A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 160 – Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss – August 7th, 2010

I feel a little bad reviewing things like this and The Norman Conquests. This movie and those ones are favorites of my family, obtained ages ago by some means that no longer exist, and now difficult or impossible to find. But since my family loves them so, we’ve babied our copies long enough for me to grab them and include them in the project. So I’m sorry. I apologize wholeheartedly that such treasures are so hard to get, and that I am pretty much taunting you by talking about how much I love them.

I am going to guess that most people reading this have seen the classic Christmas movie A Christmas Story. You know, the one with the leg lamp and the the Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle and the pink bunny suit and Scut Farkus? Yeah, you’ve seen that. Everyone’s seen that, or at least heard of it. You can buy those lamps now every Christmas. Well, what isn’t as commonly known is that there are other movies about Ralphie and his family, based on the writings of Jean Shepherd. I’m pretty sure we happened upon this one by accident on PBS, but we were so taken with it, it became an instant classic in my family. Every year it must be watched or the summer isn’t complete. This is the story of Ralphie when he’s fourteen and how he spends his summer. It was made for tv and it stars a young but post-Stand By Me Jerry O’Connell as Ralphie. And I love it dearly.

This is a very episodic movie. While it has an overarching plot and focuses around a specific time period, it moves from vignette to vignette within that plot and time. Ralphie is fourteen here and old enough to get working papers so he can get his first job. That’s vignette number one, but set within the context of said job making it impossible for him to go on the traditional family vacation to the lake. Of course said job is horrible, and intercut with scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It inspires horrible nightmares and Ralphie hates it passionately. Meanwhile, the family dog goes missing and Ralphie’s mother declares that she’s not going on vacation either unless the dog is found beforehand. The dog’s name, by the way, is Fuzzhead, and the search for the dog involves Ralphie’s mother screeching it over and over. It’s not sophisticated humor, but it never fails to make me laugh my ass off. Dorothy Lyman, who plays the mother, really does a fantastic job. Much as I love the mother in A Christmas Story this version is great too. Her voice is instantly hilarious and recognizable.

I’ve always felt like the first section of the movie, with those two stories, takes a huge amount of time. Not in a bad way, but it feels like a lot happens, so it must take a lot of time. But the movie is only an hour and a half and there’s a whole later section full of little bits too. The family does end up going on vacation to the lake, staying at Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (where the cabins are named after the Dionne Quintuplets), but you don’t really see the lake. The point is the road trip to it. Along the way there’s a truck full of chickens, a motorized mini windmill, a bee in the car and some cows. But every single encounter is quietly humorous (or screechingly, if Ralphie’s mother gets excited). Everything in the movie is presented in lovingly mocking nostalgia. It’s a tribute to the classic family road trip, complete with the overpacked car full of items you’ll never use, car sickness, roadside attractions, detours to nowhere, car trouble and the inevitable sibling bickering.

The movie as a whole feels a little patchy. It moves from bit to bit not entirely smoothly, but it’s all great fun, so I’ve never so much minded that. There’s an attempt to wrap the two sections of the movie together by showing the family waking up to get on the road to Ollie’s, then backtracking to describe how the vacation almost didn’t happen. It’s a valiant effort, but ends up not really doing a whole lot other than making the movie lap itself. What really does a better job of tying everything together is Jean Shepherd’s narration. If you’ve seen A Christmas Story then you know the sort of feel it has to it. There’s a fondness for the events combined with some self-deprecating humor. The sort of humor that only comes with distance from one’s past actions. It’s told both as a heartfelt story about youthful summer vacations and how they exist as perfect in our memories even if they were anything but, and as a collection of anecdotes. It feels like the sort of thing that happens around the table at holidays in my family. Sure, we were all there that year when we rented the house with the lumpy beds and the roaches and the closet full of Nancy Drew books and the dogs got into the fridge and ate the leftover pizza. But we tell the story anyhow, because we enjoy it, and we enjoy remembering it.

Watching this with my father this evening, on my second to last day of vacation, I am reminded of many summers of my own childhood. I know my parents love this movie because many of the things in it speak to their own childhoods, even if there are a bunch of anachronisms like crock pots and mentions of Mario Andretti. I love it because it’s incredibly funny and because it’s part of my family’s summer tradition, itself a part of stories we tell and references we make (favorites include a great line about a bathmat and the bee in the car dance). Rather fitting, I think, even if it’s ushering out my vacation instead of ushering it in. It’s a nice way to remember that summer’s still got a few weeks left.

August 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Ollie Hopnodle’s Haven of Bliss

August 7, 2010

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss

Amanda and I are spending some time on Cape Cod this weekend, so it’s time for some traditional annual movie viewing. Everybody has, of course, seen A Christmas Story (which TBS shows literally twenty-four hours a day on Christmas) but not everybody has seen this other movie, also written and narrated by Jean Shepherd. As with Christmas Story this is a series of anecdotes about growing up in the fifties, this time centered on summer vacation. The irony is that the vacation spot mentioned in the title of the movie is not actually the location where most of the film takes place. Instead Ollie Hopnoodle’s is a sort of idyllic destination – the goal for which every action in the movie brings the hero’s family a little closer. It’s very much a case of the journey being more of the point of the vacation than the destination.

Just like yesterday’s movie this one is a is a quest story. It’s the story of the same family from Christmas Story (whiny little brother Randy, narrator Ralph and their parents) as they prepare for and make their epic journey to Clear Lake and the little rustic cabins of Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. Before they can even make the trip however there are adventures to be had: Ralph gets a gruelling job hauling furniture for a beastly boss (played by writer Jean) and the family dog Fuzzhead runs off and has to be found. The family doesn’t even set of on their road-trip until the movie is about half way over.

What makes the movie great is the feel of a homespun narrative. Jean Shepherd’s homespun tales are so easy to relate to, even when the action is set in the fifties. Who hasn’t crammed so much stuff for a short vacation into a car that the vehicle could barely move? Who hasn’t gone on a long car trip with a whiny car-sick little sibling? Who hasn’t wondered about what sort of person actually buys lawn ornaments from roadside vendors? Sure the narration is the ultimate example of telling rather than showing, but that’s sort of the appeal of the movie. It’s like a guided tour of Jean’s childhood.

There are a few quotes from this movie that Amanda and I use on a pretty frequent basis. The delivery that Jerry O’Connel (as Ralph) gives to the line “Boy is it early” when the family is trying to get up to beat the traffic is perfect for just about any early morning endeavor. Ralph’s father at one point claims that he is “just resting my eyes,” which is almost a running gag with Amanda’s entire family. And for some bizarre reason neither Amanda nor I can mention a bathmat without quoting the conversation Ralph’s parents have when they’re packing the car. “Did you remember the bathmat?” “Bathmat? What do we need a bathmat for?” “I don’t know… it might be nice.” Indeed I’d say that my favorite performance in the movie is that of Dorothy Lyman as Ralph’s mother. She over-acts like crazy, but the chipper cheerfulness she displays in the face of every setback and her shrill voice never fail to amuse and charm me.

Amanda and I have watched this movie every summer since we first started dating in 1995 (and I gather that it has been a family tradition for her to watch it almost since the movie first came out in 1988.) As such the whole thing has a feel of warm familiarity to it. Knowing that I was going to be watching it again tonight I started to anticipate favorite bits in the film. The nightmare that Ralph has of the looming refrigerator. The bee in the car. The windmill and the truck full of chickens. Jean’s stories are fun tales of every-child growing up already, but when you’ve seen and heard them every summer for fifteen years or more they almost become a part of your own life. Just as for Ralph summer vacation doesn’t begin until he and his family reach Ollie Hopnoodle our vacation seems incomplete without revisiting this movie.

August 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment