Retro Review Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss
July is the perfect month to hit the road and get away from it all. This month, we’re going to celebrate the Great American Vacation with a look at some of the best films in the genre. Road trips, cook-outs, camping trips and fireworks are all center stage. While comedies tend to dominate, we’ve managed to dig up some surprisingly grisly summer fare as well.
Our first entry for Vacation Month is a mostly forgotten follow up to the classic A Christmas Story. Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, though written and narrated by Jean Shepherd just like A Christmas Story, this spiritual successor didn’t receive the attention its older sibling enjoyed: it was aired straight to television by PBS and The Disney Channel, and has not had the good fortune to be played 12 times a day every holiday. Continuing the story of the perennially unlucky Parker family, it features an older Ralphie (played by Jerry O’Connell) and his grumpy father, dotty mother, and whiny little brother as the squad all try to avoid calamity and enjoy a summer vacation at Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss.
Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988)
During the summer of his 14th birthday, Ralphie Parker has decided to take his first steps into adulthood. Along with Flick and Schwartz, Ralphie signs up for his working papers and lands his first job moving furniture for a hirsute and callous slave driver (played by Jean Shepherd) who they describe as “a cross between Rasputin and the Wolfman.” Working torturous hours pushing the same refrigerator up 13 flights of stairs means that Ralphie is going to miss the family’s annual trip to Ollie Hopnoodle’s, which displeases his old man to no end.
Much like the Parker family Christmas, this summer’s trip is plagued by trouble from the get-go: Ralphie is a no-go, the family station wagon is a disaster, and to top it all off, the family dog, Fuzzhead, has gone MIA. Mrs. Parker refuses to leave without the family mascot, so the Old Man is forced to canvas the streets, shouting himself hoarse. Things look bleak for the Parkers.
A couple of lucky accidents intervene to reunite the family and get them bundled into the creaking disaster of an automobile, but fate is only toying with the Parkers: surviving the trip to Ollie Hopnoodle’s turns out to be twice as exhausting as arm-wrestling the whole family into going.
There and Back Again
The episodic nature of Shepherd’s writing is much more apparent in Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss as compared to A Christmas Story. The first act is all about the adventures of the Parker family as Ralphie is coming of age. The struggles to get a permit and to find a job; Mrs. Parker’s quest to find her demented ball of fluff dog; the Old Man grousing at the local watering hole about his work and family problems. You don’t get much interaction between the separate parts until the second act when they all head out on the road. You could pretty neatly chop the film in two and not miss much.
Fans of the original might be leery about the complete cast change, but all of the parts come together nicely here. The Old Man (James Sikking) is just as irascible and gruff as his big screen counterpart, Jerry O’Connell is believable as a grown up Ralphie (despite having changed from a blond to a brunette,) and Dorothy Lyman is charming and scatterbrained as Mrs. Parker. The glue that keeps everything together is the narration by Shepherd, which is every bit as shrewd and funny as it was in A Christmas Story. Seeing the eyes through the preternaturally aware and cynical Ralphie is every bit as fun as reading a Calvin and Hobbes strip, or listening to A Prairie Home Companion as Garrison Keillor lovingly mocks the insanity of small town life.
A Good Natured Vacation Lampoon
As much fun as the first half is, the film really shines in the second act, which feels like an outing with Griswolds…except you don’t want to punch Mr. Parker in the face as much as you would if Clark were in his stead. There is lots of physical comedy and ludicrous misadventures, though Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss is definitely more family friendly than other road vacation films such as the National Lampoon series or The Great Outdoors. Shepherd leans heavily on his jaundiced eye for small town kitsch and keeps the comedy mostly PG (while managing to slip in some social commentary that is definitely for the adults in the room.) By the end, you feel sorry for the cursed Parker family, who seem destined to suffer for no moral fault of their own. The universe seems to just be having a laugh at their expense. In the National Lampoon movies, you get the distinct feeling that those people deserve to suffer.
A Light Weekend
Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss was always a great favorite of mine growing up. The comedy is consistent and holds up well, the plot manages to remain largely fresh despite traveling down well-worn roads in the second half of the film. The sheer silliness of the events that befall the Parkers sets the film apart, and the narration gives it a style and substance all its own. If you loved A Christmas Story and want more of the adventures of Ralphie and Co. (and were wise enough to skip A Christmas Story 2, which is a comedic crime against humanity, and should never be watched) then this camping trip is well worth your investment. Just don’t stop to buy any lawn decorations…