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Friday, September 25, 2009

Up the Academy (1980) review


This new section is devoted to obscure comedies that were either overlooked, or snubbed by a moviegoing public during their initial theatrical run. Some have cult followings and others are just comedies that have nostaligic appeal to me. This first entry is a personal favorite of mine and contains some pics from a lobby set I have in my collection....


Ron Leibman (Major Vaughn Liceman/uncredited), Wendell Brown (Ike), Tommy Citera (Hash), J. Hutchison (Oliver), Ralph Macchio (Chooch), Harry Teinowitz (Rodney Ververgaert), Stacey Nelkin (Candy), Tom Poston (Skip Sisson), Ian Wolfe (Comdt. Nelson Causeway), Antonio Fargas (Coach), Barbara Bach (Bliss)

Directed by Robert Downey

***WARNING! This review contains language of an adult nature***

Four misfits of society, "embarrassments to their communities", get sent to Weinberg Military Academy to learn discipline and social graces, but end up butting heads with the venomous Major Vaughn Liceman instead. Comical and sexual shenanigans ensue culminating in one of the boys getting caught in a compromising position with his libidinous girlfriend. With pictures of his romp in the sack a threat to his father being re-elected as Mayor, the quirky quartet devise their own hilarious plan to catch Liceman in the act. With both sides having something scandalous on the other, all bets are placed on the upcoming faculty/student soccer game. The stakes are high, but the misfits of Weinberg have no intentions of losing.

When National Lampoon's ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) became a massive success, the boys behind MAD Magazine figured they had as good a chance as any at producing a monetary sensation of their own. What they came up with was UP THE ACADEMY. But this ambitious leap from the pages of a popular comic magazine to the screen was a tumultuous journey that ended in disaster for most everyone involved.

The script from Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett was a bit more salacious than the founder of MAD, Bill Gaines, was willing to accept for his approval. A number of scenes were dropped (including those with nudity or sex), or cut altogether leaving a film that was still very much politically incorrect.

There are a number of racial jokes aimed at different minorities including Arabs, African Americans and Italians. There's also jokes and characters that poke fun of homosexuality and then there's flatulence humor which seems to be all the rage over the last ten years since writers are seemingly incapable of creating a comedy script that relies on wordplay to get laughs.

The bean eating sequence in BLAZING SADDLES (1974) is the pinnacle of fart jokes. UP THE ACADEMY has a character (the Commandant played by Ian Wolfe) who farts incessantly and the gag is played for all it's worth. A comment is made that "Anybody can get laid in a whorehouse". We then see the Comdt. being thrown from a trailer housing some prostitutes. Fanning the air as the hookers close the door, the dissatisfied and unhappy old goat releases a couple more gas bombs into the air. Homosexuals, both male and female get ribbed a lot here as well.

Tom Poston plays Skip Sisson, a fruity dance instructor who has a thing for the young men of the academy. He gets a little too excited fitting Chooch for his uniforms prompting the Italian hothead to pick up a pair of large scissors. Also, the female version of Weinberg, Mildred S. Butch Academy, is ripe with lesbian jokes. Some of the women talk about "working their nuts off", being grounded for shaving their legs and some others enjoy kicking back with a Hustler magazine.

"If you didn't have that filthy rag wrapped around your eyes then you could see the truth, then you would not lie!" According to Liceman, Hash's headdress makes him "stand out like a turd in a punchbowl."

As stated above, racial jokes abound throughout the film. Liceman refers to Hash as "Swami" and "Punjab" and Ike's religiously overzealous father refers to him as a "Jive ass nigga" at his intolerance of Ike's putting the moves on his step mothers. Antonio Fargas even gives him hell exclaiming he's a "disgrace to niggas' the world over", in response to his inability to grasp the basic fundamentals of soccer.

Seeing it today, it isn't TOO offensive in light of everything that has come after it. But if one puts themselves back in 1980, there really wasn't another comedy quite as rude, or rebellious (at least not another I can think of). Downey's film could be viewed as the progenitor to every obnoxious and flatulence saturated comedy to come down the pike since its inception. Nonetheless, the long, hard road to the screen resulted in UP THE ACADEMY bearing the marks of chaotic editing and a disgruntled actor and producer.

Actor, Ron Leibman, who featured in such films as WHERE'S POPPA? (1970), SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972), THE SUPER COPS (1974) and NORMA RAE (1979) among others became disenchanted with the film and the direction it was taking. He subsequently had his name removed from the credits. It's a true shame that Leibman felt resentment for appearing as he owns the picture. His performance demands attention and he's absolutely hilarious as the overbearing and callous Major Liceman. Leibman is so good, it's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. It's also perplexing to me that Leibman has disdain for this movie when he appeared in a supporting role in one of the worst movies of all time, RHINESTONE (1984). Now that's a stain on his resume Greased Lightning won't take off.

Leibman dominates every scene he's in and his character changes about halfway through the movie. It's later revealed that this hard ass shell of a man is the result of sexual repression and social nonacceptance. Once Liceman has an opportunity for a possible sexual liaison, he becomes like a shivering, blathering schoolboy and the real Liceman is revealed. Earlier in the film when he introduces himself to the new cadets he alludes to his own previous life as an outcast, or misfit, just like the four main protagonists.

The notion of friends is very important to Liceman as this passage attests, "Weinberg can be a very lonely place if you don't have friends...I know. I was seven years old when I first came to the academy. I didn't have any friends...nobody liked me..." Of course, the Major is incapable of making, or keeping friends just as Ike points out, "He didn't mean it when he said he wanted to be friends", prompting Chooch to respond with the illuminating and profound dialog, "No shit!"

Not only Leibman, but MAD Magazine also had their credit removed from the film in addition to a few appearances by their mascot, Alfred E. Neuman played by an actor with an Alfred mask on his head. However, VHS prints of the picture retained the MAD credit as well as the mascot appearances. The recent widescreen DVD release also contains these theatrical omissions.

Furthermore, Leibman's credit is missing on all known versions. MAD was so irate and embarrassed over their involvement they did one of their famous spoofs of the film in their magazine, only this was more spiteful and done in a detestable manner condemning the film and the periodicals association with the production.

"Doin' the best I can, Sgt. Patti"

It's a shame, though, that MAD didn't just let the writers cut loose with the material as they could have truly created something rude, crude and socially unacceptable. UP THE ACADEMY crosses that line, but seldom takes the ball and runs with it. Instead, it kind of just kicks it around a bit here and there.

Would you let this man cut your hair?

One aspect of UP THE ACADEMY that ensures its status as a cult film is its turbo charged soundtrack brimming with a plethora of punk new wave and rock tracks by numerous artists such as Blondie, Ian Hunter, The Boomtown Rats, Pat Benatar, Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick and The Kinks among the bunch. Obscure, but critically lauded LA band, Blow Up (so named from the 1966 film), contributed three tracks to the film; the fist pumpin' anthem, 'Kicking Up A Fuss', 'Local Hero' and another anthem 'Beat the Devil', a track that sums up the plot of the movie nicely.

The Brave Young Men of Weinberg (working title for the film)

Personally, I think UP THE ACADEMY is a great movie. I never get tired of watching it and grew up with it catching the flick on HBO in the early 1980's. There were other raucous comedies at the time like USED CARS (which recently got a raw deal with a shitty remake), but MAD's sole excursion into bad taste comedy is memorable to a lot of people for different reasons. Without doubt, Ron Leibman totally makes this film a joy to watch and he has nothing to be ashamed of. Leibman was also funny as Capt. Esteban in 1981's ZORRO, THE GAY BLADE starring George Hamilton. Every scene involving Leibman is priceless and below are some choice lines of dialog from the film...

Liceman: (Liceman finds some stolen golden candlesticks) " take these candlesticks here for instance I do not think they belong in there now do they, punjab?"

Hash: "They were a gift from my uncle, sir."

Liceman: "You pick'em up."

Hash: "Yes, sir."

Liceman: "I ever catch you stealin' again, boy, I'm gonna rip ya balls off."

Hash: "Fair enough, sir."

Liceman: "Say it again."

Hash: "Fair enough, sir."

Liceman: "Say it again."

Hash: "Fair enough, sir."

Liceman: "Somethin' wrong with you, boy?"

Oliver: "No, it's just a little chilly in here."

Liceman: "Don't you mean it's just a little chilly in here, sir!"

Oliver: "Yes, sir."

Liceman: "Well say it!"

Oliver: "It's just a little chilly in here, sir!"

Liceman: "Say it again!"

Oliver: "It's just a little chilly in here, sir!!"

Liceman: "Say it again!!"

Oliver: "It's just a little chilly in here, sir!!!"

"This letter arrived for you a couple three days ago. I just around openin' it."

Liceman: (Having opened Olivers mail and warned him of going over the wall to see his girlfriend) "...Now, the rest of the letter's...just a bunch a...lovey dovey bullshit."

Oliver: "I'll tell her to stop that, sir."

Liceman: "Don't matter to me, boy. It's your mail."

Liceman: (To Oliver on whether he's been a good friend) "Now, sir...have I not been your friend?"

Oliver: "You have been my friend, sir."

Liceman: "Say it again."

Oliver: "You have been my friend, sir."

Liceman: "Say it again!"

Oliver: "You have been my friend, sir."

Liceman: (with evangelical conviction) "Say it again!!"

Oliver: "You have been my friend, sir."

Liceman: "Hash....that's what your friends call you now, isn't it, Hash?"

Hash: "Yes, sir."

Liceman: "Well, I am your friend, am I not?"

Hash: "Yes, sir."

Liceman: "May I call you Hash?"

Hash: "May I call you Lice?"

Liceman: "You like it when a gentleman ties you up?"

Potential sexual conquest #1: (with great surprise) "What?!?"

Liceman: "You know, with rope.....I got some parachute chord..."

"Here's to Butch and Weinberg..."

Liceman: "....Tickle ya ass with a featha'?"

Potential sexual conquest #2: (with disgusted look on her face) "What...!"

Liceman: "I said,'s particularly nasty weather...we been havin'"

And these....

Oliver: "I wrote to Candy over a week ago. Why hasn't she written me back?"

Ike: "She probably has. But you gotta be takes a long time for a letter to be Hell!"

Rodney: "You don't wet your bed, do ya'?"

Chooch: "No, I generally just piss over the side."

Ike: (As voiceover) "Dear reverend pop. I caught your act on the radio today. I hope the record sales are good. Oh, I also met your friend, the Devil. His name is Liceman. And you're right, he is white."

Hash: (Upon reaching a gas station run by cretins) "May we have some service, please?"

Gas station redneck #1: "Self serve...asshole!"

Hash: "Oh, let me get it!"

Ike: "Can I borrow the key, please?"

Gas station redneck #1: "Don't need a key to go in the woods...boy."

Ike: "Yazza..."

Bliss: (Describing a weapon of one kind, but a metaphor for another) "This hard, cylindrical, blunt ended artillery shell...smooth to the touch, but highly explosive when shoooved...into the chamber and fired."

To "say it again" just how funny Leibman is in this movie would be redundant, but necessary. Whenever he's on screen, you can't help but be in awe of the man. Not only that, but during the first half of the film, whenever he enters a room, a great wind blows announcing his entrance while Iggy & the Stooges' 'Gimme Danger' plays in the background. It's not until the last half of the movie that Liceman shows his true self, a man who longs for a friend and some female companionship, but is incapable of having either one.

A scene not in the finished film

His difficulty in finding a woman who doesn't mind having her "ass tickled with a feather" and his fondness for a terrible band named 'The Landmines' is proof of his status as a loner. Essentially he's just as much an outcast as his cadets he regularly chastises. His sexual fetishes bring about his downfall during the soccer race at the end when both cadet and instructor have something the other wants with the outcome of the game deciding who wins the "prize". The cadets have something up their sleeves, though, to make sure the odds are in their favor.

As with the later teen sex comedies of the 80's and the AMERICAN PIE movies that followed in the 90's, sex plays a big role in UP THE ACADEMY. Right from the outset when the viewer learns that the character of Ike has relations with his stepmothers, to the oversexed Oliver and his girlfriend Candy, to the nymphomaniac weapons instructor (played by Ringo Starr's wife, Barbara Bach), who treats her class as a metaphor for the sexual act all the way to Liceman's willingness to partake in bizarre sadomasochistic practices. It's all here.


The acting is also unusually good for this type of movie and it's a shame virtually none of the main performers outside of Macchio went on to anything of substance afterwards. Many of the other actors were veterans of television and movies such as Antonio Fargas (FOXY BROWN, STARSKY & HUTCH) and Tom Poston (NEWHART).

This shot, most likely a publicity still, isn't in the film, either

The script, as troubled as it was getting it up on the screen, defines the characters just enough to make them stand out. Oliver just wants to spend quality time with his busty girlfriend played by the terribly underused Stacey (HALLOWEEN 3) Nelkin. Ike wants to get up close and personal with his evangelist fathers wives. His second wife is played by none other than Tanya (BLACK SHAMPOO) Boyd. Hash is a young kleptomaniac who prays to cans of Castrol. Chooch comes from a mob family and just wants to be left alone. Rodney is a giggling, horny arsonist.

Hash (right) happens to "dig pig balls"

Despite its rocky road to gain some form of recognition aside from its small cult following, there's far more characterization here than people give the film credit for. The film bombed during its original theatrical run, but managed to survive on cable television and a was a staple of USA's Up All Night program where it played in a seriously cut version.

Finally receiving its long awaited due on DVD, Warner released the film a couple years ago in 2:35 widescreen so viewers can finally see some bits that were cut off the sides on the fullscreen VHS versions.

One more gratuitous pic with Stacey Nelkin

The only thing that would have made the package perfect would have been a documentary, or a commentary track discussing the films tumultuous trip to the big screen, or even the complete 26 track soundtrack as a second disc would probably be too much to ask for, but very much welcome. Oh, well, fans at last get the movie in letterboxed format. I'll "say it again", UP THE ACADEMY rocks as an unsung politically incorrect comedic cult classic.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD.


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right about this jem! Leibman is fricking awesome, too! Great review.

venoms5 said...

Hey, Anonymous. Thanks for commenting. This is one of my favorite movies ever. A shame it's not appreciated more, then or now.

Hobgoblin238 said...

One of my favorites too. My Dad and I used to do the dialog from this movie often in our daily conversations. We would always crack up.

I hope more comment on your blog here. I hate when people read mine and pass on by.

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