Sunday, July 25, 2010


It's still alright

By Edward Copeland
A realization washes over me each time I've watched Caddyshack in the past 30 years since it was first released, an anniversary we mark today: my memories of the film always are of a movie that's better and funnier than the one I've just finished sitting through. This is not to say that Caddyshack is bad or unworthy of salute — no film that contains so many memorable moments and pop culture touchstones can be completely devoid of value — it's just that the Caddyshack that runs in my mind is a helluva lot better than the one I recently re-watched on DVD.

Each time you see Caddyshack it becomes more glaringly apparent what a patchwork production the movie truly was. I revisited the film on an older DVD whose extras included interviews with some of the principals who freely admitted how much was improvised and how the film began as the story of caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O'Keefe) and his coming of age and search for a mentor until more big-time comic stars joined the cast and, while it did make for some hysterically funny moments, it also made Caddyshack feel as if many of the actors were performing in different films and just happened to cross paths occasionally. Some scenes actually were worked out that way, as director and co-writer Harold Ramis tells it on the DVD, when they realized they had no scenes between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and scrambled to cook one up.

Now, who knows what the real film that focused on Danny and his other caddies might have looked like? Though Chase, Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight get above-the-title credits, the starring credit goes to O'Keefe and it's his character we begin with, trapped in a house in Nebraska with too many siblings to count, making his escape from home via fire escape and heading to work at the Bushwood Country Club atop a bicycle in some of the most obvious back-projection scenes seen in a movie that wasn't using them as a spoof in ages. Odds are that Ramis and co-writer Douglas Kenney did what they could with the semi-autobiographical script by Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill's real-life brother and the actor who plays Lou, manager of the caddies here), but still maybe we should have expected more since Ramis and Kenney were the main writers of National Lampoon's Animal House (and the late Kenney also played Delta member Stork in that film). Besides, Ramis also was dealing with the fact that he was directing a movie for the first time, so his attention was divided. We shouldn't feel too bad for O'Keefe though: He had a pretty good 1980 anyway, earning a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for playing Robert Duvall's son in The Great Santini.

Because of this schizophrenia inherent in the screenplay, you have a movie that bounces all over the place. Danny's path does cross most of the comic stars brought in to save the film and transform it into a comedy, but at times when they go back to his isolated story, it just seems very strange. There will be parts when Lou, the caddies' manager, warns them that they could all be replaced by golf carts that sort of reminded me of all the times on TV's WKRP in Cincinnati that they feared radio stations becoming automated without live disc jockeys. You have his relationship with snack bar worker Maggie (Sarah Holcomb) while lusting after Judge Smails' niece Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), complicated by his need to suck up to Smails (Knight) in hopes of winning the caddy scholarship to go to college. (It's sort of a sign of desperation when there's an overabundance of names that are silly puns: Judge Smails, Lacey Underall, Bushwood, Dr. Beeper, etc.) You also get weird diversions such as when Maggie fears she's pregnant only for that plot worry to be resolved as a negative three scenes later. They seem as if they were spliced into the film from another movie by mistake and are speed bumps to the comedy. Having written with Ali so recently about the 30th anniversary of Airplane!, which was released just a matter of weeks before Caddyshack, part of me wonders if the good will generated by the other film rubbed off on this one. I also find it interesting that two comedies released in the same month in the same year both used John Williams' Jaws score for laughs, though here it serves as accompaniment to a floating Baby Ruth candy bar. The caddies-invading-the-pool sequence does have the movie's one moment of bizarre inspiration that I've always appreciated: When out of nowhere, the male caddies all perform a water ballet as if it's out of an Esther Williams' film or composed aquatically by Busby Berkeley to appropriate music that seems to spring from nowhere. It's hilarious because it's so inexplicable.

The person who more or less steals the film was basically making his film debut, having appeared in only one other theatrical release back in 1971 — and he was 58 at the time. Though a legend as a comic, Rodney Dangerfield was a novice as an actor and no one can make the claim that he was giving a Method performance or a carefully modulated turn here, but he did spark a comedic cinematic explosion as Al Czervik and his work in Caddyshack definitely deserves respect. He's not just repeating his standup routine (he does utter his catchphrase "I don't get no respect" once, but it's said so quietly, almost under his breath, that you have to be listening very closely to even hear it). It's not to downplay the other great comedic talents in the film — Ted Knight delivers brilliance and it goes without saying that Bill Murray turned Carl into a creation that's a work of wonder that will last for eons — but I believe Dangerfield really deserves a great deal of the credit for the film's reputation. (I apologize Chevy Chase fans — I don't think he adds much.) In the DVD extra, Ramis mentions how Dangerfield was convinced he was doing a terrible job on the set because no one was laughing. It had to be explained to him that if everyone laughed, it would ruin the soundtrack and that he was doing great, but he was so used to the immediate feedback a comedian gets from an audience he couldn't be certain that his jokes were working. Boy, were they working. Dangerfield performs like a manic dervish, whirling out of control through the film, dropping insults and one-liners and leaving chaos in his wake. (Introducing a Chinese business associate, he tosses out that the man has property behind the Great Wall of China — on the good side.) His compliments always end up sounding uncomplimentary as when he tells Smails' wife (Lois Kibbee) that she must have been something before electricity. Of course, he also gets the film's final line, after the final round of golf has been completed and all the good guys have gathered back at the clubhouse and he shouts to them from below, "Hey everybody — we're all gonna get laid!" He's a vulgar lout, but a joyously vulgar lout — pure id — and only sticks in the mud such as Judge Smails can't appreciate the fun he contributes when he's around, but movie audiences certainly did.

As much as I (and millions of others) love Rodney in Caddyshack, I don't want to give short shrift to some of his co-stars who also played a major role in making such a flawed and uneven film into a beloved comedy classic. First, I feel the need to pay special tribute to Ted Knight as Judge Smails. While he is the ostensible "villain" of the piece, he also is hysterically funny. In a way, his performance reminds me of the ones put forth by Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, et al. in Airplane! except that instead of being known as a serious actor as the Airplane! crew were, Knight would forever be labeled as the buffoonish dunce anchorman Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (His second successful sitcom, Too Close for Comfort, wouldn't premiere until the fall after Caddyshack's opening to give Knight a chance to distance himself further from the Baxter persona.) Knight's Smails though proves to be a fine comic creation, at times charming, mostly full of bluster, but downright hilarious, especially when he's exploding with indignation at Dangerfield's antics. He's also funny when being frustrated by his nitwit nephew Spaulding (John F. Barmon Jr.) as when Spaulding rattles off what he's going to order at the snack bar, quickly and in monotone changing from one choice to another until an exasperated Smails finally spits, "You'll get nothing and like it!" Then there is his scene with Danny after he's caught him in his bed with Lacey and attempts to have a calm conversation with him in his office, starting with the expression when he spins and smacks his own leg into the desk and then for a punchline tires of trying to see Danny around his desk lamp. While his performance is purely a comic one (and a masterful one), what makes it so great is that in his own way, he does play it straight, at least when compared to the zaniness that surrounds him. Too often his contributions to Caddyshack don't get the credit they deserve.

Then there is Carl Spackler. Earlier, I mentioned how many of the actors seemed as if they were in their own movie and there is no clearer case than Bill Murray's Carl whose main co-star is a puppet of a gopher. I didn't realize how many special effects were involved in the gopher and his series of tunnels, all designed by John Dykstra and his team, visual effects wizards who worked on Star Wars and Star Trek: the Motion Picture and the TV pilot for the 1970s Battlestar Galactica. Still, that doesn't compare to the special effect that was Murray's Carl. From his lusting after older female golfers ("You wore green so you could hide") to his menacing speech to the young caddy about carrying the golf bag for the Dalai Lama, who was going to stiff him on the tip, but who said at the end that he wouldn't give him money, but on his deathbed, Carl would experience complete consciousness, "So I've got that going for me — which is nice," the entire monologue delivered as he poking the young caddy's neck with a pitchfork. Mostly though, Carl battles the elusive gopher with his "license to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations." The bizarre creation that is Carl gives the payoff to the Baby Ruth scene and to the movie itself. He also gets to take part in a nice little vignette where he caddies for the reverend (played by veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) during a driving thunderstorm. Despite the dangers, the clergyman persists because God wouldn't dare ruin the best game of his life. Well, yes He would and Carl just leaves the reverend prone on the course after he misses a putt, curses the heavens and gets struck by lightning, only to later renounce his faith and declare that there is no God. As many problems as I have with Caddyshack as a film, writing about it makes me grin again and forget most of the flaws I find in it when I watch it. Still, recollecting those good parts contributed by Dangerfield, Knight, Murray and some of the nameless others, I'm forgetting again what an imperfect comedy it is. Perhaps this is a Cinderella story after all.

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It's a classic :-). Flaws and all. Thanks, Ed.
Dead-on. Unlike Animal House or Airplane, 2 movies that are genuinely funny from start to finish, this one is uneven and a mess in a lot of ways. It's much closer to a Zoolander or Wedding Crashers in that sense; tons of funny stuff with some areas that fall short.
It always amazes me just how much of Bill Murray's dialogue was improvised, esp. his famous "Cinderella story" monologue. I agree, that this deserves to be ranked right up there with ANIMAL HOUSE as one of the all-time great comedies.
Despite being a big film nerd, I only recently saw this movie for the first time. I thought I knew about the jokes in it that had become part of the vernacular, made famous by constant fan-parroting, but I didn't know the half of it! It was as if every other line was an a-ha moment: "So THAT's where that phrase came from!" Pretty cool.
I used to watch it as a young boy just to see Lacey's tits. Now I watch it for the cast of characters and classic movie quotes.
Mr. Gaffen, how dare you compare Zoolander and Wedding Crashers to Caddyshack...pure blasphemy. Who cares if the film is a bit disjointed? Ramis wasn't trying to make the Citizen Kane of comedies...all he accomplished was making one of the most memorable comedies of all time. Together with Airplane! and Animal House this forms the holy trinity of funny movies, with a nod to the original In-laws.
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