It might seem odd to some people that Jim Varney studied Shakespeare at the Barter Theatre. As a young boy, he was able to memorize poems and passages from books and recite them. He soon learn how to imitate the characters he watched on the cartoons and as a teenager got into theater and acting playing Ebeneezer Scrooge in a local theater play.
He was appearing on TV shows in the 1970s such as Alice, Fernwood 2 Night and Operation Petticoat. He was also touring as a stand-up comic by the time he met John R. Cherry III with Nashville-based Carden and Cherry, an advertising firm. Cherry had created the “Ernest” character and Varney helped develop it. Soon, they were making commercials for anyone and everyone who would commission them.
The ads weren’t just localized to the Nashville area. They ran everywhere. They did ads for Braum’s in the Oklahoma and Texas area. They did a commercial for an amusement park in the Bowling Green, Ky. area. Varnery and Cherry would do a car commercials that would appear in California or a commercial for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine. Cherry usually shot some of the commercials himself and they would often spend a whole day filming multiple ads for multiple customers. Cherry. himself, became the never-before-seen “Vern” in most of the commercials.
Some people have called Varney the first viral celebrity. So, it was no suprise during a NASCAR race where a Disney executive was also in attendance, Varney got a very warm welcome with cheers and applause from the fans when he was featured riding in a convertible waving at the crowed. If someone that popular can get much of a response, imagine what will happen at the box office.
Varney who had his first feature film as Ernest P. Worrell in Ernest Goes to Camp. Made on a small budget of only $3.5 million, it made $23.5 million at the box office. The next movie would be the most successful when in the fall of 1988, Ernest Saves Christmas was released. Shot mostly in the Orlando area at the then unfinished Disney-MGM studios, the movie would make $28.2 million at the box officer and Cherry and Varney would get a bigger deal for movies from Disney.
The plot has Ernest working as a taxi driver in Orlando when he picks up a man claiming to be Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) at the airport. Initially, even Ernest isn’t as gullible to believe the elderly white-bearded man is Santa. Along the way from they run into a teenage girl, Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker), who had tried to do a dine-and-dash before she was stopped by the staff. Harmony gets in the cab and like Ernest, doesn’t believe Santa is who he says he is.
When Ernest drops Santa off at the Orlando Children’s Museum, Santa gives him play money but says he must have gotten the real money mixed up with a present for a child the previous year. Ernest decides to let Santa go because it’s Christmas but back at the cabstand, his boss isn’t as forgiving and fires him. Little do they know, Santa left his bag behind and Ernest and Harmony take it with them.
At the Museum, Santa is running into problems as he had hoped to get a popular TV childern personality Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark) interested in taking over. But Joe’s agent, Marty Brock (Robert Lesser), is there and gets Joe more interested in a movie deal he’s working on. When Santa tries to tell everyone who he is, no one believes him. And since he has no identification, Marty calls the cops on him because he thinks the old man is senile.
Later while trying to get a Christmas tree in place at the home of his friend, Vern, he notices Santa’s bag in the back of his truck and looks in to see a bunch of light that convinces him it’s Santa. Apparently, there are balls of light that will transform into toys for kids. (Incidentally, this is the only movie in which Vern “appears.” Since most of the commercials were taken from Vern’s point-of-view, the entire sequence is shown from Vern’s POV.)
With Harmony still not as excited, she goes along with Ernest as they track Santa down, appearing as an official from the state to get Santa out of jail, so they can all work together. Varney also does some of his other characters, appearing as an aging disabled woman who claims to be Marty’s mother so they can locate where Joe is as well as appearing as a backwoods snake handler to sneak Santa on to the movie set.
At the same time at the airport cargo room, two agents Chuck (Gailard Sartain) and Bobby (Bill Byrge) are having to deal with a shipment of eight reindeer that get loose. They are also debating on waiting for a “Helper Elmes” who’s supposed to be claiming them, even though Bobby is arguing with Chuck that it’s a V not an M. Sartain and Byrge would appear alongside Varney in other movies as well as his Saturday morning TV show Hey Vern, It’s Ernest. (Even though most of the movie was filmed in Orlando, the scene with the reindeer had to be filmed in Nashville after most of principal photpgraphy ended. The reindeer they used couldn’t handle the warmer Florida weather and some began to shed their antlers.)
But as Santa tries to convince Joe that he is the right one for his love of children (and from what we observe, a bachelor with no kids), Joe isn’t too keen. He’s going to screen test for a movie that’s called Christmas Slay, a sci-fi horror movie about aliens that terrorize children, but both he and Santa question the material. Joe doesn’t want to swear in front of the children but the filmmakers tell him it’s the only way he can get the deal. (The weekend the movie opened, it came in second behind Child’s Play, which like the fictional Christmas Slay involves children being in danger and a lot of swearing.)
Harmony has also tried to use Santa’s bag to get things but only toys. She later leaves with it putting a fake bag with feathers for Santa to take. However, this changes when she gets a guilty conscience from observing a young girl being bullied by her older brother at a train station as she’s trying to get to Miami.
Of course, if you know if Ernest is in a movie where there are reindeer and Santa’s sled, he’s going to take it for a spin as he has to get the sled to the Children’s Museum by 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve as elves Pyramus (Buddy Douglas) and Thisbe (Patty Maloney) are with him. It’s a silly movie with some tender scenes but still has Ernest clean-cut humor. One thing you have to give to Varney, he always went in the role as Ernest. He was having so much fun with the role it was hard to see him out of it in other roles, even when he played antagonistic characters in Fast Food.
It’s been reported that Disney had used a script that had previously been written by Thom Eberhardt that followed the story of a Santa Claus looking for a replacement. Eberhardt didn’t like the idea of it being an Ernest movie and took his name off the credits. Eberhardt had previous written the zombie apocalyspe black comedy Night of the Comet which had a Christmas time setting. He had also directed a young Keanu Reeves in The Night Before.
Cherry and Varney would have another success with Ernest Goes to Jail in 1990, but Ernest Scared Stupid underperformed at the box office (and some people felt the movie’s theme of a troll terrorizing children turning them into wooden dolls was too much for the PG rating.) But maybe Varney’s popularity with Ernest was waning. He still continued to make Ernest movies throughout the 1990s but most went straight to video. He branched out and made movies like Wilder Napalm and The Beverly Hillbillies, neither were critical success even though Hillbillies made over $57 million, more than twice its budget fo $25 million.
Varney would find more success with the first Toy Story movies, voicing Slinky Dog and continuing to act. But what people didn’t know was Varney was a chronic heavy smoker and often had times he would have massive coughing fits. Unused footage of him trying to film scenes have him coughing badly and not able to speak. In the latter part of 1998, he finally went to the doctor’s only to discover he had lung cancer. He still continued to work on the second Toy Story and Atlantis:The Lost Empire doing voice work but he would die in Feburary 2000 from lung cancer.
Cherry would go on to direct The New Adventures of Laurel & Hardy in For Love or Mummy and Pirates of the Plain. Both movies had been intended to star Varney but he couldn’t do to health issues. On May 8 of this year, he passed away from Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 73. While most of the other cast have passed or retired, Parker still continues to act. She was briefly Patrick Dempsey’s stepdaughter during the making of this movie and the Amy Fisher TV movie she was. Parker who was born on Christmas Day was less than six years younger than Dempsey.
The movie will probably only appeal to the young Gen Xers or Millennials who grew up on Ernest. It’s the only Ernest movie Disney is streaming on Disney-Plus and was the only movie that ever was shown outside North America. It’s not the best Christmas movie and some of the humor is silly. But you really see how good of an actor Varney could be. Even his trademark “Know what I mean” was iambic pentameter.
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