Forgotten Films: Up The Academy (1980)
From the surreal to the stupid…After the record-breaking success of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) kick-started the SNL-raunch comedy genre, the derivative rip-offs began to flood or trickle into drive-ins and theaters across the nation. From the cult ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979) to the amusing HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS (1980) to the revolting KING FRAT (1979), audiences had to endure or guffaw through the archetypal story of some young misfits who defy academic authority and fight for their right to party. Lacking the National Lampoon/Second City genuine wit of ANIMAL HOUSE, most of these films were as ephemeral as a food fight, but as a sub-cultural entity they still hold some nostalgic interest. Of all the potential competitors, only MAD Magazine stood the chance of breaking the genre’s already established cliches. Since MAD was my satirical bible as a child, I was anxious to see how a movie could be strung together of the magazine’s disparate jabs at pop and consumer culture. How would they bring Sergio Aragone’s tiny margins or Al Jaffee’s wacky inventions to the silver screen? Well, they made it easy and didn’t bother (at least Jack Davis Rickard did the poster art). Instead, Warner Brothers demanded an ANIMAL HOUSE-style story and thus TV writers Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett who wrote many funny episodes of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (and created ALF) reluctantly wrote the script to studio specs with unsurprising results, perhaps more extreme than expected.
The most interesting thing outside the movie’s source material is that it was directed by New York filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., the first underground director to break aboveground in 1970 with the advertising satire hit, PUTNEY SWOPE. Downey never had another commercial success and it’s clear a Hollywood career wasn’t much of an interest to him. Which makes his stint at the helm of a raunchy teen comedy more fascinating and worthy of inspection, if albeit briefly. I saw UP THE ACADEMY at the Roseville Tower Theater on a double-bill with the no-shit superior THE BLUES BROTHERS (ironic given the ANIMAL HOUSE folks involved); I recall running up and down the aisles mixing with my friends as we were wont to do in those days of behind the theater flasks and pipes. Eventually I settled in to watch the movie, which turned out to be as mediocre as I kinda expected but with some moments that registered in my mind forever.
The credits are actually quite charming, a series of toy wooden soldiers domino-ing in slow motion to the somewhat catchy theme “Kicking Up A Fuss” by Blow-Up (the offbeat, excellent soundtrack also features Blondie, Lou Reed, The Kinks, Iggy Pop, Pat Benatar, Jonathan Richman and Cheap Trick). We get our first look at Alfred E. Neuman overseeing the action (mask designed by Rick Baker) and he’s always been kind of a creepy Booji Boy to me, even moreso on film. The character introductions are in rapid labored order, each revealing the origin of their fuck-up status and eventual banishment to Weinberg Military Academy. Ralph Macchio in his debut plays a Mafia scion; Wendell Brown is the good boy with a pregnant girlfriend whose anti-abortion dad insists she get an abortion; Hutch Parker plays the African-American stereotype who macks on his step-moms; and Tommy Citera as the common thief son of an Arabian Prince. They are later joined by Harry Teinowitz as “Rodney Ververgaert” in one of the most obnoxious character intros in film comedy history. And yes, Robert Downey Jr. makes a cameo as a young soccer player.
Our uncharismatic heroes soon bond in the rebellion against the tyranny of the cruel Major Vaughn Liceman, assayed by Ron Leibman, who brings along a cold wind — and an Iggy Pop theme — whenever he enters the room. Although Leibman did indeed famously remove his name from the film after an early screening (so what did the script look like?) he’s easily the best and funniest thing about UP THE ACADEMY. He’s a terrific, underrated actor and he takes the role seriously enough to manifest a real comedic creation here. Even Vincent Canby singled him out in his New York Times review: “Ron Leibman IS ”Up the Academy.” He’s the maniacally evil heart and scroungy soul of this wayward lampoon of a comedy…” His repeated command to “Say it again!” is the most memorable sound bite from the film next to his unexpected “Tickle yo’ ass with a featha?” seduction line to the female soldiers from Butch Academy at a dance ball. Perhaps Leibman wondered what he got himself involved in by the end when he has to wear a pink nightie and feign whipping sexy Stacey Nelkin. Still, he’s magnetic in the role and if there’s any reason for a cult around the film, it’s due to Ron Leibman. Say it again!
Since Robert Downey Sr. was known as a primarily satiric director, the comedy veers from the almost funny to the staggeringly dumb, particularly the jaw-dropping shot of the Arabian youth bowing to cans of oil — the image that my 12 year old brain found most offensive or brilliant. There are some amusing, if obvious bits from Tom Poston as a swishing dance instructor and Barbara Bach’s scene as a sexy weapons expert is one of the better gags. Despite the fact that ANIMAL HOUSE was pegged as a “gross out” comedy, its humor was not as visceral as its rip-offs; there were no fart jokes nor grotesque stereotypes. UP THE ACADEMY doesn’t have any of the nudity or sexual situations of the John Landis classic but it does have a literal turd in a punchbowl. My favorite comedy moment is The Land Mines, a 1950’s doo-wop sweater clad group, as they perform their anachronistic high-pitched song to a fleeing auditorium, with only Major Liceman as their sole appreciative audience. But even this bit is marred by the joke going on and on, replete with stock footage of buildings collapsing. The funniest thing about the scene might be this IMDB review:
“…then there is, I am 100% serious, a two-frame stop-motion sequence of A WOMAN’S SHOES COMING OFF. You read that correctly — the music was so bad, in one frame, the woman’s feet have shoes on. In the very next, the shoes are off!!! Get it, because the music was so bad, her shoes came off! What the F????”
The film ends with the proper humiliation of Major Liceman and the return home of our military heroes. The final scene has to be seen to be believed, with the replaying of the last shot as Leibman yells “Show it again!” over and over. Then we get our scary Alfred E. Neuman shrugging under a cartoon word balloon. Suffice to say, the film was a box-office under-performer and the resultant embarrassment signified the end of a series of MAD Magazine spin-offs, for which we can only be grateful. Naturally, the most critical barbs would come from fans of the periodical that trained a generation how to mistrust mass culture. Legend has it that William Gaines paid Warner $30,000 to remove ALL references to MAD and Alfred E. Neuman from the film for video/cable release (reinstated for DVD). The magazine also had the rare chance to parody themselves:
And that’s about all I have to say about UP THE ACADEMY except that it was fun to revisit it years later and still feel that memory tingle of wild youth as we ran from the alley through the lobby and up the stairs, the suburban chant of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” echoing through the cavernous Tower Theater, transmitting and reflecting the sense of abandon and rebellion that were the primary functions of these teensploitation epics. What, me worry?