It would make sense that after seeing Back to School in theaters thirty-five years ago, I would be re-visiting the movie today. It was one of my the earliest big-screen outings, where I can still hear Danny Elfman’s bombastic, dreamlike score reverberating through the aisles. I recognized similar musical queues from another movie my brother and I had seen the year prior called Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In both cases, Danny Elfman was just starting what would become a long, illustrious career scoring films.
It was exciting to witness the rise of so many well-known artists back then. Their ascendancy attributed to the zeitgeist of popular culture, with one classic movie after another. In 1986, legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield scored big with a film that became the pinnacle of his career.
As kids, we forget how enormous movie screens looked. The dimming lights and flashing images from an unseen projector provided a surreal disruption of our adolescent sensibilities. I recall my bewildered shock of seeing “Large Marge’s” jarring, eye-popping reveal in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.The Claymation effects of her split-second transformation were courtesy of director Tim Burton, another rising star at the time.
I was equally enthralled with Rodney Dangerfield’s patented “Triple Lindy” dive, performed in succession from multiple diving boards and accompanied by Elfman’s music. My indiscriminating eyes saw no difference between Rodney and the obvious stunt double performing summersalts between closeups. To me, it was simple movie magic.
Rodney Dangerfield struggled for decades as a stand-up comedian. He worked odd jobs throughout the 1950’s to support his wife and family. His comedy act picked up steam in the 1970’s after what must have seemed a lifetime, and he soon became one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guests on the late-night circuit. Dangerfield’s working-class background was the perfect fit for Thornton Melon, self-made millionaire and owner of “Tall & Fat,” a plus-size clothing store.
In addition to multiple one-liners delivered by Dangerfield, Melon couldn’t have been closer to his own persona. The script’s four writers, Harold Ramis among them, decided somewhere along the line to make their main character rich, and it works to the movie’s advantage. Infinite wealth is an artifice effectively used with Batman and Mr. Burns, among others. We know these characters are capable of anything, but it takes good writing to make it interesting.
Thornton lives in the lap of luxury, heeding advice from his limo driver, bodyguard, and friend Lou (Burt Young). He soon discovers that his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) despises him and is fooling around. He promptly divorces her. With no one else to turn to, Thornton seeks out his college-aged son, Jason (Keith Gordon) and decides to enroll in college himself after learning about his son’s difficulties. Thornton means well but constantly irks and intrudes upon Jason’s goals. To Thornton, college is a means to an end. He didn’t need it to be successful, so why should his son? He buys his way onto campus and pays experts to do his homework, disregarding the point of higher education. This attitude pushes him further away from his son than he can understand.
Meanwhile, Jason develops a love interest in a girl named Valerie Demond (Terry Farrell) who happens to be seeing the lead diver on the diving team, Chas Osborne (William Zabka), the blond antagonist from The Karate Kid. Similarly, Thorton is smitten with his literature professor Dr. Diane Tuner (Sally Kellerman), who is seeing economics professor Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whithead). These parallels are subtly delivered in a movie that never slows down. Thorton and his son are two sides of the same coin. They’re equal protagonists, but Thorton ultimately steals the show by design.
Both Melons share moments of failing and subsequently redeem themselves by the third act. Thornton learns that money can’t buy everything, as his son learns to believe in himself, and Back to School is a movie that just works. I could compare it to a dozen other classics and equate its magic to no end. It was the movie Rodney Dangerfield had been working for his entire life. And to see him embrace the role of Thornton Melon and perform it so effortlessly is a pleasure to behold.
The movie’s enduring legacy also comes down to its casting. In addition to the actors mentioned, there’s Ned Beatty, Robert Downey Jr., Kurt Vonnegut (in a cameo appearance), and Danny Elfman himself, performing with his band Oingo Boingo at Thornton’s mega party. Sam Kinison, as the deranged Professor Terguson, undoubtedly delivers some of the movie’s most memorable comedic moments. He, like, Dangerfield, is at the top of his game. Kinison was one of the many comics Dangerfield promoted and featured on his early HBO standup specials. It would have been a dream to see them in more movies together.
The carefree academic environment portrayed in Back to School is obviously long dead. It’s not a movie that fits well with the times, but to that extent, nothing does. It remains a classic though in every sense, and that fills me with hope. I’ll never forget seeing it in theaters, fully taken with its wild-eyed protagonist and his incredibly entertaining journey.