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Recollections of Harold Ramis' Animal House, 'Double Secret Probation' Edition

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I will never forget going to see Animal House in the theaters. It was the fall of 1978, and my friend Mike Battin and his uncle took me to Showcase Cinemas in Orange, Conn., a suburb of New Haven, where there were numerous screens. In later years, the screens would multiply to 12 or so, but back in 1978 there may have been only four or five.

Mike's uncle had a well-groomed mustache with a goatee. He was a bachelor, and he wore a casual suit, beige as I recall, perfect for the 1970s. While he did not twirl the ends of his mustache, he had a fiendish, risqué quality about him. It was clear that he liked being in on some fun, even at his relatively advanced age of 40 or so at the time.

It was risqué after all to take a couple of boys, not yet 13 years old, to see an R-rated film.

Mike's parents would not do it, and neither would mine. But Mike's wild and crazy uncle took us.

Animal House may seem more than a little tame by today's standards. There are a few scenes of topless girls, but there is no full-frontal nudity, there is no profanity that I can remember, and the violence, to the extent that it occurs in the film, is mild, comical and raucous.

That is not to say that Animal House isn't subversive. The film is rife with a healthy skepticism of authority. One must keep in mind that when Harold Ramis and his colleagues wrote the film, it was only a few years after President Nixon had resigned and the Vietnam War had ended.

I can remember sitting at the dining room table at a relative's home in the 1980s when a blowhard adult, who happened to be a surgeon, pronounced arrogantly that his frat brother had written Animal House and that his frat brother had served as the model for Tim Matheson's Otter.

I immediately spoke up and said, "Harold Ramis wrote Animal House."

"No," this surgeon said, shaking his head, with the smugness of Greg Marmalard or Doug Niedermeyer, two of the "Hitler youth" in Animal House. That is the term Matheson's Otter uses to characterize them after he has received a beating.

The surgeon at my relative's home oozed with the moral corruption of the authority figures in Animal House. He was so arrogant that he did not mind that he was suppressing not only dissent but also the truth, just like John Vernon's Dean Wormer, the Nixonian dean of Faber College in the film.

Sadly, in the 1980s, I could not go to the Internet and immediately show the surgeon the credits of the film, which would have proved that Ramis was the lead writer of Animal House. I had to wait a month before I mailed the surgeon a clipping in a newspaper of a photo of Ramis. A caption beneath the photo indicated that Ramis had based the Delta House on his days as a student at Washington University.

"This is who wrote Animal House," I wrote next to the photo and mailed that surgeon the clipping.

Of course, anyone who has heard the speeches of Otter and Dean Wormer, speeches layered with over-the-top legal terms like "codicil," used in the famous "Double Secret Probation" speech, knows that those speeches could only have been written by a comic genius, who was as well versed in politics and the law as he was in Sid Caesar and the Borscht Belt.

While it was true that a few other writers contributed to Animal House, Ramis was clearly the architect of those great speeches, almost orations, in the film, speeches that were so resonant of the counter culture of the 1970s.

"The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests," says Otter, as he strolls along the courtroom in his tacky suit. "We did!" he adds, as he gives a knowing wink to Dean Wormer.

Flabbergasted, Wormer squints in ire and confusion. Otter has previously bedded the dean's wife at a toga party, earlier in the film.

Just before beginning his opening statement in the courtroom, a scene evocative of the McCarthy hearings, as others have aptly suggested, Otter reassures Peter Riegert's Boon, his buddy, that he is "pre-law."

"I thought you were pre-med."

"What's the difference?"

That too gets at the heart of Ramis' humor. Ramis represented all of us who have struggled, all of us who have not gone the conventional route, who have not ended up in medicine or law, for instance.

Think of all of Ramis' lovable characters, not only the goofballs in Animal House, like John Belushi's Bluto, but also Bill Murray's stoned-out greenskeeper, Rodney Dangerfield's gauche real estate developer and Chevy Chase's studly Ty Webb in Caddyshack, a film Ramis co-wrote and directed.

Not one of those characters is other than true to the counter culture or at least to an alternative approach to life. They all happily defy authority figures, at least those who are corrupt, like Dean Wormer or Ted Knight's Judge Smails in Caddyshack.

"Are you my pal, Mr. Scholarship winner?" says Smails, extending his hand to Michael O'Keefe's Danny Noonan, another lovable underachiever in the Ramis ouevre.

"Yes, sir," says Noonan, warily shaking the hand of the man whose money may pay for his college education. "I'm your pal."

Then, Smails tousles Noonan's hair and in another nod to the 1970s, says, "How about a Fresca?"

Just as he had in Animal House, Ramis let us know how he felt about the law and authority not only by showing the corruption of Smails but also by depicting his judicial clerk, Chuck Schick, as a typically pretentious snob. "Are you going to Hah-vahd too?" Schick inquires.

No," says Noonan, muttering the name of some made-up school. "St. Copias of..."

About five years ago, my wife and I watched the "Double Secret Probation" video edition of Animal House. I did not laugh as uproariously as I had as a youth, which saddened me. Was it possible that the film had not aged well?

But that could not be. I still quoted from Animal House and Caddyshack "very liberally," as a buddy of mine attested.

I concluded that my lack of uproarious laughter probably said more about the years of severe depression that I had endured than it did about any diminution in the satirical powers of Harold Ramis, whose speeches uttered by Dean Wormer and Otter will always flow through my brain.

As will my memories of seeing Animal House for the first time at the Showcase Cinemas in Orange, Conn.

On the way home, as I sat in the back seat of the car of my friend Mike's uncle, his uncle asked me what my favorite scene in the movie was.

I did not have to think long. "The one where John Belushi climbs the ladder and watches the girl undress in her room," I said, recalling that moment where Mary Louise Weller's Mandy Pepperidge takes off her top, the first time I had ever caught a glimpse of the female form.

"Why did you like that scene so much?" Mike's dirty uncle said, as he craned his neck back at me and grinned fiendishly.

Maybe, he too was a Harold Ramis creation, a subversive anti-authority figure, living unconventionally as a bachelor in the 1970s.