School Daze: The Rodney Dangerfield Comedy “Back to School”

School days! I remember going to college back in the 80’s. For the first couple of years it was a real party. Partly because I was just going to avoid the responsibility of getting a real job. Of course, until I moved away from home (the first two years I went to a junior college about 10 miles away and just commuted), it didn’t really turn into a real party atmosphere.

When I moved to San Marcos to go to what was then still known as Southwest Texas State University (now just Texas State University), I lived on campus. And I lived in the freshman dorm. Which meant I was old enough to buy beer, while the rest of the freshman I lived with were still under age. Yes, I admit I was a bad influence because anytime any of them asked me, I went to get their beer and alcohol for them. Which made me a pretty popular guy (if only because I could accommodate them. I hold no illusions that they actually would have liked me if I was the same age as them.)

But I spent an entire year at the top floor of Jackson Hall. The 12th floor was where they put all the malcontents who were disruptive of the quieter floors. I fit in like a glove. If I had been rich, like Thornton Melon, I might have even tried to re-adapt the floor to be more conducive to more of a party atmosphere, but I made do with what I had.

Back to School (1986):

What do you do when your son wants to drop out of college because he can’t hack it? Probably have a good heart-to-heart talk with him and tell him to buck up. (At least I would.) OK. What do you do if you are an obnoxious but rich man whose son tells you he wants to chuck it all and just get a job? Well, if you are Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield), the owner of a prominent line of clothing for people of, shall we say, prominent size, (aka “Tall and Fat Stores”), you join him in his endeavor by coming the world’s oldest freshman.

Thornton’s son, Jason (Keith Gordon), has been lying to his father all this time. He is not, as he claimed, on the swim team. He is an accomplished swimmer, as was Thornton in his day, but Jason failed to impress the coach, Coach Turnbull (M. Emmet Walsh). (Possibly due to his lack of interest in actually succeeding in college, but that’s just speculation on my part…)

Instead, he is just a towel boy at the gym. Where he is harassed by Chas Osbourne (William Zabka), the star or the university’s swim team. (Zabka made a name for himself early in his acting career playing elitist snobbish bullies and is pretty much the same here.)

Jason is also not a member of the fraternity scene, which he also told his father he was. So in fact, Jason has been living a lie, and when he decides he wants to drop out, it was only inevitable. But Thornton, who himself had gone through a similar situation in his childhood, wants to discourage Jason from taking that route. His solution is to join Jason as a student.

Of course, being rich, but not having the pedigree of education that most of the incoming students have, Thornton has to find a way to get admitted, and that solution is being the benefactor of a new business college building. In other words, a bribe. Dean Martin (Ned Beatty), whose eye is only on the bottom line, accepts the “bribe”, to the dismay of Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead), the head of the business college. (Another elitist snob).

Of course, Thornton doesn’t take the endeavor seriously. Coming from a background that would allow him to bribe his way into college, he also does things that would get any other student expelled, including hiring Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to write his essay on the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And having his personal secretary show up in his class to take notes for him, while he is presumably occupied with extracurricular activities.

But he does manage to convince Coach Turnbull to give Jason a second look, and he does it without any untoward activities. Jason actually is pretty good, which would not be surprising since Thornton himself was a star stunt diver at Coney Island in his youth. (Whether you accept Rodney Dangerfield as a star diver or not…)

Robert Downey, Jr. makes one of his earliest appearances in a movie here as Derek Lutz, a malcontent who shines as Jason’s best friend and roommate. Terry Farrell, who went on to play Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, also makes an appearance as Valerie Desmond, the love interest of both Jason and Chas.
One of his teachers, Prof. Turgidson (Sam Kinison) is a real gung-ho history teacher. Kinison essentially adapts his stage comedy act for the role, but his scenes are some of the highlights in the film for me. And Sally Kellerman plays Dr. Turner, an English professor who sparks a real May-December romance between her and Thornton. (Dangerfield was actually 16 years older than Kellerman, but he looks older by at least 10 more years… Talk about robbing the cradle…)

Life on campus, as far as Thornton is concerned, is a party party weekend. Until it comes down to midterms and Thornton is on the verge of flunking out. And thoroughly alienating his son, who has had a change of heart and decided to buckle down and drive toward his degree. It comes down to a situation where Thornton has to face his entire body of teachers and prove that he has learned what he has supposedly learned during the semester. Which of course, he hasn’t. But with the help of his son and his favorite teacher and some long cram sessions, he might just pull it off.

Never underestimate the ambition of a man to succeed. A Dangerfield comedy typically has the common everyday loser trying to get ahead in an unfamiliar atmosphere, and this one is sure to entertain — unless, of course, you are a professor in a university who takes his or her job very seriously. If you don’t have a sense of humor about the education process, this one might annoy rather than entertain you…

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.