Back to School

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Back to School
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlan Metter
Screenplay by
Story by
Produced byChuck Russell
CinematographyThomas E. Ackerman
Edited byDavid Rawlins
Music byDanny Elfman
Paper Clip Productions
Distributed byOrion Pictures
Release date
  • June 13, 1986 (1986-06-13)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$11 million[1]
Box office$91.3 million[2]

Back to School is a 1986 American comedy film starring Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Terry Farrell, William Zabka, Ned Beatty, Sam Kinison, Paxton Whitehead, Robert Downey Jr., M. Emmet Walsh, and Adrienne Barbeau. It was directed by Alan Metter. The plot centers on a wealthy but uneducated father (Dangerfield) who goes to college to show solidarity with his discouraged son Jason (Gordon) and learns that he cannot buy an education or happiness.

Kurt Vonnegut has a cameo as himself, as does the band Oingo Boingo, whose frontman Danny Elfman composed the score for the film. The University of Wisconsin–Madison was used as a backdrop for the movie, although it was called "Grand Lakes University". The diving scenes were filmed at the since-demolished Industry Hills Aquatic Club in the City of Industry, California.

Before the end credits, the message "For ESTELLE Thanks For So Much" is shown in dedication to Estelle Endler, one of the executive producers of the film, who died during production. She was Dangerfield's long-time manager, who helped him get into films such as Caddyshack.[3]


Thornton Meloni, a child of Italian immigrants, returns from school one day to his father's tailor shop, bearing a report card with poor grades. His ambition is to go into his father's line of work, but his stern father warns Thornton "If a man has no education, he's got nothing."

As decades pass, Thornton Anglicizes his surname to "Melon" and becomes a self-made corporate giant, with a successful chain of plus-size clothing stores and numerous other business ventures. A series of photographs show him acquiring property and having a son named Jason. In the present, Jason is now a college student who has been avoiding his father despite their previous closeness. Thornton is now widowed from Jason's mother, and has remarried to a gold digger named Vanessa. Thornton has reached his breaking point when Vanessa splurges on an expensive party and decides he wishes to see Jason. He divorces Vanessa for adultery and instructs Lou, his bodyguard and chauffeur, to take him to Grand Lakes University.

On the campus, Thornton learns that Jason's distant attitude with his father was that he is a C-student, unhappy with college life, and intends to drop out. He is a towel boy for the diving team instead of a member, was rejected by the fraternities, is antagonized by diver and jock Chas Osborne, and has no friends except for his roommate Derek Lutz. Thornton motivates him to stay in college by deciding to enroll alongside him. Despite Thornton's lack of academic qualifications, the dean David Martin admits him when he bribes Martin with a donation for a new campus building.

Thornton's bribery earns him the wrath of Dr. Philip Barbay, dean of the business school. His displeasure is further exacerbated by Thornton's canny practical experience clashing with Barbay's hypothetical theorizing in class, and ivory tower ways. Thornton also develops a romantic interest in Barbay's girlfriend, the literature professor Dr. Diane Turner. Meanwhile, Jason begins to attract the interest of Valerie Desmond, a girl that Chas has been trying to impress. Thornton instantly becomes a popular man on campus, throwing huge parties and exhibiting generosity to the fellow students. Jason earns a spot on the diving team, after Thornton, a former diver himself, convinces the diving coach to reconsider his abilities. Despite all this, Jason still feels he is living in his father's shadow.

As a student, even though Diane is inspiring a deeper appreciation of literature, Thornton prefers partying to studying. He hires a team of professionals to complete his assignments, including Kurt Vonnegut to write a paper on Vonnegut for literature class. To Thornton's surprise, Diane gives the paper a failing grade for obviously not being his own work, and she becomes disillusioned by his frivolous behavior. Jason is also upset with Thornton for trivializing education, while mistakenly believing Thornton bribed the diving coach into accepting him on the team.

Dr. Barbay accuses Thornton, in the presence of Dean Martin, of academic fraud. He challenges Thornton to an oral examination conducted by all of his professors, facing expulsion if he fails any part of it. Believing he has no chance of passing, Thornton packs up and prepares to leave. Jason stops Thornton and successfully encourages him to stay and prepare for the challenge.

With limited time to prepare, Thornton crams for the examination with help from Jason, Derek, Lou, and even Diane. When the big day comes, Barbay begins by intimidating Thornton with a single, 27-part question. Nevertheless, Thornton answers every part, though the effort was so much that he wants to forfeit. Diane inspires him to finish by asking him to recite a Dylan Thomas poem, which he does.

At the championship dive meet later that day, Thornton and Jason reconcile, while Grand Lakes University takes the lead. To spite Jason for his performance and for winning over Valerie, Chas fakes a cramp in an attempt to make his team lose. The coach decides to recruit Thornton as a last-minute replacement. Thornton helps the team win by performing the extremely dangerous, but legendary "Triple Lindy" dive. Afterwards, Thornton learns from Diane that he has passed the examination with all D's, except for a single A from her. At the end of the school year, Thornton gives the commencement speech, advising the new graduates that the real world is vicious, and the best course of action is to "move back in with your parents; let them worry about it!"



Harold Ramis suggested a rewrite to the script.[4] The producers originally wanted Jim Carrey to play the role of Professor Terguson, but he was later rejected as he was deemed too young for the part.[5]


Back to School was the 6th highest-grossing film of 1986, as well as the second highest grossing comedy film of the year, behind Crocodile Dundee (records state that in addition to the rental and theatrical gross it received, it went on to gross $108,634,920 globally).[citation needed]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an 87% rating based on 38 reviews, with an average rating of 6.90/10. The site's consensus reads, "Back to School gives Rodney Dangerfield plenty of room to riff -- and supports the freewheeling funnyman with enough of a story to keep things interesting between punchlines."[6] On Metacritic it has a score of 68 out of 100 based on reviews from 9 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[7] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A−" on an A+ to F scale.[8]

Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times noted that "Dangerfield seems to be setting the film's brisk pace and flawless timing himself."[9] Nina Darnton wrote in The New York Times that "the film is a good-natured potpourri of gags, funny bits, populist sentiment and anti-intellectualism."[10] Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times 3-star review described the film as "routine but pleasant", yet elevated by Dangerfield's persona: "This is exactly the sort of plot Marx or Fields could have appeared in. Dangerfield brings it something they might also have brought along: a certain pathos."[11]


Back to School
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists

The soundtrack was released on MCA, available in LP or Cassette (no CD), but cues from the score were released that year with selections from the score of Pee-wee's Big Adventure (both re-recordings made in London) on CD.

1."Back to School"Richard Wolf & Mark LeonardJude Cole4:16
2."Educated Girl"Bobby Caldwell & Randy GoodrumBobby Caldwell4:07
3."Learnin' and Livin'"David Tyson & Eddie SchwartzTyson & Schwartz3:25
4."Everybody's Crazy" (from Everybody's Crazy, 1985)BoltonMichael Bolton4:37
5."I'll Never Forget Your Face"Richard Wolf & Wayne PerkinsPhillip Ingram4:07
6."Twist and Shout" (Isley Brothers cover, original 1962)Phil Medley, Bert RussellRodney Dangerfield2:51
7."Dead Man's Party" (from Dead Man's Party, 1985)Danny ElfmanOingo Boingo6:17
8."On My Way"David Tyson & Eddie SchwartzTyson & Schwartz3:30
9."Respect" (from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, 1967)Otis ReddingAretha Franklin2:24

In popular culture[edit]

The competition scene was parodied in the music video for Canadian rock band Sum 41's 2001 single "In Too Deep".[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Blockbuster Lull No Problem At Box Office". Chicago Tribune. July 30, 1986. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
  2. ^ "Back to School (1986)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
  3. ^ Dangerfield, Rodney (2004). It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060779245. I was right about Estelle—she was the best manager anyone could ever have. She got me into movies.
  4. ^ "AFI|Catalog".
  5. ^ Evans, Bradford (March 17, 2011). "The Lost Roles of Jim Carrey". Splitsider. Archived from the original on August 8, 2015. Retrieved August 10, 2015.
  6. ^ "Back to School (1986)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved August 26, 2023.
  7. ^ "Back to School". Metacritic. Retrieved January 1, 2021.
  8. ^ "Cinemascore :: Movie Title Search". December 20, 2018. Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved July 27, 2020.
  9. ^ Thomas, Kevin (June 12, 1986). "Movie Review : 'Back' Gets Laughs, And Respect, Too". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 27, 2013. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
  10. ^ Darnton, Nina (June 13, 1986). "FILM: 'BACK TO SCHOOL,' WITH RODNEY DANGERFIELD". The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
  11. ^ Ebert, Roger (June 13, 1986). "Back to School". Chicago Sun Times. Archived from the original on March 4, 2012. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
  12. ^ Graham Hartmann (July 19, 2019). "Sum 41 React to Their Classic Music Videos". Loudwire. Retrieved October 24, 2020.

External links[edit]