It’s impossible to explain to anyone who wasn’t around when this movie came out what its impact was. It changed comedy.
It came directly from the minds at the National Lampoon. In 1973’s National Lampoon’s High School Yearbook, writer Doug Kenney created the characters of Larry Kroger, Mandy Pepperidge, and Vernon Wormer, who by and large appear exactly the same in this film. Several of the stories of Lampoon writer Chris Miller also inspired this movie.
With an original script that was basically page after page of vomit, director John Landis was selected on the basis of his film The Kentucky Fried Movie. He added the idea that there had to be good guys and bad guys.
Originally, the cast was going to be Chevy Chase as Otter, Bill Murray as Boon, Brian Doyle-Murray as Hoover, Dan Aykroyd as D-Day (which makes sense, as the motorcycle-loving character is pretty much Aykroyd) and John Belushi as Bluto. Only Belushi would end up being in the film. At one point, Jack Webb was going to be Dean Wormer with Kim Novak as his wife, but he backed out.
At the time of filming, Belushi was only a star on Saturday Night Live and the studio wanted another star. Luckily, Landis was friends with Donald Sutherland and often babysat his son Kiefer. Thinking the film wouldn’t be a success, he did it for a day rate versus points, which cost the actor around $14 million dollars.
That said, without Sutherland, the movie wouldn’t have been made.
Much like the best of comedies — you will see this as a thread in most of my explorations of them — this is more of a series of vignettes than an overall narrative. The main story, though, concerns College Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) and his battles against the sloppy and silly Delta Tau Chi fraternity.
My favorite part of this movie is something that was taken and used so many times by so many other lesser films: the final fates of many of the characters are revealed via text before the credits roll. For example, Babs becomes a tour guide at Universal Studios. Many of the films of John Landis have an ad for Universal Studios that ends by saying, “Ask for Babs”. That was a secret joke that for a while would give lucky visitors a discount or even a free ticket.
Sadly, National Lampoon writer and editor P.J. O’Rourke blamed this movie for magazine’s death. After Animal House‘s success, Hollywood came with money in hand, paying the writers more than they’d ever make at the magazine. But then, none of their scripts would be all that great, which hurt their careers and the reputation of the Lampoon.