From a close read of the first few scenes of Animal House (1978), I’d like to rupture the illusion that its comedy does not merit further thought than the surface laughs we get every time we read the Faber College motto, “Knowledge is Good.” These first few scenes (credits included) show it to be a movie that should be taken seriously. Director John Landis was largely untested at this point in his career, but his instinctual grasp of how to begin a great battle of us versus them prefaces his tremendous, commensurate later work such as The Blues Brothers (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Trading Places (1983).
Consider: the film begins with a stately neoclassical building looming over the frame, reading “Faber College 1962.” Cut to two young, suited men emerging from an L-shaped dorm that looks it may have been the height of architectural style at the time. Recall that Chris Miller ’63, a former member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity — now Alpha Delta — penned the script, along with The National Lampoon’s Harold Ramis and Douglas Kennedy. Did Miller have any say in location scouting? With the dormitory’s resemblance to the River residential cluster, a modern Dartmouth student has to wonder. But I digress.
With its emphasis on the dignified exteriors of campus architecture shot from low angles to evoke monuments, this opening two-shot sequence establishes the grave grandeur of the iconic college campus. Enveloped by its edifices, the two students become anonymous entities merely passing through the doors of the institution. The beginning remarkably captures the essence of the college campus tour: because each tour guide promulgates the same information as the last, the listener becomes transfixed by the various columns and engraved Roman numerals.
But as the title “National Lampoon’s Animal House” is superimposed over this made-for-admissions-like prelude, the film clues you in to its intentions: it is about to fracture, interlope and generally decimate all your respectable impressions of college. All sorts of little comedic brushstrokes start to interrupt the staid landscape — as Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) and Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) pass by the neoclassical building, Kent fixes his fly; they walk behind an imposing statue of the founder college Emil Faber with the inscription “AD 1904, ‘Knowledge is good.’”
In addition to completely undermining all the stuffed-up gravitas of the campus, the brilliant, oft-quoted “Knowledge is Good” motto is significant for the way it fades into the next insignia in the film, the Greek letters of stuffy fraternity Omega Theta Pi (ΩθΠ). The implication is clear: the fraternities determine the real order of law at Faber College. Within this alternate administration, Omega House is really just an extension of the administration, provoking the film’s first thematic emphasis on the limits and prejudices of tradition.
The gilt frames of its paintings, the Jackie O.–like outfits of its female greeters at fraternity rush (all of whose dialogue is tinged with Southern accents and weak wit, for emphasis) — and of course the madras blazer and carnations of the fraternity’s greeter — all signal that stepping into Omega is practically voluntary confinement to the values of the Man. Though Larry hisses to Kent, “Take off that beanie!” before entering — the blue-and-yellow headware signals he’s a freshman — there are plenty of potential new members inside with them on. Being cool in Omega, it seems, requires adherence to Faber’s old-boy tradition. Practically the entire infrastructure of Faber’s respectable side is an Omega, including the captain of the swim team and the editor of the school paper. Oh, and the guy playing piano.
As the president of Omega House says to his most promising PNM, Chip (a young Kevin Bacon, wearing the sneer that will make him famous in so many films after), “We have our share of campus leaders. Something that never looks bad on your permanent record, Chip.” Just like the faux-intellectuality of “Knowledge is Good,” Omega’s well-coiffed president talks a bit too slowly.
Meanwhile, the not-so-promising candidates are sequestered on the couch, including any non-white visitors and the blind kid in a wheelchair. At one point, the viewer gets a nice point-of-view shot from the blind kid’s position, portraying us all as outsiders to this bastion of exclusivity.
In many ways, the Omega House set piece reveals just how different Dartmouth’s current system Greek system is from our fictional counterparts at Faber College. For one, it is very difficult to envision even a single fraternity on this campus as a mere extension of the administration (or any brother wearing that deadly combination of madras and a carnation, even for flair). Second, the presence of women at men’s rush today is practically unthinkable. Omega’s exclusive recruitment of the white and privileged still, however, echoes of choice Greek criticism today. The latest Duke University scandal comes to mind.
For me, one simple gesture — and Animal House is so expert at these simple, candid moments — completely encapsulates the experience of rushing, even today. Omega’s rush chair tells Larry and Kent as they enter the fraternity’s lavish parlor, “We just want you to enjoy yourselves while you’re here.” And as both head towards the piano, the rush chair forcefully maneuvers them in the opposite direction to the couch. If that moment doesn’t express the elaborate social ballet that is rush, I don’t know what does.