"Animal House goes to summer camp!" proclaimed Newsweek, and it makes a reasonable pitch. Quickly and cheaply filmed after the notorious college film's success, Meatballs (1979) features one of Saturday Night Live's Not Ready for Prime Time Players, a very loose plot, and a lot of youthful hijinks. Since we're at Camp North Star and not Faber College, the film has been pitched for a PG rating1, and it's not nearly as raunchy. The cast includes a lot of little kids and young teens,2 and the filmmakers clearly expected that camp-age kids would form part of the audience. As a result, Meatballs falls somewhere between a teen sex comedy and an After-School Special. "This is the 14-year-old girls cabin," Tripper explains to the male counselors-in-training. "They have the drive and the equipment, but not the experience-- and they better not get it from you." The film brought Bill Murray's comic stylings to a wider audience, while first-time director Ivan Reitman would build a career making films aimed at teen and college audiences.
I really didn't think of these things when I walked into the theatre back in '79. I was an adolescent, and this was a Canadian summer movie featuring that cool guy from Saturday Night Live, babes in bikinis, and a Local Boy3. Someone my older sisters knew actually had a supporting role, and the local media was playing up his involvement.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Len Blum, Daniel Goldburg, Harold Ramis, Janis Allen
Bill Murray as Tripper Harrison
Kate Lynch as Roxanne
Chris Makepeace as Rudy
Harvey Atkin as Morty
Jack Blum as "Spaz"
Keith Knight as Larry "Fink" Finkelstein
Matt Craven as "Hardware"
Kristine DeBell as A.L.
Russ Banham as Crockett
Sarah Torgov as Candace
Cindy Girling as Wendy
Todd Hoffman as "Wheels"
Margot Pinvidic as Jackie
Norma Dell'Agnese as Brenda
Peter Hume as The Stomach
Tripper "Trip" Harrison, a good-natured goofball employed at underfunded Camp North Star4 has charge of the male counselors-in-training, among his other duties. Murray as Trip pretty much carries the film, leading the CITs in shenanigans when he's not pursuing his female counterpart, Roxanne. He also finds time to encourage lonely, twelve-year-old Rudy to come into his own. Chris Makepeace (who would later appear in such films as My Bodyguard, The Falcon and the Snowman, and Vamp) plays nicely opposite the SNL veteran; I believed in their friendship. Kate Lynch, meanwhile, represents the kind of casting we see too little of in this genre. She's not underdressed eye candy; she's a resilient and fairly ordinary looking tomboy, exactly the kind of person one might expect to find as a head camp counselor.
Of course, the camp has a rivalry with rich, stuck-up Camp Mohawk across the lake. This plays out in various ways as the summer progresses, leading to the final Olympiad. The Mohawkers, predictably, prove to be better-trained and better-funded-- but also spoiled cheats. The North Stars have heart and spirit, and when they break the rules, it's because it's funny. Guess who wins?
The rest of the film consists of pranks, slapstick, raunchy dialogue, and screwball situations, most of which have little to do with each other. Two guys try to peep on the bedtime rituals of the gals, and get their comical comeuppance. Couples form, with results ranging from offscreen sex to a first kiss. People wear bad 70s clothing. Trip makes ridiculous non sequitur announcements on the camp P.A. and, most memorably, leads the campers in the classic "It Just Doesn't Matter!" scene. Numerous characters receive minimal development, but the actors play their roles engagingly. Even the stereotypes, myopic movie-nerd "Spaz" and comical fat guy "Fink" come across as believably human.
This is a very silly film, thrown together on a very low budget. And yet it made millions, becoming, for a brief while, the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time. Watching it again recently, I thought of the Beach Party movies of the 1960s. I have an aunt and uncle who loved those things, back in the day. I saw the same films on television when I was a teen5 and found them stupid beyond belief, though I could see how they might hold some nostalgic appeal and moronic charm. Meatballs, I expect, appeals to me for similar reasons. Despite all the suggestive remarks and obvious jokes, it has a strange innocence and considerable heart. I cannot call it great cinema, but I prefer it to most of the rowdier, raunchier "teen" films that followed. And it's certainly better than its sequels.
Meatballs spawned three-- sort of-- and a remake/sequel currently sits in pre-production. Whether this will be a reimagining of the original film or an actual sequel remains uncertain.
The American-made Meatballs Part II (1984) has no connection to the first, other than a summer camp setting. In this case, Camp Sasquatch hosts the lovable losers, who include a street punk doing community service and an extra-terrestrial inspired by a certain other hit film. The plot pits them against military Camp Patton. The cast includes a number of moderately well-known names: Richard Mulligan, John Larroquette, Misty Rowe and Paul Reubens. The film features more explicit scenes than the original-- but far more graphic material landed on the cutting room floor. The filmmakers removed many scenes to maintain a PG rating and appeal to the broader Meatballs demographic. Part II has a few laughs, and sightings these days come few and far between.
Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986), filmed in Quebec, at least maintains some vague continuity with the original. A deceased porn star, played by Sally Kellerman (whose career, sadly, had long passed its glory days) returns as a ghost, because she has to perform a good deed before she can be admitted into heaven. She decides to assist the older Rudy, now played by Patrick Dempsey, with the ladies. The film also features Canadian playmate-turned-actress Shannon Tweed and a lot of brief nudity. At this point, the series (such as it is) becomes R-rated.
We're back to the United States for Meatballs 4 (1992), a Corey Feldman comedy filmed as Happy Campers. The studio changed the title to cash in on the moderate success of the Meatballs "franchise." It features battling summer camps, youthful shenanigans, a former playmate (Cristy Thom), and an R-rating for nudity.
Forget these pretenders. For the true Meatballs experience, watch the original.
1. I suspect it would receive a PG-13 if released today.
2. In fact, the summer camp where much of the filming took place remained in operation during the shoot, and most of the extras were actual camp kids.
3. He never became famous, but he worked steadily as an actor for almost thirty years after Meatballs, playing dramatic roles in a bewildering variety of productions, and lending his voice to cartoons. He is best remembered as Meatballs' "Fink," however, a comedic performance reminiscent of John Candy. Sadly, Keith Knight died of cancer on August 23, 2007.
4. Filming took place in and around Haliburton, Ontario, most notably at Camp White Pine.
5. I'm not certain I ever saw any of them from start to finish, however.