The first thing I saw online about Harold Ramis' death was Jason Reitman’s tweet, comparing the loss of Ramis to that of losing a Beatle. Which, yeah, to someone around my age, feels about right.
Egon was my favorite Ghostbuster. Feels like we lost one of the Beatles.
— Jason Reitman (@JasonReitman) February 24, 2014
Ramis had a creative hand in some of the most influential and beloved comedies in the cultural zeitgeist: “SCTV,” “Meatballs,” "Animal House," “Caddyshack,” "Stripes," “Ghostbusters,” "Groundhog Day” ... the list goes on and on. It was almost impossible to be a little kid in the 1980s and not be touched in some way by Ramis’ work.
Like a lot of people my age, my first memories of Ramis involve his role as Egon Spengler in “Ghostbusters.” What I didn’t realize at that time is that the guy who played Egon in “Ghostbusters” and Russell Ziskey in “Stripes” had also directed two of the funniest comedies of all time: “Caddyshack,” and the movie I want to talk a little more about right now, “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
Just this past weekend, I saw the Blu-ray for “Vacation” in a discount bin and decided to upgrade from my old DVD version, which was also a good excuse to watch “Vacation” again, which I did Saturday night.
It’s remarkable how deftly John Hughes’ material is used in the film. While “Caddyshack” relies on over-the-top characters, with a hint of slapstick (along with the built-in, almost crass “slobs versus snobs” appeal), “Vacation” is a marvel of almost deadpan perfection. Every single line is delivered so perfectly. While “Caddyshack” is a comedy masterpiece, “Vacation” proved Ramis could direct.
Take the scene in Dodge City, Kansas for example. Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) is complaining about the “crummy” actor who is playing Wyatt Earp, citing the fact that this particular Wyatt Earp happens to be wearing jogging shoes. Without missing a beat, Chevy Chase responds, “Ah, they used to, Russ.” It's almost so quick that you miss it. It's not played for the big laugh, it's played as something that's immediately quotable.
Another example: After Clark (Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) move off of a malfunctioning vibrating bed onto the floor, their two kids, Rusty and Audrey (Dana Barron) come into the room. The kids ask where their mother is, who they can't see because she is under the covers. Chase starts to make a motion with his thumb that she’s in the other room, right before D’Angelo speaks her line from under the covers that the kids should go back to bed. With this, Chase, without drawing attention to himself (which is a tough thing for Chase to do), turns his point into a scratch.
It’s a small scene, but it could have been played big and for dumb laughs. Instead, you really have to be paying attention to even notice that it happened. The original “Vacation” is filled with small moments like this.
Amy Heckerling would direct the okay, but lesser sequel, “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.” Jeremiah Chechik would direct the immensely popular, but nowhere near as smart “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” It’s with "Christmas Vacation" where we can see what Ramis brought to the original film as a director. Every scene in “Christmas Vacation” is played big and seems to be there just to let Chase mug for the camera. Instead of small moments, we get Clark’s Christmas lights knocking out all of the power in Chicago.
Don’t get me wrong, “Christmas Vacation” is a good movie, it’s just obviously not directed by Harold Ramis.
The epitome of Ramis’ direction can be found in “Groundhog Day,” a movie that has had so many countless, terrific essays written about it, I won’t even try here. But what we saw in “Groundhog Day” was a director at the top of his game. This was not the same director who made “Caddyshack,” but we had seen glimpses of the guy who directed “Groundhog Day” in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Those seeds had been planted.
As an aside, my friend and a publicist at Tribeca Film, Brandon Rohwer, had met Ramis in 2009 while working for the Nantucket Film Festival. Brandon adores Ramis and this was the one time he’d get a chance to meet his hero –- which, a lot of times in these types of situations, depending on the mood of said hero, can be soul-crushing.
Brandon had brought a couple of items from his immense “Ghostbusters” collection with him, just in case it happened to come up in conversation. As he tells it now, he didn’t know quite what he’d do with these items, but, they were there … just in case. When Brandon approached Ramis to say hello, Ramis noticed Brandon’s items and asked about them.
“Holy cow!,” Ramis exclaimed, “I can’t believe you have the original Stay Puft! I haven’t seen one of these in awhile.” Ramis grabbed the Stay Puft Marshmallow man and an Egon action figure out of Brandon’s bag, mashing them together like he was a little kid, yelling, “POW, POW, POW!” as he did so. As Brandon tells it, here’s a movie there’s no doubt Ramis is approached about every day he’s in public, but, on this day, he had time to “play Ghostbusters” with one of his biggest fans.
You will be missed, Harold Ramis,
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.