Forgotten Films: Up The Academy
When Animal House started cracking up audiences and cleaning up at the box office in 1978, Warner Brothers already had a standing contract with Mad Magazine to produce a feature film in conjunction with them. National Lampoon’s seal of approval on Animal House had worked wonders and Universal was laughing all the way to the bank, so Warner figured a similarly themed movie sanctioned by the well known juvenile publication would be a sure fire hit. Sadly they were about to be proven very wrong.
It took two years and several aborted scripts for Warner Brothers and Mad Magazine, who had pretty much thrown in the towel by this point and just decided to cash the check, to agree on a story. Warner Brothers hired a pair of writers and essentially told them to come up with a plot similar to Animal House only concerning high school age protagonists instead of college. They wisely recognized that the majority of Mad Magazine‘s readership was elementary and high school age but they failed to consider that an R rated film would be difficult for them to see.
Where Animal House gave audiences a likeable bunch of misfits bonded together in college against a hard nosed Dean and a rival fraternity, the final script for Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy (the film’s original title) reworked this into a group of stereotypical high school teens rebelling against an overbearing Major at a military school. This was pretty much where the similarities between the two films ended though. Up the Academy ended up with a mismatched bag of comedic bits that ranged from mildly amusing to staggeringly stupefying and culminated, literally, in a turd in the punch bowel!
The film begins with the four main characters, a promiscuous senator’s son, an oil sheik’s heir, black televangelist’s child, and a mafia don’s offspring (played by the only name actor in the bunch – Ralph Macchio in his screen debut) all being shipped off to military school for various misdoings. The institute of higher learning in question is Weinberg Academy, whose faculty is filled with bigger stereotypes than its student body. Ron Leibman, an underrated serious character actor, plays the boys’ nemesis Major Liceman, Tom Poston, who deserved better than this, is a flaming gay dance instructor and possible pedophile, and former Bond girl and future Mrs. Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach, is an oversexed weapons instructor.
The boys are joined by a fifth miscreant, token fat nerd Rodney Ververgaert, who is really a plant by Liceman to keep track of their antics. Most of the not so hilarious hi-jinks involve the boys stealing a car for a joyride, breaking into a girl’s academy so the senator’s son can visit his girlfriend, and sharing a joint with the hottie teacher. There’s also a two way blackmail plot between Liceman and the boys that ends with a soccer showdown between the teachers and the students. None of this really amounts to much so after a few explosions and a major embarrassment for the Major, the boys all leave the school triumphant and a man in a bad Alfred E. Neuman mask (Mad’s mascot) waves to them as they drive off down the road. Role credits!
I had the misfortune of seeing Up the Academy in the theater when it first came out and the shock of how lame it was defies description. Mad Magazine was always known for its parodies and observational humor but this film has none of either. While it did earn an R rating, it stops short of any of the nudity or raunchiness Animal House dished out and it fails to make the audience care for the characters. Worse yet is an underlying tone of ugliness that manifests itself in sexist and racist humor that falls flat. By the time the film gets to the big soccer game, the only thing the audience is rooting for is the end credits.
The one bright spot in the film and the one aspect in which Up the Academy meets or exceeds Animal House is the soundtrack. The producers pulled out an excellent selection of well known or soon to be well known bands, classic artists, and talented minor players. The catchy opening and closing tunes are performed by a group called Blow Up and do a good job of setting the tone for the film. Major musical contributors include Blondie, Sammy Hagar, Pat Benatar, and Cheap Trick. Even Lou Reed and The Kinks are brought into the mix to contribute one song each. A soundtrack album was released but many of the songs are missing due to contractual issues.
The film premiered in June of 1980 with an expensive promotional campaign that did little to help it once word of mouth spread on how bad it was. Ron Leibman, clearly the best actor in the cast, demanded that his name be removed from the credits prior to release for what little good that did him. Mad Magazine publisher William Gaines was so appalled by the finished product that he paid Warner Brothers $30,000.00 to have the magazine’s name and any trace of involvement removed from the film following its theatrical run. When the film played on cable, network television, and home video, it was known simply as Up the Academy and the scenes featuring Nueman were excised. Following Gaines death, the film was restored to its original theatrical version for subsequent video releases. Mad, as much out of self defense as in the interest of fair play, even spoofed the film in its pages with a parody called Mad Magazine Resents Throw Up the Academy!
Some twenty plus years after its initial release, Up the Academy still isn’t very funny but it has softened a little with age since most of its attempts at topical humor are now amusingly dated. With the exception of Ralph Macchio, who went on to become the Karate Kid, and Tom Poston, who still had a long career ahead of him on television, the rest of the cast quietly vanished. Mad never put its name on another feature film and stayed out of non-print media for years to come after the backlash from Academy’s failure.