We can do anything we want. We’re college students!
–Tagline for Animal House, 1978
So went the battle cry of the Deltas, the “worst” fraternity at Faber College and the anarchic scourge of its campus administration. When it was released in 1978, Animal House was a low-budget college movie with a cast of mostly unknowns that went on to bust box-office records, launch a few careers, and rocket the genre of gross-out comedies into the mainstream. By today’s standards Animal House now seems incredibly tame, almost endearingly so. But when it first hit theaters it was heralded as a subversive punch from the counterculture. This was less a reflection of the film’s politics than of its gleeful embrace of the obscene.
And yet a year before Animal House was celebrated for unleashing the Deltas upon the American zeitgeist, another comedy — this one with a high profile director and bona-fide movie star attached to it — was received with confusion and disdain for its similarly raunchy aesthetic. Directed by George Roy Hill and starring the venerable Paul Newman, Slap Shot was regarded upon its release in 1977 as a mere cultural oddity, and it was not until years later that its reputation was resuscitated into that of an enduring cult classic.
The gritty portrayal of a depraved minor league hockey team that resorts to game time violence in order to boost attendance was a stark departure in tone for the team of Newman and Hill. The two had previously collaborated on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and in doing so forged one of the most iconic and profitable partnerships in cinematic history. In fact, it was due to the success of these twin ventures that Hill at one point enjoyed the distinction of being the only director to have made two of the top ten all-time grossing films. So when he veered off from the romantic adventurism he had become famous for to focus on the provincial barbarism of the Charlestown Chiefs, and enlisted Newman as their disreputable player-coach, critics disapproved and audiences stayed away.
The bulk of the criticism was launched squarely at the film’s overt vulgarity. “There is nothing in the history of movies,” lamented Richard Schickel in TIME, “to compare with Slap Shot for consistent low-level obscenity of expression.” In Sports Illustrated Frank Deford moved beyond the film’s language to indict its entire hedonistic ethos. “It is a gratuitous performance,” he wrote of Newman as the sleazy veteran Reggie Dunlop, “as the violence is gratuitous, as the vulgarity is, as even the sex is.” The unapologetic crudity that would a year later be celebrated in Animal House was for Slap Shot listed as a liability.
What may have turned the rowdy spirit sour for some critics was the definite harshness that infused it. Though Slap Shot trampled into theaters with an enthusiastic swagger, it smoldered with a mean darkness as well. While the players brawl and drink and carouse, their western Pennsylvania town goes under, their marriages collapse, and their future prospects become increasingly dimmer by the day. An air of scrambling desperation pervades throughout. Even our protagonist Reggie Dunlop doesn’t hesitate to sell out his teammates in order to secure his own future and get the hell out of town.
John Landis, the director of Animal House, recognized the risks of pursuing such a raw, cynical sensibility. Observing that the first draft of his movie was too aimlessly misanthropic, he set about softening the Delta’s offensiveness and reigning in their anarchy. “Everybody in the original script was a pig,” he explained to The New York Times. “I thought, well, let’s think of all the positive aspects of fraternity, which was basically family, and give that to the Deltas. And put all of the negatives, basically Nazis, and put that in the other house.”
Slap Shot contains fewer such distinctions. The entire Federal League in which the Chiefs compete is in effect a sprawling, raunchier Delta House with hundreds of members getting paid to run amok and no Omegas present to act as foils. They might not be college students, but they’re still doing whatever they want — leaving behind them a trail of mass destruction. Also absent are any vestiges of a restraining authority. The fans cheer the carnage (even at times inflicting it themselves), the manager turns a blind eye to the violence, and even the game announcer delights in the bloodshed. “Bring the kids!” he insists. “We got entertainment for the whole family!”
Though he takes a few shots at the heartless executives who coldly execute the Chiefs’ business affairs, when it comes the team’s behavior Hill assumes a position of detached objectivity. He neither endorses nor condemns the persistent violence and debauchery, choosing instead to view them simply as intransigent elements of a profession and an era. But the director’s affection for the players themselves does come through, and he infuses them with a humanity that struggles to express itself from beneath their more sadistic impulses. There is something almost a little sweet about Steve Hanson, one of three brutalizing brothers recruited from up north to revitalize the Chiefs, wanting nothing more than to enjoy the national anthem shortly after instigating a full out war during the pre-game warm up.
Perhaps the hilarity of Slap Shot was initially overlooked because the film succeeded altogether too well in capturing the gritty desperation of its era, a time in which the nation’s cities were descending into financial ruin and violent hysteria. Even New York City seemed in irreversible decline; in 1977 alone a blackout led to widespread looting, the city teetered on bankruptcy, and the Bronx was burning. Tellingly, the makers of Animal House decided to remove their movie from the turmoil of the age and set it in 1962, what they deemed “the last innocent year” of the country. But Slap Shot confronts the looming despair head on. Now, from the safe distance of over three decades, we can sit back and view Slap Shot as a bridge between the grim urban dramas of the ‘70s and the good natured raunch-fests of the ‘80s, a vital part of the vanguard that helped decimate Hollywood’s prudish comedic sensibility.
Good seats are still available.
Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.