Book on making of 'Animal House' is cheery if thin

Associated Press
John Belushi stars in "Animal House."

Photo by Anonymous, AP2007

Associated Press John Belushi stars in "Animal House."

"Fat, Drunk, & Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of 'Animal House'" (St. Martin's Press), by Matty Simmons: Making-of movie books work best when they look back at those relatively few films that become ingrained in the culture. And nearly 35 years after college students first chanted "To-ga! To-ga!" the raucous comedy "Animal House" is certainly that.

Its popularity was hardly a given when National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons followed through on a notion to use the humor magazine as the foundation for a movie. The magazine's sensibility — bitingly satirical and anti-authoritarian with a good dose of bad taste — had not yet taken over the soul of mainstream comedy when writers Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller started kicking around a script.

Still, as Simmons recalls in the cheery "Fat, Drunk, & Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of 'Animal House,'" the National Lampoon's penchant for going over the top had to be tamped down. Scatological moments came off-screen, only suggested by the soundtrack instead of presented in widescreen color. The idea of beer barrels blasting through the forehead of a JFK bust atop a homecoming float was deemed a bit much.

Simmons, the movie's producer, peppers his book with such tidbits about what was — the young, somewhat inexperienced cast bonded like the Deltas they would portray — and what could have been. Both "Dragnet" actor Jack Webb, offered the role of Dean Wormer, and the University of Missouri, asked to be the stand-in for Faber College, declined to participate after reading the raunchy script.

Shooting "Animal House" was all business. Even actor John Belushi was on his best behavior, not yet a star given to self-destruction.

The movie's incredible success — by Simmons' accounting it cost about $3 million and brought in $140 million — all but guaranteed a sequel. It never happened, arguably because the ideas were lame and uninspired, not that Simmons calls them that.

Therein lay a weakness of "Fat, Drunk, & Stupid." The author approaches his subject like the movie's producer instead of a writer eager to analyze closely the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, its lore and its legacy. At times the narrative is perfunctory, and the interviews with cast members and others are not always enlightening.

Simmons' idea for the magazine's follow-up movie was closer to the spirit of its debut film: "National Lampoon's Jaws 3, People 0." He says he heard that the project was torpedoed by a certain director who didn't like the idea of his hit film being satirized.

The spirit of Dean Wormer lives on.

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