The Great Outdoors

The Great Outdoors is essentially a situation comedy on the theme of rambunctious family friends or relations come to visit, and it ends classically with the children lost in a cave and rescued by both partners to the feud. Because this is a motion picture, the cave has dynamite and a bear as well as runoff from the concurrent rainstorm.

And yet this is secondary to the single image around which all the rest is constructed. The family (John Candy, Stephanie Faracy, et al.) are en route to a vacation cabin, Roman and Kate (Dan Aykroyd, Annette Bening) pay them a surprise visit, which is simply announced by shots of their Mercedes and a close-up of its license plate, “ROMAN 1”.

The great steak-eating challenge was borrowed by The Simpsons. John Candy reveals himself as a fine actor, Annette Bening as a great comedienne, to name two of the exemplary cast. “I’VE BEEN TO DULUTH” says crusty Robert Prosky’s crusty sweatshirt (he plays the proprietor).




The serene master is seen idyllically striding onto a desert with his very beautiful blonde caddy, past a couple of grimy foot-soldiers crawling on their bellies in the opposite direction. This defines a certain aspect of the comic persona, and with a little more preparation you get the Ralph Kramden avatar born from the wings, with tryouts and camera rehearsals.

Hollywood is briskly viewed as a trial and dismissal, the emphasis is on television as a crucible of invention, with the wider incarnations of Gigot and Buford T. Justice unconsidered. This view is re-emphasized by the filming for television, with everything compressed to the unrealistic stage of a weekly show on the restless verge of temperament, skill and inspiration.

The life is given impressionistically to form the range of any ordinary expression, boyhood sorrows and joys, youthful drive, mature resolve. The skill comes from working with an audience, The June Taylor Dancers are rehearsed to show the objectivity of this. Temperament arises when there is any question of a less than perfect rendition causing an impairment of the vision of happiness revealed early on. Inspiration comes as often as not by production schedule, but the desert sketch follows the Hollywood catastrophe without explanation.

Brad Garrett’s mimicry is a great accomplishment, and forces pinpoint accuracy on other personages such as Carney and Meadows. Little time is wasted on the period, but there are the dancers over a black-and-white studio monitor as real as life, one of the lucid moments in an evocation of Gleason as a very active blur the camera catches here and there.

He’s shown filming Navy Blues and sprucing up the act to the great displeasure of a caricatural Lloyd Bacon (his Broadway director is another type). The upshot is not filmed, but there you have him in the Sixties an accomplished film actor capable of harboring creative material he expounds on the set, and even more, of creating a total awareness out of a few multiples of himself, with the characteristic shorthand of this film giving that in brutal demonstrations of his art, such as the bouncing of Ralph and Alice from the brains of recalcitrant writers.

What is most unpleasant is the occasional scraping of his vessel against the quays of various network personnel and the like, which in this abrupt style registers the shock more effectively than often seen, and there is the suggestion of a vendetta by Jack Warner for a nightclub comic’s insult. Everything is diminished in a way by this very bracing approach, but by its many devices Gleason pays off in a picture of the modern artist at work in a rapid medium constantly before the public, and CBS was always a place where genius just about held its own by the personal efforts of a few, though again, to show you how cruelly subjective this all is, in the manner of Resnais’ Providence, say, William Paley was a great collector of modern art, and Bacon worked with Sennett.

The influence of Attenborough’s Chaplin and Harris’s Pollock is on it in various ways, but what seems jarring and new is the synthesis particularly of the latter carried into a sense of the working life of the subject beyond representation. The bristling world of show business isn’t pictured habitually and so well, it’s made indistinguishable from the history of the man, and only intermittently relieved by what he does.

Time will tell if this is a picture of our times or his, but certainly there’s enough of him here to justify the film in either event. There’s the young comic at Toots Shor’s with an invitation for the proprietor, who’s called away from so much politesse by the arrival of an unseen Jack Benny. What happens is a sneer from Shor, a little shock and pain in Gleason’s face, and a sense of inadmissible distance. People will know who know the business how much is conveyed in the scene, directly and by implication.

There are quite a number of such subtleties, for instance a careless throwaway of a stage catchphrase or tagline in a public setting, a period of adjustment being indicated fleetingly.

This is not Gleason any more than Russell’s Valentino is Valentino, nor any less, though here the discrepancy is sharpened by the resemblance to a disconcerting point in view of the style, witheringly brusque as it almost constantly is by comparison with the dapper comedian, or with almost anything else you can name, but it constitutes an artistic tribute to him that so much conscious effort went into making two hours of film without him, and yet bearing upon him, seem worthwhile.