At 25: “The Great Outdoors”

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June 17, 2013 by billysparrow

220px-The_Great_Outdoors_(film)_Poster

The Great Outdoors

Released: June 17, 1988

Starring: John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Stephanie Faracy, Annette Bening, Chris Young, Ian Giatti, Hilary Gordon, Rebecca Gordon, Lucy Deakins, Robert Prosky, Bart the Bear

June 17, 1988. A day that will forever be marked in the History of James Sigman (pre-order it on Amazon for 2076 delivery). A day that should be celebrated by all lovers of comedy. A day that saw our world reach greater heights than ever imagined.

Yes, June 17, 1988, is when the world was blessed with “The Great Outdoors,” the first full-blown pairing of Dan Aykroyd and John Candy in a film (yes, they’re in “The Blues Brothers,” but they’re vaguely in one scene together). My two comedic heroes were starring in a movie, and a movie written and produced by John Hughes! It would have been impossible for 11-year-old me to hate this movie upon initial viewing. And it is equally impossible for 36-year-old me to hate this movie upon the, oh, 173rd viewing. In fact, I didn’t even really need to rewatch the movie, as I have it just about committed to memory at this point. But, hey, if I’m going to be put into a situation where I’m being forced to watch it again as part of a project absolutely no one requested I pursue and roughly two people read, I guess I’ll pull out the VHS copy recently unearthed at the Sigman Estate and give it a whirl.

I should note that this very VHS tape, which also has “Dragnet” and “The Couch Trip” on it (I’m still not sure I’ve made it all the way through the latter), was the catalyst for one of my more embarrassing grammar school moments. You will, of course, remember those glorious days in the school year when the teachers ran out of (a) desire and/or (b) things to teach and proposed a day in which you got to watch a movie. By the time, I had reached eighth grade, this day, while still welcome, was also a tiny bit dreaded. Sure, we would be spared having to learn anything from a textbook, which is, of course, great. But, because we were in Catholic school, we would instead sit through a family movie–preferably rated G, but a soft PG would do–almost completely devoid of anything interesting to a preteen/teen living in the real world. I am sure there were many through the years, but the one that sticks out the most was “The Trouble With Angels,” which, while, I suppose, not a terrible movie, is entirely about a Catholic school, and I think one of the students decides to become a nun at the end. That seemed a bit much.

So, to the best of my recollection, the class staged a peaceful, respectful, holy revolt and suggested that, maybe the next time, the class could pick the movie. Somehow, (a) our teacher, Mrs. Scalegnio, caved and (b) I was chosen to be the most responsible person in the class and, thus, could provide a selection of movies from which to choose. I do not know how or why this happened (I suspect my spelling bee mastery might have played a part…ah, the perks of nerddom), but, once given this task, I attacked it with great ferocity. I spent many nights poring through the racks of the local video stores, mulling over possible selections that would be both funny and inoffensive, an admittedly daunting combination for a 13-year-old. R-rated movies were clearly out, but even PG-13 ones were out of the question, even though everyone in the class was either 13 or 14.

So I set my focus on PG movies only. Then I tried to remember what was in those PG movies that could potentially raise the hackles of an eighth-grade teacher (“Police Academy 4,” for instance, had way too much boob). I didn’t have time to rewatch all these movies (and I was, of course, sticking only to movies I’d seen, because to pick an unseen one was leaving too much to chance), so I had to go by memory alone.

I finally came up with a bunch of what I thought were safe choices, all of which I had recorded off HBO and thus didn’t need to spend the extra money renting. I brought in the tapes, circled the movies on the labels that I thought would be good, and presented them to Mrs. Scalegnio. I don’t remember why she settled on “The Great Outdoors” (I think one of the other choices might have been “Walk Like A Man”), but she did.

Then, once the tape was in the VCR, I remembered all the scenes I should have remembered when I was thinking this through.

Uh-oh.

There’s the scene in the first five minutes when Roman (Dan Aykroyd), upon driving up to the resort where he is to surprise Chet (John Candy) and his family with the news that they will be joining them on their vacation, says “Chet’s gonna shit a solid-gold brick.” There’s the scene within the first 10 minutes when Chet tries to get his wife, Connie (Stephanie Faracy), into bed and starts taking her clothes off. There’s the scene a few minutes later when Roman is talking to Chet, Connie, and his wife, Kate (Annette Bening, in her film debut), about hot dogs and asks, “You know what those things are made out of, don’t you? Lips and assholes.”

There may have been mention of lips in “The Trouble With Angels,” but I’m pretty sure there was no talk of assholes.

Roughly 15 minutes into the movie, I went into a bit of a panic. My classmates are laughing, but Mrs. Scalegnio seems a bit taken aback. Eight years of being the Good Kid in grammar school are about to go out the window. I need a plan.

My plan, such as it was, was to launch into a coughing fit just before something even mildly offensive was said, with the hopes that said hacking would drown out the bad parts. I was my very own FCC, making sure objectionable language did not reach the ears of the young, and that they could not hear at all the scene where Kate relates to Connie about how she gets so lonely that she rubs up against the washer during the spin cycle. At the time, I’m not sure I even knew what that meant, but it sounded like something that could get me in trouble.

As best I can recall, I wasn’t expelled. I don’t even think I was reprimanded. I’m pretty sure we watched the whole movie, so it probably wasn’t nearly as big a deal as my cough-censoring indicated. But it was the most unpleasant viewing of “The Great Outdoors” I’ve ever had.

Well, the only unpleasant viewing. “The Great Outdoors” is, in fact, one of two movies I’ve seen twice in the theaters (the other, coincidentally, is up next): the first probably opening weekend at the UA Travis in Staten Island and the second soon after at the Orpheum in Tannersville, NY. I think I went by myself the first time, but the second time I begged my mother to take me when we’re upstate. She claims this begging and her subsequently not really being in the mood to see the movie caused her to not like it all that much, at least at first. When I rented it on video (probably the day it came out; I later convinced one of the local video stores to give me the poster, which I still have), my mom watched it again and came over to the right side.

My mom would generally watch videos after I went to bed, and, if the movie was particularly funny, I could hear her unbridled laughter from downstairs. Such was the case on her second viewing of “The Great Outdoors,” particularly Chet’s unintended waterskiing off the back of Suck My Wake.

And it’s later in the movie, so I probably slept through it, but I have no doubt there was also much laughter coming from the TV room during the “Old 96er” scene. To this day, whenever we are at a restaurant and the portions are particularly large, the Old 96er is referenced. I do not anticipate this ending anytime soon. Nor should it.

That scene also features one of the unsung heroes of the film: Annette Bening’s pretentious laugh. It is so perfectly irritating.

Kudos also should be extended to another unheralded star of “The Great Outdoors,” Robert Prosky, who plays Wally, the owner of the lodge. There are many lines from “The Great Outdoors” that run through my head on a daily basis, but his “The pants are riding up the butt something fierce” is right among the top. Others include “Go loose when you fall,” “There’s nothing on that plate but gristle and fat,” “You wouldn’t know a good time if it fell out of the sky, landed on your face, and started to wiggle,” and, of course, “Big bear chase me!”

But none of those are at the very top. My favorite line from “The Great Outdoors” is from the scene where Chet and Roman are at the bar and meet Reg, the guy who’s been struck in the head by lightning. How many times, you ask?

But that is not my favorite line. My favorite line is a throwaway at the end of that scene, delivered when Roman gets up off his bar stool and says the following to Chet, Reg, and the bartender:

I laugh out loud every time (as I suspect my eighth-grade classmates might have had they heard it over my coughing). Every time. Even at age 36. This is probably not something I should be admitting on the Internet. Oh well. Thank God nobody reads these things.

Hey, while I’m admitting things I shouldn’t, why not tell you that at the age of 36, I still think I have a crush on Lucy Deakins, who plays Cammie, the local (you don’t know how local she is) waitress, who was probably 15 when this was filmed. But, I should point out, in an effort to avoid arrest, that I have Googled her (the part that doesn’t sound so creepy is coming up), and, if her photo from the law firm where she works is any indication, she is still hot. And, lucky for her, she moved to the Denver office from the New York office, so I am less likely to stand outside her place of business in an attempt to “accidentally” bump into her.

Perhaps what draws me in most to “The Great Outdoors” is the setting: a family summer vacation in the mountains. That same setting is the only one I had for each and every one of my summer vacations, either at a resort called Eva’s Farm in Purling, NY (which in 1988 had a Donkey Kong where you could put full names on the High Scores board, and so I put Chet Ripley) or, later, in a summer rental in Windham, NY. My dad was slimmer, my mom wasn’t blonde, my older brother was actually a sister, I wasn’t a poor man’s Fred Savage, and we weren’t surprised by obnoxious and allegedly wealthy family members, but other than that, it was pretty similar. We likely heard “Yakety Yak” on the radio driving up. I played pool terribly in an attempt to seem cool. And we went upstate largely because both my parents did (they actually went to separate resorts in the same small town when they were kids and didn’t know of each other’s existence at the time). It was a family tradition, and a great one, one I will always hold close to my heart. And, sometimes, when I’m up there now and come upon a mountainside full of trees, my thoughts echo those of Chet Ripley at the end of this scene.

“The Great Outdoors” might be a Top 10 film for me. Those of you who scoff at this, the Roman Craigs of the world, should blow it out your asses. But I’m just about ready to watch it again if you want to give it another shot.

I promise not to cough through the cursing. Or any mentions of spin cycles.

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One thought on “At 25: “The Great Outdoors”

  1. […] (and who bears a striking resemblance to Dan Aykroyd’s Roman Craig from the same year’s “The Great Outdoors”), finds Nada and Frank and invites them to a meeting of the underground human movement. Then that […]

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