Yet in Dangerfield, there has always been something else in addition to the comedian. This is a man who has failed at everything, even comedy. Rodney Dangerfield is his third name in show business; he flopped under two earlier names as well as his real name. Who is really at home inside that red, sweating face and that knowing leer? The most interesting thing about "Back to School," which is otherwise a pleasant but routine comedy, is the puzzle of Rodney Dangerfield. Here is a man who reminds us of some of the great comedians of the early days of the talkies - of Groucho Marx and W. C. Fields - because, like them, he projects a certain mystery. Marx and Fields were never just being funny. There was the sense that they were getting even for hurts so deep that all they could do was laugh about them. It's the same with Dangerfield.
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. Beneath his loud manner, under his studied obnoxiousness, there is a real need. He laughs that he may not cry.
Speaking of W.C. Fields, Ebert discusses his appeal in a different piece too: "It is the appeal of the man who cheerfully embraces a life of antisocial hedonism, basking in serene contentment with his own flaws. He is self-contained." Cue Groucho...
"I knew Fields well," Groucho Marx told me in 1972. "He used to sit in the bushes in front of his house with a BB gun and shoot at people. Today he'd probably be arrested. He invited me over to his house. He had a girlfriend there. I think her name was Carlotta Monti. Car-lot-ta MON-ti! That's the kind of a name a girl of Fields would have. He had a ladder leading up to his attic. Without exaggeration, there was $50,000 in liquor up there. Crated up like a wharf. I'm standing there and Fields is standing there, and nobody says anything. The silence is oppressive. Finally he speaks: This will carry me 25 years."