Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Melissa McCarthy goes back to college in Life of the Party, and it is amusing because she is incongruously old. I do not know when this wheezy chestnut was done first, but I do know when it was done most notoriously.

Rodney Dangerfield's career was already a bit of a curious anachronism even before he started making movies. By the time he hit it big in the late 1960s, his particular flavor of quippy Borscht Belt comedy was on its last legs, soon to be replaced by a more observational and less "beat-beat-PUNCHLINE"-oriented form of neurotic humor. By the time his film career kicked off in earnest with 1980's Caddyshack, he was a full two generations behind the curve. And even with all that in mind, Back to School, Dangerfield's third big film, released in 1986, is a wholly inscrutable throwback. Make only the most modest number of changes, and this could easily be part of the 1930s cycle of college comedies, some earnest knock-off of the Marx brothers' filmography - hell, you could almost imagine the Marxes themselves doing something like this during their later, weaker time at MGM, when they often had substantially worse screenplays than Dangerfield is coping with here.

Odd enough, and odder still since not one thing about Back to School openly announces (or even seems consciously aware) that this is a new version of a 50-year-old genre. Sight unseen, it's easy to suppose this is just part of the post-Animal House run of dopey, horny college comedies, only this one randomly doubles as a starring vehicle for a 65-year-old Catskills comedian; that impression survives as far as running into the name of director Alan Metter, whose other big claim to fame is that, eight years in the future, he'd direct the last and worst of the Police Academy movies (that would be Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, if you're not up on your '80s comedy franchises). But when we hit the list of writers, that's where things start to clear up: of the four credited screenwriters (itself a pretty bad sign), I don't know shit about William Porter, but Steven Kampmann and PJ Torokvei worked together on WKRP in Cincinatti, one of the smartest sitcoms of its era, and Harold Ramis is of course Harold Ramis: one of the '80s finest craftsmen of highly literate lowbrow humor. Put them together, and you end up with a goofball farce that takes time for jokes about Marx (Karl, not Groucho) and features a cameo by Kurt Vonnegut that more or less takes it for granted that we know who Kurt Vonnegut is.

Anyway, I don't want to get away with myself. Back to School is no comedy masterpiece: it is merely smarter and more sophisticated than just about every other film targeting the same demographic at the same time, and '80s comedy was no high point for sophistication. Still, it's pretty well-built, starting with an unexpectedly stylish opening sequence in black and white that presents us with the childhood and rise to wealth of men's clothing magnate Thornton Melon (Dangerfield), who runs a hugely successful national chain of "Tall & Fat" stores. It's a nice little visual grace note to get things started, with a montage that bounces along to the mildly sarcastic peppiness of Danny Elfman's score (only the third time he'd ever composed the music for a film). And from there, we arrive in 1986, where Thorton lives a life of misery with his unpleasant, unfaithful second wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau), only able to find pleasure in making rat-a-tat jokes at the expense of her and her awful rich friends. One divorce later, he's headed into the countryside to Grand Lakes University,* where his son Jason (Keith Gordon) is midway through freshman year. Upon discovering that the younger Melon is fed up and thinking of dropping out, Thornton hatches a wild idea to ensure his son sees the value of an education: he, Thornton Melon, who never even got a high school diploma, shall enroll as an undergraduate. Note that this means he is not, in fact, going "back" to school, but I'm damned if I could come up with a punchier title that's also accurate.

The film plays out hitting most of the notes you'd expect: Thornton reacts with boggle-eyed amazement at all the shenanigans of Kids These Days (and Dangerfield's eyes come pre-boggled, so the amazement is intense); makes an enemy of the stuffy economics professor Philip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead), who believes that his models are better than Thornton's scruffy, unscrupulous hard-won knowledge of business; and loses his head over pretty English professor Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), who happens to be dating Philip. Meanwhile, he both helps and hinders Jason's attempts to flirt with Valerie (Terry Ferrell), who is already busy fending off the advances of the awful Chas (William Zabka), the star of the school's diving team that Jason has been trying to join. Surprise is by no means the goal; Dangerfield had exactly one thing he was capable of doing, and the film mostly consists of him doing it: making an observation in that extraordinarily unique cadence of his, ending with something that would almost qualify as a double entendre, except that Dangerfield's delivery is so leering and happily smutty that he pretty much just makes it a single entendre. I would say that one's enjoyment of the film is entirely contingent on one's enjoyment of Dangerfield, but that's not even quite right: myself, I find him a little too much after about 15 minutes (he's like a version of Grouch Marx who is terrified that we're not going to get the joke if he doesn't loudly underscore it for us), and yet I had a pretty good time with Back to School throughout. Part of it is the very high quality of the zingers, not all of them handed off to the star; part of it is the appealing cast he's been surrounded with. I have mentioned neither Burt Young as Thorton's chauffeur and bodyguard, nor little tiny baby Robert Downey, Jr. as Jason's roommate, but they're the obvious standouts, with Young in particular revealing a good sense of deadpan comic timing that I wouldn't have thought to expect from him. A much less obvious standout is Kellerman, who was obviously having a grand time on set (backstage stories suggest that she was pretty down on the project until actually meeting Dangerfield and taking an immediate shine to him), and who beams out an aura of pleasant, "ain't this all such fun silly nonsense?" charisma that helps to actually makeย Back to School's ridiculous romantic subplot feel worthwhile and grounded in the characters.

It's all pretty trivial, but it is well-written, tightly-edited triviality, with really likable characters and actors working hard to make it seem pointlessly easy. This is far, far more than can be said of most comedies from the same period, which go for a much shaggier form of comedy with more cynicism. Not that Back to School lacks cynicism - the plot hinges on the university being a money-hungry racket - but it has the merry vaudevillian cynicism of Dangerfield's era of comedy, not the sullenness of the Reagan '80s (compare, for example, every other film Ramis had a hand in writing around this time). I find the star more than a little fatiguing, but there's no question what he brings to the table: a simple but clear story that serves as a good foundation for well-built, if unabashedly corny gags. It is a trim movie, something vanishingly rare in film comedy after the late 1950s. Again, put this exact same movie out in 1935, and I don't know if it stands out at all.โ€  But in 1986... it still doesn't "stand out", but it's got something kind of special going on anyway.




*The school is mostly played by my own beloved University of Wisconsin-Madison, a fact that I bring up not because it is intrinsically interesting, but because many of the locations are found within a six-minute walk from my office, and this never, ever stopped distracting me.




โ€ The scene with a topless woman would have stood out, to be fair.