The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Back to School (1986) Classic Movie Review 36

Back to School (1986)

Back to School (1986)

Violent ground acquisition games such as football is in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war.

Back to School (1986) is a great father/son comedy with Rodney Dangerfield and Sally Kellerman

Back to School (1986)

Today’s show is Episode 36 – Back to School (1986) starring Rodney Dangerfield and stellar comedic cast.

Rodney Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon the son of an immigrant that followed the American dream. Dangerfield was born in New York in 1921. He tried his hand a comedy from a young age and he was one of the few people that could make stoic Ed Sullivan laugh. However, his career did not really take off. He was living a pretty normal middle-class life until the late 1950s. He took the name Rodney Dangerfield and began working the “I get no respect” bit and he became a very successful comic.

His first movie role was in The Projectionist (1971). In 1980, he shined in Caddyshack (1980) as “Al Czervik.” who takes on the old money people at a fancy golf club. In Easy Money (1983), he was an average guy who suddenly became rich. This was followed by Back to School (1986). He had his first dramatic role in Natural Born Killers (1994).

IMDB states that he was the first entertainer to have a website on the world wide web in 1995. He was in Meet Wally Sparks (1997) and played the Devil in Little Nicky (2000).

He died on October 5, 2004, after falling into a coma following heart surgery.

Sally Kellerman was cast in the role of Dr. Diane Turner. Kellerman was born in California in 1937. With a youthful interest in acting, Kellerman attended Hollywood High. But here comes the rub. Kellerman was 5’10” with a gawky frame and a very large mouth. As a newcomer, she almost received the lead role in Saint Joan (1957) which we reviewed in Episode 29. Instead, she was cast in Reform School Girls (1957).

Through the 1960s Kellerman found roles on television one of which stands out for me. In the second pilot for “Star Trek: Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966) she was transformed into a goddess as the love interest of Gary Lockwood, of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Magic Sword (1962) reviewed in Episode 24, who also became a god. As a reminder, Paul Fix was also in this “Star Trek” episode.

She continued to act and produce music. Quite frankly only a couple of movies are worth mentioning at this time. In 1970, Kellerman was cast as Major Margaret Houlihan AKA Hot Lips in MASH (1970). In one of her pivotal scenes, the wall of the shower tent is dropped to reveal a totally nude Houlihan. However, Kellerman kept dropping to the ground too quick. For the take that made it into the movie, Director Robert Altman has the entire film crew disrobe without Kellerman knowing. When the wall was dropped she paused to try and process the sight and then dropped to the ground. Cut and print.

Of course, the other film is today’s episode. Kellerman continues to sing and act.
Burt Young was cast in the role of Lou, Thornton Melon’s driver and companion. Young almost always plays a character that is rough around the edges and tough as nails. Young was born in New York in 1940 and studied acting under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

Young tough guy roles include That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), Chinatown (1974) The Gambler (1974), and The Killer Elite (1975). In 1976, the movie that would change his life was released. In Rocky (1976) he was cast as Stallone’s future brother in law, Paulie. He was cast in the sequels II (1979), III (1982), IV (1985), V (1990), and Rocky Balboa (2006). In 1978, he was in Convoy (1978) as trucker Pigpen. On his cab door was the phrase “Paulie Hauling.” Although I have to say I enjoy the song a lot more than the movie.

Other tough guy movies for Young include Once Upon a Time in America (1984), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) and The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002).

Keith Gordon was cast in the role of Jason Melon, the son of Thornton. Playing the tough guy loner that was very popular at this time Gordon had a total of 26 roles. He has been busy directing and producing.

Robert Downey Jr. played the role of Derek Lutz, the only friend of Jason Mellon. This summary would have been easy to write when this movie was made but not so much now. Downey was born in 1965 to an actress Ann Ford and a drug addict Sr. Jr. was exposed to both pursuits early in life. He moved to California with his father after his parents divorced. In 1982, he left school and became a full-time actor. His first role was in Pound (1970), one of his father’s vehicles, but most people wouldn’t remember him until around the time of Weird Science (1985). In 1987, he played a role that was paralleled his life Less Than Zero (1987). In 1992, he was great in Chaplin (1992). He played a journalist in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994).

In 2001, Downey moved to the hugely successful “Ally McBeal” television show. Drugs, arrests, and rehabs resulted in him being fired and it seemed his career was over. However, in 2003 he cleaned up and started working again. He took on difficult roles like Gothika (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), and Zodiac (2007).

And then it all went crazy. In 2008, he was cast as Iron Man (2008). That same year Tropic Thunder (2008) was released finding Downey playing an Australian method actor in black-face. The next year brought Sherlock Holmes (2009). This was followed by Iron Man 2 (2010), Due Date (2010), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), The Avengers (2012), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Captain America: Civil War and Sherlock Holmes 3 are in production.

Terry Farrell was the love interest, Valerie Desmond. Farrell was born in 1963 and began modeling at 17. Besides the handful of movies she has been in she also played Jadzia Dax in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” 1993.

M. Emmet Walsh was in the role of the swimming coach – Coach Turnbull. Walsh was born in New York state but is regularly cast as a southern. He has had 215 tv and movie roles where he usually plays a small quirky part. Some of his large roles include the oil can sniper The Jerk (1979) with Steve Martin, Dickie Dunn in Slap Shot (1977), Blade Runner (1982), and Raising Arizona (1987). Roger Ebert created the “Stanton-Walsh Rule,” which stated any film starring Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton has to have some merit. And the “M” stands for Michael!

Adrienne Barbeau was cast as Vanessa, Thornton’s current wife. Barbeau was on Maude (1972) which was a spin-off of All in the Family. Being married to John Carpenter for a time she did a lot of horrors including Someone’s Watching Me! (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981) and Swamp Thing (1982).

William Zabka played Chas the nemesis of Jason Melon. Born in New York City, Zabka specialized in playing jerks in movies such as The Karate Kid (1984), National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) and Back to School (1986).

Ned Beatty played Dean David Martin. Beatty’s first role was Deliverance (1972). That’s right – squeal like a pig. He is actually a very good actor. He was nominated for an Oscar for Network (1976). Beatty did a fine job in Nashville (1975), The Deadly Tower (1975), Silver Streak (1976), and as Lex Luthor’s assistant, Otis, in Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980).

Severn Darden played ape researcher Dr. Barazini. Born in New Orleans in 1929, Darden is the best known as an actor and in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Now that’s funny.

Sam Kinison played history Professor Terguson. I guess the borrowed that from Dr. Strangelove. Anyway, Kinison was an over the top comedian. At one point he a been a preacher. Unfortunately, he died in 1992 as the result of a car wreck.

Famous author and anthropologist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was cast as himself. Vonnegut was born in 1922. Vonnegut was captured in late December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge while a scout with the 106 Infantry Division. He was sent to a POW camp in Dresden, Germany and was there during the allied fire-bombing campaign. This experience formed the basis for his novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”.


The story begins with young Thornton Meloni (Jason Hervey) bring home a bad report card to his immigrant tailor father. Hervey does a great job imitating the nervous ticks of Rodney Dangerfield. Thornton wants to go into the family business but his pops like Patches’ father believe education is key.

As the years fly by Thornton is shown opening his “Tall and Fat” clothing. He eventually becomes very wealthy and changes his name to Melon. In his commercial he asks:

Are you a large person? Pleasantly plump? A little on the hefty side, perhaps? Well, let’s face it: are you fat? When you go jogging, do you leave potholes? When you make love, do you have to give directions? At the zoo, do elephants throw you peanuts? Do you look at a menu and say, ‘Okay’?

Thornton’s son Jason is away at Grand Lakes University where he is supposedly in a fraternity and on the dive team. Jason cancels a visit home seeming to not want to see his new step-mother Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau), his second wife. When Thornton goes home Vanessa is putting on the dog for her socialite friends using Thornton’s money. She hates Thornton for his crudeness. After he catches her with one of the visitors they decide a divorce is in order. She plans on taking half of everything he has until he shows her a set of Polaroid pictures exposing her illicit affairs. One of the pictures purportedly including a midget.

Thornton laments to his driver and bodyguard Lou (Burt Young) that he should never have let Vanessa come between him and Jason. He decides to drive to the university to surprise his son. It turns out that Jason is not in the frat and is only the towel boy for the dive team. He is constantly taunted by champion diver Chas Osborn (William Zabka).

Jason has only one friend Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Lutz has no friends. Jason tells his father that he is planning on dropping out. In a flash of inspiration, Thornton decides to join his son at the university to keep Jason in school.

Thornton never finished high school and he is getting stonewall on his admittance. He has a meeting with Dean Martin (Ned Beatty) and Martin asks how he could possibly admit an unqualified student. The scene cuts to a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Thornton Melon School of Business.

Thornton’s donation makes an enemy of Dr. Philip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead), who is the dean of the business school. Thornton does not get off to a good start in Barbay’s class because he has real-world business experience. It gets worse when Thornton takes a romantic interest in Barbay’s girlfriend literature professor Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman).

Thornton meets his Vietnam crazy history professor Dr. Terguson (Sam Kinison).

As Thornton become the big man on campus Jason is scooped up in the action. He begins macking on Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell), a girl that Chas has been dating. Thornton talks to the diving coach (M. Emmet Walsh) and they talk about their time on the Jersey Steel Pier. Thornton states that he is the one that use to do the Triple-Lindy, a legendary dive that almost killed him. The coach gives Jason another tryout and he makes the team.

Jason begins to fall out with his dad because of his partying and lack of studying. Thornton hires NASA to do his astronomy and Vonnegut to write a paper on Vonnegut. Diane rejects Thornton’s Vonnegut paper saying that the person that wrote the paper doesn’t know anything about Vonnegut. She gives him an F.

Later that night Jason is told by Chas that his father bought his way onto the swim team. He drunkenly punches Chas and disappears.

Dr. Barbay finds out what Thornton has done and forces Dean Martin into hosting an oral exam for Thornton. Thornton wants to quite but Jason comes back and convinces him to stay. They thing go into a marathon cram session with Jason, Derek, Lou and Diane that plays like a training scene from Rocky.

The day of the oral exam is the same day as the big swim meet and if Thornton fails any part of the test he will be expelled from the university. Dr. Barbay begins the test with only one question “in 27 parts.” When Thornton weakens he is urged on by Dr. Terguson. Finally, Diana asks Thornton to interpret Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” which Thornton interprets as “I don’t have to take shit from no one.” He finishes the exam.

Thornton goes to the swim meet and Lutz is using mirrors and air horns to distract the other team. Chas has a bad dive and then fakes cramps to get out of another try. The swim coach needs another diver so he brings the reluctant Thornton up to do the Triple-Lindy. This is a must see scene.

After a few arm farts Thornton nails the dive and the team wins. Diane is there to greet him with the news that he passed with all Ds and one A, from her. The movie ends with Thornton giving an address to the graduating class that advises them to “Move back in with your parents… let them worry about it!”. Now I know why my kids won’t move out.

World-Famous Short Summary – High school students are bastard people but college can be fun if you have enough money

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Beware the moors

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