The film “Grumpy Old Men” is undeniably one of the best films ever made in Minnesota. Why? Because it’s so Minnesota. The movie starring Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Ann-Margret celebrates our winter, our small towns and our culture. And those are reasons enough for me to sing its praises. If you didn’t understand Minnesota before watching this film, you will afterwards.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the movie’s 1993 release by Warner Brothers.
I recently re-watched “Grumpy Old Men,” checking the DVD out from my local library. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly because I was a busy young mom three decades ago, I didn’t remember much of the movie. Two long-feuding friends in small town Wabasha, Minnesota, focus the storyline. When an attractive woman, Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret), moves in across the street from John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Matthau), the two compete for her affections. The result is conflict, humorous and tender moments, and a focus on the sport of ice fishing in Minnesota.
This is truly a Minnesota film. Mark Steven Johnson, who was born in Hastings (just up the Mississippi River from Wabasha) and who attended Winona State University (just down the river from Wabasha and mentioned in the film) wrote the script and the sequel, “Grumpier Old Men.” Interestingly enough, although the movie is set in Wabasha, it was not filmed there, but at numerous other locations in Minnesota.
FILMED IN “THE FROZEN NORTH,” INCLUDING FARIBAULT
Those sites include my community of Faribault. The opening scene features a train roaring past a depot bannered with a Wabasha sign. In reality, this is the Rock Island Depot in Faribault, long-time home to the popular Depot Bar & Grill. At the beginning of the movie, the Congregational Church and adjacent parish house are shown.
Other Faribault scenes show our historic downtown, including a Coca Cola ghost sign, businesses along Central Avenue, and the exterior and interior of Poirier Pharmacy (now a pawn shop). Lemmon, Matthau and Ann-Margret performed a scene inside the vintage drugstore with built-in shelves stretching high. Several locals played extras.
Other film locations around Minnesota include houses in the Lake Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul, Half Time Rec (a bar) in St. Paul, Lake Rebecca in Rockford, Chisago Lake Lutheran Church in Center City, a park and overlook in Red Wing, and sound stages at Paisley Park (of Prince fame).
John Davis wrote in his production notes that shooting on-location in “The Frozen North” brought out the best in the team and end product. I agree. The outdoor scenes are authentic with snow piled high; icicles hanging from roof edges; snow and ice layering sidewalks; snowplows barreling down streets; a snowmobile buzzing through a neighborhood; windshield ice scraping; snow shoveling; making snow angels… No need to truck in snow during the Minnesota winter of 1993.
ICE FISHING, FLANNEL-WEARING AUTHENTIC MINNESOTAN
And then there is the ice fishing. Many comedic scenes unfold on the frozen lake, inside and outside the fish houses of lead characters Gustafson and Goldman. Writer Johnson tapped into memories of ice fishing with his grandpa to pen the script. As I watched the movie, I delighted in the polka music (Liar’s Polka, Oira Oira Polka…) that played as the anglers headed to the frozen lake. The upbeat tempo infuses an energy into the film that takes me back to long ago wedding dances in small town Minnesota community halls.
There’s so much Minnesota in “Grumpy Old Men.” Flannel shirts and ear flapper caps. Walleye mounts and crappies strung on a line. Supper, not dinner. Splitting wood with an ax. An air conditioner lodged in a second story window in winter. Red Wing boots and a six-pack of Schmidt beer and Minnesota-made SPAM (the meat). I noticed all of these details in my second viewing of this film. I appreciate that I watched the movie with a more discerning eye, appreciating the, oh, so many authentic Minnesotan aspects of a movie that celebrates life and winter in Minnesota.
LET THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY BEGIN
Wabasha celebrates its 30th annual Grumpy Old Men Festival on February 24 and 25. There’s a lengthy list of events, including a Grumpy Old Men Fishing Tournament, a Grumpy Best Dressed Contest, a Hot Dish (Minnesota lingo for casserole) Luncheon, Grumpy Old Men Ice Bar at Slippery’s Bar and Grill (referenced, but not seen, in the film), a fireside chat with script writer Mark Steven Johnson and much much more. Click here for a complete list of festival events.
Chisago Lake Lutheran Church in Center City will hold a “Grumpy Old Men” Worship Service at 9 am on Sunday, February 12. The service is open to anyone, not just men, and not just grumpy men. Attendees are invited to wear their favorite flannel shirts and jeans and to put a fishing lure in their hats. Click here for more information.
Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling