I have fallen a bit behind in posting to this project. So there may be a few articles posted this week in order to get caught up to schedule.
In 1987 I had been alive for a solid 10 years. I distinctly remember going to a barbecue on my birthday, as we usually did since it was also the 4th of July. I walked to the sitting area on my uncle’s deck overlooking the lake and announced to my grandparents that I was a decade old. It didn’t impress them that much, especially since by that point they had over 50 years on me.
The year that I turned 10 was a pretty big year at the movies. Leonard Nimoy was working his directing chops with Three Men And A Baby, Michael Douglas had a Fatal Attraction, and Mel Gibson and Danny Glover started a franchise that spanned four films with the original Lethal Weapon.
The movie that came out that year that had the biggest impact on me is kind of embarrassing to admit. I may have to turn in my cinephile card once I admit how big of a fan that I am of Ernest Goes To Camp.
When I was a kid I was a big fan of Ernest P. Worrell. If you’ve never heard of him then you need to go to YouTube and at least watch some of the old commercials that he used to appear in. It was a weird thing that happened in the 80s, because usually a character that appears in commercials is owned by a brand like Flo, or Mayhem. But this time the character was owned by an ad company and was licensed out to advertise all kinds of products. The ones that I remember the best were for Mello Yello.
Ernest was played exquisitely by Jim Varney. He was the quintessential redneck, complete with a denim vest and ball cap. And in the commercials he used to address his unseen neighbor, Vern, whose point of view we were usually looking at him through. He tortured Vern, continuously terrorizing with his attempts to “help” him. He usually ended up demolishing part of Vern’s home or injuring him in some way.
Ernest first transitioned to film in Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam which went straight to video in 1986. It was a weird movie in which Jim Varney played multiple characters, only one of which was Ernest. Varney was a master of faces and voices. You can tell by watching his performances that Jerry Lewis had a huge influence over him and future comedians such as Jim Carrey drew inspiration from him…whether they admit to it or not.
Ernest Goes To Camp was the first theatrical movie that came out to feature Ernest. The story is something that we’ve seen a few times. Ernest gets a job as a cook at Camp Kikakee. He, being a perpetual 13 year old boy at heart, becomes fast friends with many of the children that attend the camp. And, when the camp is bought by a big corporation that plans to demolish it, he and those kids go to war to save it.
This movie is hilarious. There were a lot of movies that followed with Ernest in the title where Varney reprised his role, but this one was very different. Later movies tended to have more slapstick and almost skit-like things thrown in. They almost turned Ernest into a cartoon character and put him into situations that no human could survive. But with this movie it was almost like all the characters around him were from a different kind of movie. Ernest stood out because he was in normal surroundings. There weren’t any monsters coming after him like in Ernest Scared Stupid. He wasn’t saving Santa like in Ernest Saves Christmas. And he wasn’t becoming a basketball phenom like in Slam Dunk Ernest.
This movie had a ton of comedy which was great for the 10 year old me that loved watching the commercials every time they came on. But then later on in the movie when the camp is closing and Ernest seems to be losing his friends I discovered that there was more to this character than just a lot of sight gags. And I discovered the genius of Jim Varney whose career I would follow until his death in 2000 at the age of 50.
A lot of people look at the name Ernest on a movie poster and automatically assume that it’s going to be some stupid comedy that kills a few brain cells every minute that it’s on the screen. And if you’re watching some of the later direct-to-video films then those people would probably be right. But this first movie was an exception. This is a truly heartwarming story told through the eyes of an exceptionally funny character played by a talented comedian. I strongly recommend you take 90 minutes and give Ernest Goes To Camp a shot. It is my favorite movie of 1987.