animal House doesn’t represent the lofty ideals or intentions of the Greek system, that’s sort of the point— it’s much closer to another puncturing of the official tidal wave of self-aggrandizing bullshit with which institutions like universities and their social substrata frequently cloak themselves.

And, of course, the reaction of a student audience Stone observed watching Animal House was predictably tepid:

“They thought the plot was overstuffed and unstructured, and too much of the dialogue hinged on insults. They were critical of the gratuitous nudity. More than one viewer described the film as ‘old-fashioned’—an ominous sign with regards to any media artifact’s prospect for longevity. More ominous still, ‘overrated.’ And finally, the judgment that is most gravely portentous for anything intended to be timeless comedy: ‘Not all that funny.’”

Overstuffed? Unstructured?. Too many insults? Well, it’s true that Moliere and Oscar Wilde weren’t available when the script was being written. And God forbid anything be perceived as “old-fashioned,” which, as we all know, is the soul killer of the artistic endeavor, to say nothing of it being a huge obstacle to overcome in terms of a work’s longevity. Because the truly enduring works are those which haven’t had the misfortune of being tainted by time and its peculiar habit of sealing the attitudes, rhythms, presumptions and occasional artistic revelations of the people who made them in celluloid amber. And if I may clear my throat here, isn’t it rather boneheaded to presume that anyone, from Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers, to Preston Sturges, to Billy Wilder, to Mel Brooks or Harold Ramis or the Farrelly Brothers or anyone else, is necessarily shooting for “timeless” comedy? No, they’re shooting for laughs, plenty of which were in evidence when I saw Animal House with 1,000 other people at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood this past spring, people who also happened to be ignorant of the sealed-off proclamations of the esteemed and surely wise professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Oregon.

Of course, as the professor says, if it’s not all that funny, then into the trash bin of history it goes. Fuck it.

If I could, I’d like to hand the last word in this long rebuttal to what I consider essentially an anti-art argument over to a couple voices of reason and sanity who I’ve communicated with more than once on this issue, both of whom seem to have crystallized the rebuttal in a way that is far beyond the capabilities of my logorrheic self. First, in reaction to Cheadle’s nonsense, my friend Christopher Atwell, a very wise, considered fellow who also knows his way around the subject and application of good humor, wrote this on Facebook:

“These SJ W modern lens articles… always arrive at the unspectacular conclusion that old movies fail to reflect our current woke attitudes. No shit. The writer’s prescription– to “throw it in the trash”–  is more small minded, stupid, and worthless than the worst offending old movie. The only thing these writers seem to offer today is, “Can you believe how sexist/racist/homophobic people used to be?” That’s not news. Contextualize the work, glean its meaning, have the imagination to maybe try to understand what it reveals about the world that produced it. And if the damn thing is funny, don’t feel you need to clear it with the culture police in order to laugh.”

He continues:

“Just to belabor the point further, by contemporary woke standards, the universe of cartoon shorts is `problematic’ AF. Not just the overtly racist ones the studios have locked away, but a great many of the popular ones. And for a million reasons! All that getting shot in the face. All the ethnic humor. The disability jokes. The gay jokes. Everything. But they are glorious art. Hilarious as the day they were made. And revisiting them with my children proved to be one of the joys of parenting. Am I worried about polluting my kids with negative attitudes and old prejudices? No, because their mother and I are not raising morons. I’m arrogant enough to believe that (our) values are of greater importance to their development than Daffy Duck’s. I realize now I grew up in a totally irresponsible era. Films were all the better for it.”

And from the great wit of cultural critic and all-around good guy Phillip Dyess-Nugent comes this:

“I have just encountered the argument that Grand Illusion cannot be a great movie because its sympathetic view of its aristocratic characters compromises its wokeness. I am now going to go to Montana and live off the grid. If anyone approaches my door, I will shoot them and feed their bodies to the pigs that I will be working to cross-breed with chickens. When I die at the age of 112, surrounded by the cats I will have taught to communicate in Morse code and to play the stock market, I will have no idea what is going on in your so-called ‘civilized world,’ but I will be the only person who has ever tasted or will ever taste my delicious deep-fried porkchicken chops.”

Thank you, gentlemen. For myself, I have only two words further in defense of National Lampoon’s Animal House or any other movie that ends up in the crosshairs of this particularly disturbing moment in the decline of our culture, words from the movie itself which are emblematic both of its valuable anarchic spirit and the sentiment I hold for pieces like the ones which have caused my blood pressure to spike on this day, the 40th anniversary of a comedy classic. The two words? EAT ME.

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About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.