I’m not sure what the very first summer camp movie was. I think it might be Philip Ford’s Redwood Forest Trail from 1950, which co-starred Carl ‘Alfafa’ Switzer from The Little Rascals and, if memory serves, Smokey the Bear. But the movie that jumpstarted the now-familiar summer camp genre – filled with young sexual indiscretions, wacky pranks and evil camps across the lake – was Meatballs, a comedy classic from 1979 that boasts Bill Murray’s first starring role, and marked one of the earliest directorial efforts from Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman. The film finally makes its debut on Blu-ray this week, and I was happy to spend some time catching up with an old friend’s sweet, understated charms.
Camp North Star was the summer retreat for young misfits long before such places became fashionable. Bill Murray heads up a team of teenaged Counselors-in-Training, aka CIT’s, including the nerdy Spaz (Jack Blum) and the plump sex-obsessed Fink (Keith Knight), who somehow manage to run a summer camp when they’re not playing pranks on the camp owner Morty (Harvey Atkin) or making out with their female counterparts. Of course it all ends with an Olympic-style competition with Camp Mohawk, a hoity-toity establishment that charges $1,000 a week to keep the kids away from their wealthy parents for the summer.
But while these now-iconic elements of Meatballs became genre requirements in the years to come, infecting everything from the Friday the 13th movies to all three Meatballs sequels, it’s surprising to return to the original film and discover just how incidental they feel. Meatballs makes time for vaguely raunchy comedy and inter-camp competitions, but it plays like a peaceful pastiche of young summer experiences that evoke nostalgia even in folks who (like myself) hated camp with a passion. The CIT’s of Meatballs provide guidance to their young charges without any actual authority, bridging the thin gap between pre-pubescence and hormonal high school years with understanding and affection, bringing a big smile to your face even though the film isn’t a laugh-a-minute jokefest by today’s standards.
In fact, if it weren’t for Bill Murray, Meatballs might not feel like a straight-up comedy at all. As “Tripper,” a man who needs no other name, Murray makes the most of a very simple set up. He’s found a job that gives him the authority and security to be a total goofball, but doesn’t forget that he’s actually responsible for the personal growth of his campers. Meatballs focuses on only one such relationship, with a quiet and nearly personality-free kid named Rudy, played by Chris Makepeace. Although a nearly forgettable character, Rudy embodies the very familiar outsider experience. Tripper’s friendship comes to mean a lot to Rudy; as a pre-teen I myself often dreamed of a mentor as accepting and horizon-broadening as Murray is in Meatballs. Though largely laugh-free, their subplot shows that Tripper and the film itself has a heart, and that it’s in very much the right place. And then once these scenes are out of the way, Murray is free to mug to his heart’s – and the audience’s – content.
Meatballs comes to Blu-ray in a very impressive transfer for a 30+ year-old motion picture, particularly an inexpensive one with a rushed shooting schedule. The warm colors and rich, detailed and outdoorsy environment contribute a lot to Meatballs’ wistful look at childhood summers, and only a few soft focus shots (almost certainly an issue with the original photography) detract from the transfer’s quality. The sound design is simple DTS 2.0 setup, but Meatballs would hardly benefit from a surround sound remaster anyway. The only special feature is a commentary track from Ivan Reitman and his co-writer and producer Dan Goldberg, who offer plenty of jovial insights into the film’s production, even though they’re hazy on the details because they filmed it decades ago. Judging from their comments, I believe this may be a previously recorded commentary ported over from a DVD release, but I’m not entirely certain.
Meatballs is a bit of a treasure. It’s an innocent, droll and slightly sexy romp that feels like a product of its time, but also portrays that time as a wonderful place to be. If you’ve never seen Meatballs, you might be surprised by how tender the film that started the crass summer camp genre really was. If you grew up with it, you’ll be happy at the presentation Lionsgate has put together for the Blu-ray release. They treated a minor classic with class.