Monday, April 6, 2015

Newsploitation: Ernest Goes to the Box Office

Ever since I started these whole Box Office Birthday posts (much to Tom’s chagrin) I been hitting films that had an indelible impact on the worldwide movie going public.  Quite a few are things I loved as a kid but eventually grew out of (like the ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13th series).  Today’s B.O.B., however, is something I will always hold a torch for and will defend with the highest of non-snarky banter, knowhutimean. Twenty-five years ago today saw the release of ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990), the crowning achievement of this ostensibly made-for-kids series.

Jim Varney was a genius.  If you do not agree with this statement, please turn around and show yourself out our cyber-door.  A classically trained actor from Kentucky, Varney did theater and even toiled around Hollywood for some sitcom work in the late ‘70s.  It wasn’t until 1980 – when he was back in the South – that his career path was set. Hooking up with director John Cherry III, Varney shot a commercial featuring a character he had come up named Ernest, a sort of quintessential nagging redneck know-it-all.  The regional commercial was well received and soon Varney and Cherry were shootings dozens of commercials featuring the character Ernest P. Worrell, who was always talking to his unseen friend Vern.  Rumor has it Ernest caught the attention of Disney brass at a car racing event where iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Goofy got outshined by everyman Ernest when he showed up.

Whatever the true story, the trio of Varney, Cherry, and Worrell – along with writer Coke Sams – soon found themselves making movies for Disney/Buena Vista.  The first release ERNEST GOES TO CAMP (1987) arrived in the summer of 1987 and proved to be a modest hit (earning over $23 million in the U.S. off a $3 million dollar budget).  It was profitable enough that ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS (1988) arrived a year and a half later in November 1988 with nearly double the budget.  It again made a decent amount of money ($28 million in the U.S., making it the highest grossing of the theatrical Ernest films) so a third film was obviously a no-brainer. Working from a script by Charlie Cohen (with uncredited rewriting by Coke Sams), the Ernest filmmakers decided to create their wildest entry yet and send loveable Ernest into the big house.  They also fashioned a scenario that allowed Varney to show his range with the age old doppelganger plotline.

Production started in September 1989 in Nashville, Tennessee.  Cherry and Varney had worked so much together that by this point Ernest was a well oiled machine.  While Cherry had shown some visual flair in the previous two films, JAIL took it to a whole different level. Essentially, the director took the battered-but-impervious Ernest to its logical extreme and made him a live action cartoon.  Look no further than this small snippet from the “Ernest gets magnetic” scene to see an example of this:


The visual style and editing there is so off the charts, ending up looking like an Ernest movie directed by Sam Raimi.  Cherry also indulged himself in the lighting and costume department, creating a surreal looking jail with guards having exaggerated shoulder pads.  Of course, this is only enhanced by the Varney’s comedic skills and JAIL offers him the best showcase throughout the series as he plays Ernest, the villain Mr. Nash, and even dusts off his Auntie Nelda character (take that, Tyler Perry!).  He is supported by nice turns by Gailard Sartain (as the insane bank security guard), Bill Byrge (as his silent partner, Bobby), Randall “Tex” Cobb (as a high top sporting convict), and even Charles Napier (as the evil warden).

ERNEST GOES TO JAIL opened on just over 1900 screens the weekend of April 6, 1990.  While it only came in third place, it was the highest grossing new release that week – outshining the horror-thriller THE FIRST POWER, the comedy I LOVE YOU TO DEATH, and John Waters’ CRY-BABY.  It made $6,143,372, which was just a hair under what CAMP made its opening weekend.  Eventually it made just over $25 million in the U.S. during its two month run, making it the second highest gross Ernest film behind CHRISTMAS.  It also marked the end of Ernest being in the $20+ million club as the fourth film ERNEST SCARED STUPID (1991) would earn just $14 million and be the last Buena Vista release for the character.  Ernest would live on in five more sequels before the character was quietly put to rest when Varney discovered he had lung cancer (he passed away in February 2000 at the age of 50).  As it stands, ERNEST GOES TO JAIL is an achievement and the jewel of the series for me.  So much so that I can look past the fact that it was connected to our living Ernest P. Worrell embodiment, George W. Bush.  No, seriously.  

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