30 Years of Back To School

rodney dangerfield
1986 was a phenomenal year for movies. Raul continues his 30th anniversary coverage with Back To School. 

June 13th marks the 30th anniversary of what is easily the best starring vehicle for the iconic stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield with the release of the college romp Back to School. He plays rich businessman Thornton Melon, whose fortune was primarily made off of selling clothing to big and tall customers. His son Jason is a freshman in college and things aren’t going the way that he had planned. He is not well liked, isn’t in a fraternity, and didn’t make the swim team. When his father comes to visit him, Jason tells him that he is going to drop out of school. In order to prove how important an education is, Thornton enrolls in school with his son. This leads to lots of hijinks with Thornton as he becomes the typical rich, fifty year old freshman by getting into bar fights, falling in love with a teacher, throwing wild parties, and having his employees do his homework.

No respect, I tell ya. No respect. 

It’s pretty much a formulaic college movie except its primary story is about an older man and his son, so it’s kind of like Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds meets AARP. Regardless, it is a fun and lighthearted film that is actually important because it is the best overall feature that starred the great Rodney Dangerfield. Yes, he had a memorable appearance in Caddyshack but that was in a supporting role. He had other starring roles in Easy Money, Ladybugs, and Meet Wally Sparks but none of those are as funny or complete as this one. There are other things that make this one better than those, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. I don’t think that most of the younger generation referred to as Generation Z even know who Dangerfield is or about his importance to the world of stand-up comedy. He is easily is in the top five of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time and it could be debated that he should be ranked number one. He helped younger comedians with their careers by running a comedy club in Manhattan and hosting a series of HBO comedy specials called Rodney’s Dangerfield’s Annual Comedians Special. Some of these comedians included Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, Jim Carrey, and Sam Kinison.

The other things that make this one good is that it contains a superb supporting cast, an excellent score and soundtrack, a great script that contains tons of witty dialogue and one-liners, and Dangerfield being put into a series of hilarious situations. The cast is strong featuring appearances from Keith Gordon (Christine) as the son Jason, William Zabka (Karate Kid) as the bad boy, Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog) as Thornton’s cheating wife, Burt Young (Rocky) as Thornton’s limo driver, Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) as the Jason’s weird friend, Ned Beatty (Deliverance) as the Dean, M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple) as the swim instructor, Sally Kellerman (MASH) as Thornton’s love interest, and Sam Kinison as a Vietnam veteran history teacher. They all play their parts well. Downey stands out and has plenty of humorous dialogue and his outfits and hair are constantly outrageous. Young gets one really good scene with Jason. Kinison almost steals the whole movie with his short amount of screen time in which completely blows up while discussing the Vietnam War in a class with Dangerfield. 

The score was done by Danny Elfman (Batman) and it is light and playful much like his score in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. He also performs in this with his band Oingo Boingo. The soundtrack also includes the theme song “Back to School” performed by Jude Cole and a performance of “Twist and Shout” by Dangerfield.

sam kinison
Did you say you forgot the blow?

Like I said, it's somewhat formulaic of the college subgenre, featuring all of the standard college shenanigans, multiple romantic subplots, and the bad guy. It also makes you suspend belief for a little bit and imagine that Dangerfield could be performing difficult dives and flips at his age and the shape that he was in. Other than that, this is a classic 1980’s college comedy that has relevance because of the legendary Rodney Dangerfield and the memorable performance from Sam Kinison.

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-Raul Vantassle