The passing of stentorian actor John Vernon, who died February 1 at his home in Los Angeles of complications from heart surgery, has been noted here and there on the site, but we have not afforded him the appropriate recognition of a formal obit: Dean Wormer, we hardly knew ye.
Born Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz in 1932 in Saskatchewan, Vernon studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, did repertory work in England and was heard off-screen as the voice of Big Brother in the 1956 film 1984. He returned to Canada to appear on stage and on television, including the starring role in the 1960s drama “Wojeck,” in which he played a coroner.
“John was superb. He really knew how to use the camera, and vocally he was just born to have a mike nearby,” Ted Follows, his co-star in “Wojeck,” told The Canadian Press.
After appearing on Broadway in “Royal Hunt of the Sun” he became a steady player in U.S. films, making his debut in director John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967) as a turncoat tossed to his death by Lee Marvin. He also did a variety of voice roles for American cartoons.
Vernon appeared, usually as a heavy, Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969); Don Siegel,’s Dirty Harry (1971), and Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).
After Animal House, he reprised his role in the TV spinoff Delta House (1979). Other comedy roles followed, including the part of Mr. Big in the film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988.
Check out Vernon’s voluminous film and TV credits here – his last 10 years were spent doing mostly voice work (and what a voice!)
But most notable, of course, was his hilarious, pitch-perfect portrayal of the autocratic, determined, devious, cuckolded Dean Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House, my review of the 25th anniversary “Double Secret Probation” DVD of which follows:
One of the wildest, funniest movies of all time, a 25th anniversary version of National Lampoon’s Animal House comes out on DVD tomorrow with bonus material “Where Are They Now? A Delta Alumni Update,” “Did You Know That (Universal Animated Anecdotes),” and “The Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion.”
Animal House is the only work of popular art to successfully recreate the empowerment of youth that was the impetus behind the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of 1955. All of those pent up juices running rampant within all of those adolescent bodies, hyperheating themselves into gas, had to blow eventually. When the sound connected to the feeling, that stuff blew out of there like lava out of Mt. St. Helens. Dust from Mt. St. Helens circled the earth for years after the blast. The dust from 1955 has yet to settle.
Animal House, set in the early ’60s, recreates the conditions under which rock ‘n’ roll was launched. Larry (Tom Hulse) and Kent (Stephen Furst) are Freshmen at Faber College and are rushing the fraternities. The first one they visit is Omega. “Now I’m not going to say that Omega is the best house on campus, but a lot of outstanding guys figure they’ll pledge Omega or they won’t pledge at all. We do have more than our share of campus leaders. Something that never looks bad on your permanent record, Chip,” who is Kevin Bacon in his first screen role, setting up the first degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Kent is oblivious to the fact that he couldn’t possibly fit into this rarefied social environment, where the Social Dance is as complex as a gavotte. Larry is painfully aware that he is an “unacceptable candidate” at the Omega house. He and Kent are, after all, “a wimp and a blimp.”
So they press on, Larry discouraged, Kent ever optimistic. Larry’s problem is that his social ambitions far outstrip his social prospects.
Kent – “Look no sweat, my brother Fred was a Delta, that makes me a legacy. They gotta take me, it’s like their law. Don’t worry, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Larry – “Great, I heard Delta is the worst house on campus.”
This is the penultimate moment. In my birth of rock ‘n’ roll analogy, this pause represents the days just before The Blackboard Jungle was released. The calm before the storm. The world would never be the same after the next instant.
In real life, the revolution came with the “Rock Around the Clock” intro to Blackboard Jungle. In Animal House, the change comes as the severed lower torso of a mannequin comes hurtling through a second story window of the Delta house, liberating the sound of “Louie, Louie” from within. The dam is burst. The forces of anarchy and social dislocation swirl and expand to reach their full height, like the forces unleased from Pandora’s box.
The next figure that they meet is the embodiment of these forces, the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll: John Belushi as Bluto. He pees on their feet, not out of maliciousness but out of a preoccupation with the responsibilities encumbent upon such an archetypal figure. He takes his job seriously.
“Excuse me sir, is this the Delta house?”
“Sure c’mon in.”
Invitation to the bacchanal. This is the moment that the audience connects with. From here on the audience is willing to forgive the movie its many sins, including a ludicrous ending.
The screen comes alive when either the protagonist Bluto, or his worthy antagonist, Dean Wormer, are present.
Dean (John Vernon) Wormer – “Greg, what is the worst fraternity on campus?… Who dumped a whole truck load of fizzies into the swimming meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween the trees are filled with underwear, every spring the toilets explode.”
Omega President (James Daughton) – “You’re talking about Delta, sir”
Wormer – …”the time has come for someone to put their foot down and that foot, is me.”
The battle lines are drawn. Anarchy Man vs. the Foot of Repression. Even the forces of Anarch have conventions, just very fluid and ever-changing ones. The job of the rock ‘n’ roll adherent is to keep up with these changing conventions, to be on the edge, riding the envelope as the universe expands.
The Anarchists do appropriate things: throw drunken parties with rock ‘n’ roll music, smoke pot, lock a horse in the Dean’s office where it dies of a heart attack, run amok through the cafeteria eating both edible and inedible objects, (“Don’t you have any respect for yourself?”), start a food fight, take liberties with female guests, are voyeuristic, cheat on tests, and wreck the town.
The Authoritarians, conversely, run the campus, control the ROTC, are sexually repressed, pursue the anarchists, go down in flames in the final reversal. Just like the forces of rock ‘n’ roll vs the Establishment. Rock and roll persists as a cultural entity because it expresses the youthful emotions of liberation. It is a neotenous art form. Rock ‘n’ roll persists as a commercial entity because adults found a way to make money off of it. Animal House tapped into that same commercial wellspring.
Animal House also points out a very important sociological aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Rebels and Nerds teamed up together to overcome the repression of the Winners and the Establishment. The Winners teamed with the Establishment because it was through the Establishment’s system that they had become Winners. The Rebels and the Nerds teamed because they fought a common enemy.
There is another, more obvious reason for Animal House’s appeal. It represents everyone’s (at least for males) fantasy of what college was like, should be like, or will be like.
“You can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t you blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, 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. Gentlemen!”
(Many are now answering “yes” to all of those questions, but that’s another mater) Animal House encourages excessive drinking, women as sex objects, rock ‘n’ roll as a way of life, and the party as a state of grace. It says that anything goes, as long as it goes with style. Style is the key element, because otherwise, what distinguishes you from the riffraff?
Getting shitfaced drunk and riding around campus naked on a motorcycle is cool because it shows style. Getting shitfaced and puking in the jacuzzi isn’t cool, because it doesn’t. Your fraternity brother’s main reason for existence is to witness your exploits with style. You must have witnesses or what’s the point? It’s as important to regale your comrades with verifiable tales of stylish exploits as it is to have them. In fact the reason behind the deeds may, in fact, be to have something about which to tell stories.
Animal House is a litmus test of affinity for the rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. Either you have it:
“it finds some kind of precarious balance between insanity and accuracy, between cheerfully wretched excess and an ability to reproduce the most revealing nuances of human behavior.” Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion.
Mick Martin and Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide – “If you’re into rock ‘n’ roll, partying and general craziness, this picture is for you. We gave it a 95, because it has a good beat and you can dance to it.” (Now that’s a review.)
Or you don’t:
Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies and Video Guide, “Spoof of early 1960s college life is only sporadically funny, depends largely on Belushi’s mugging as frat-house animal,”
Harold Schechter’s The New Gods, Psyche and Symbol Popular Art, “the film, is clearly a low-budget production and often amateurish … the crudeness, the primitivity of the film – its choppy editing, cheap look and narrative incoherencies serve to convey the essence … as does the puerility of the humor, which consists entirely of very broad slapstick and childish, vulgar jokes.”
Halliwell’s Film and Video Guide – “A ragbag of college gags, of interest only to those who have had the experience.”
So Animal House’s success as one of the most lucrative comedies of all time ($140 million in North American theaters) shouldn’t have come as such a surprise: the movie divided the world into those with the rock ‘n’ roll sensibility and those without it. And it still does.