Hey, what was I to say about this – the request to write a paean, an exaltation, a learned evaluation of the film “Caddyshack” which turned 20 this year … to reflect upon “the odd importance of the film and what it meant and still means to a generation of golfers … what it has added to the lingo of the game … how it has impacted the overall sociology of golf” and so on? To begin with, I wasn’t sure I was the right choice to reflect on all this since I am one of the few people in this country who did not see “Caddyshack” after its release in July 1980 because the reviews were abysmal, and I am not a big fan of slob-comedies (“Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Beetlejuice” and the like). On the other hand, I knew enough about “Caddyshack” to appreciate that it had a great following – a kind of cult film status. It was written in part by Doug Kenney, who with Henry Beard started the National Lampoon, a considerable force in the dispensation of humor in the 1970s.
The movie starred three estimable comedians, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Murray. Chase, a favorite of mine, would very likely provide a few spectacular pratfalls, his patented trademark on “Saturday Night Live,” which preceded “Caddyshack” by a couple of years. As for Bill Murray, I have long been an admirer of his, not only for his work in films (“Ghostbusters”) but also for his antics during the televised pro-ams on the PGA Tour. What Murray does (often, I have no doubt, to the dismay of tournament officials) is so obviously improvised (suddenly hauling a middle-aged woman into a bunker) that one admires not only the spectacle but the bravado. As for Dangerfield, just the thought of him on the course is enough. It also occurred to me that golf is the only sport I can think of where the comedic is a constant, if unintentional element. Surely the makers of “Caddyshack” would capitalize on this.
The whiff, for example. There is something inherently funny about someone trying to hit a ball that is sitting stationary and then missing it. High comedy. When a baseball batter misses, no one is inclined to erupt into laughter. A dropped pass or a miskicked punt evoke cheers or groans depending on the circumstances but hardly guffaws. A double-fault in tennis? No. Indeed, such errors are more closely linked to tragedy and what Aristotle refers to when he speaks of the tragic flaws that bring so many heroes to their doom. But there is very little that happens in bad golf that isn’t funny. A duck hook into a pond is hardly comic to the person who’s hit it, but it certainly is to everyone watching, turning away with compressed lips to keep a snort of laughter from exploding. Another factor unique to golf that tends to attract amusement rather than dismay is an outburst of rage. Uncontrolled rage on a diamond – a batter rushing the pitcher because of a brushback pitch, the emptying of the dugouts and so on – is hard to accept as a comic spectacle. Nor are fights on the hockey rink, which often in their clumsiness suggest a struggle between beetles. But in golf, the act of hurling a club into a tree or a pond is funny.
Golf-rage is very much an ingredient (as might be expected) in one of the more inspired episodes from “The Honeymooners.” Ed Norton (Art Carney), trying to teach Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) how to play golf – a game neither of them knows anything about. The lesson takes place in the Kramden kitchenette. Norton has purchased a “how-to” instruction manual. He reads from it. “Address the ball,” he says. Vaguely puzzled, Kramden, wearing outlandish plus-fours, watches as Norton demonstrates. Looking down, Norton says, “Hello ball.” During the skit Kramden, in his frustration and rage, eventually destroys just about everything in the room with his demented swings. So given all this, it seemed to me that the structure for a worthwhile comedy about golf was indeed there.
My expectations, once low, were given a big boost after reading articles and essays on the subject. The film has been referred to as a “great movie,” and an “American anthem.” Wow! It’s also been suggested that half the country remembers lines from “Caddyshack,” that indeed many of them “speak ‘Caddyshack.’ ” I tested out this last on my friends and sure enough, almost all of them could quote lines that at the time, of course, made no sense to me. “It’s in the hole.” “Billy, Billy, Billy, Billy.” “Na-na-na-na-na.” “This isn’t Russia, is it?” They couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen the film. “You’ll love it – very funny. Wait ’til you see the Cinderella scene. You’ll die.” All this suggested that perhaps I was going to have a good time with “Caddyshack.” I even found a Web site on the Internet devoted to the film. It had a quiz page. Some of the questions: What word is on the back of Al’s boat? What brand of ball was Ty playing when he broke the window in the garage? Arcane stuff, to which soon I would be privy. I could hardly wait.
I hurried to the neighborhood video store and rented the film. In front of the television set, I popped open a soda, opened a bag of popcorn and sat down to watch. Alas, I had a wretched time. I scribbled notes to myself: over-done, silly, putrid, amateurish, sophomoric, gross, unclever. Gross was underlined a number of times. As I watched, my worries increased. Why wasn’t I having a good time? The thought crossed my mind that perhaps the film could only be enjoyed in the company of others, howling with laughter at the appropriate moments, and so that one got caught up in it – much as the midnight audiences reacting to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
For those who haven’t seen “Caddyshack” or who found themselves in the wrong theater at the complex and walked out after 10 minutes or so, the film follows the story of one Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), a young caddie at Bushwood Country Club, who seeks to better himself. His family, a nettlesome crowd of some 20 or so, wants him to go to college, so he rather grudgingly agrees to compete for a “caddie scholarship,” something never clarified. The plot, such as it is, portrays in slapstick fashion the various influences brought to bear on the young caddie – the laissez-faire Zen philosophy of life as espoused by Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), the Establishment values as proposed by an insufferable bigot, the uptight, socially prominent Judge Smails (Ted Knight), and the physical ministrations of two beautiful nubiles, Maggie (Sarah Holcomb) and Lacey (Cindy Morgan).
Murray plays the part of assistant greenkeeper Carl Spackler, who has been ordered to rid the course of gophers who have been plowing up the greens and fairways. At first, Murray mistakenly believes that he has been asked to rid the course of its golfers. Given the spin he puts on his role, it is easy to imagine him doing just that: sweat-stained, ill-kempt, his face stubbled with a couple of day’s growth, a fatigue hat pulled down low on his head, he talks out of the side of his mouth, the lower lip twisted askew, in a curious low moan … mostly to himself as he moves across the fairways leering at the women and plotting his campaign. Incidentally, his adversary in the gopher business is an animal that wouldn’t last for 10 seconds in a “Sesame Street” casting call – a visible crease in his neck so that the puppeteer can make his head turn, and a little chittering dolphin voice that would appear to have been lifted from the sound track of a “Flipper” episode.
Chase plays the suave playboy of immense wealth (uncashed checks in the thousands lie about his apartment), a near-ephemeral figure, often in white suit that seems to make him almost transparent. He rarely raises his voice above a whisper. In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Chase is “so nonchalant that he seems not to be in the movie but just sort of visiting it,” which I thought right on the button. As for the patented Chase pratfalls that I had so looked forward to, there were only two, and were hardly inspired.
Knight plays the judge in a perpetual sputter (“You … you … you”), twisting his astonishingly mobile mouth into a number of pretzel-like configurations as he rages. He obviously relishes his role and plays it full-bore. He is one of the few actors in the film who speaks clearly and slowly – a relief after trying to decipher Chase, who speaks in a series of asides, much less what Murray is mumbling.
The judge’s bte noir is a loutish, big-mouth real-estate tycoon named Al Czervik played by Dangerfield with vigorous anti-Establishment fervor. His one-liner insults, apparently self-invented at the time, are vintage, delivered with such enthusiasm that his entire body, especially the nether regions, jiggles with the effort. His targets are invariably the country-club set, especially its dowager members: “The last time I saw a mouth like that it had a hook in it!” He appears in a number of outlandish outfits, green polo shirt, cherry red pants the least of them. In his bag, he has a phone, boxing gloves as headcovers, a device that automatically pops up the club he wants, among them a putter with a sighting scope along its shaft; there’s a beer tap as well, along with a radio he turns on so that he can caper about in a wild dance that scandalizes the members.
The movie has been arranged in a series of skits, very much the formula of Chicago’s “Second City” and New York’s “Saturday Night Live.” At the center of each is a sight gag, invariably in frat-house taste: a young man who has had too much to drink at the club dance runs down the steps of the clubhouse, climbs up and vomits through the sunroof into the front seat of a car in the driveway. Guess what? After a moment or so, a couple emerge and get into the car … with the predictable reaction (dropped jaws, popped eyes). Then on to the next.
Perhaps the most famous scene is the swimming pool footage, which includes a lifeguard tower toppling into the water, nudity, a spoof of synchronized swimming and most memorably a mass exodus from the pool on the discovery of what is thought to be a large turd but which is, in fact, a Baby Ruth candy bar. The background music for this, as one might expect, is the theme from “Jaws.” When I first ran the film, I happened to miss the flash of the candy bar being removed from its wrapper by someone at poolside and tossed in, and thus thought that what was bobbing around in the pool was the real thing. When later Murray took a bite (he is cleaning out the emptied pool in a body-enveloping contamination suit) I almost fell out of my chair. That was when the word gross got a number of lines struck under it. I was in the minority. The scene caught the public fancy to such a degree that the producers were thinking of marketing a “Caddyshack” bar on the notion that they would be thrown into every pool in the country.
Oddly, the three comedians rarely turn up in the same scenes, and not once, can I recall, are they all together — Murray out on the course setting his various traps for the giant gopher, Dangerfield sashaying around the club or laying waste to yachts in the harbor, and Chase in the subdued privacy of his Zen-like posture. The producers were aware of this, apparently, and a most improbable rendezvous was devised to bring Chase and Murray together. Chase has reported that the scene was thought up at lunch and shot that afternoon. I played it a number of times. It had its moments, I must admit – Murray describing his invention of a fairway grass that can be played on and then taken home and smoked, Chase in his single-minded insistence on getting the ball out of Murray’s digs. At the end of the scene Murray starts to clean his ramshackle place with a leaf blower, which is a comic idea.
It was during my rerunning of that scene that I sensed a curious epiphany – caused, I think, by suddenly remembering a nighttime golf game I had years ago with Hunter Thompson on a course in Aspen, Colo. I was visiting him. He had a girlfriend whose father was either a pro, or club champion, I forget which, but someone Hunter felt he had to impress with his game. He began talking about how important this was, and so, on impulse we went out on this moonless night to the course. I remember the exhilaration of slamming a ball off into the vague outlines of the mountains. I certainly remember Hunter, poised over the ball, talking to his club, and then in the distinctive quick twang of his voice asking if I had seen where his ball had gone in the darkness. He had a shotgun in his bag and he drew it half out at one point, in the mistaken belief that the shadowy forms in the fairway were geese.
It was thinking back on the wonderful lunacy of that night that made me think perhaps I had missed the same sort of thing with “Caddyshack” – its silliness, its spontaneity, its exuberance. So I began to learn things I hadn’t known – that it was Dangerfield’s first movie. (He was paid $35,000, a pittance compared to the half-million paid Chase.) Word had gone around that Dangerfield had a part. Fellow comedians and friends came out to watch. After a few takes Dangerfield was beside himself. “I’m bombing,” he said. “No one’s laughing.” It had to be pointed out that onlookers weren’t allowed to react lest their laughter was caught on the sound track.
I spoke to a number of the participants in the film. I made the mistake of telling Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the script with Doug Kenney and who directed “Caddyshack,” that I wasn’t really a fan of slob-comedies. He corrected me. “I prefer to think of it as what one critic described it – an “amiable mess.” “Oh yes,” I said.
He went on to say that the film’s negative reception was due in part to an unfortunate gathering – what is called in the trade a “junket”- to introduce the film to the media. Held one morning in Dangerfield’s nightclub on the East Side of Manhattan, the cast turned up somewhat overwrought from the evening before. “They were incredibly rude to the press,” Ramis said.”A lot of bad boy behavior. Doug Kenney cursed them and then passed out behind the table. Chevy Chase was fed up with his last interview and got abusive. The whole affair was such a disaster that it gave rise to the phrase, ‘If this is the new Hollywood, give us back the old one,”’ Ramis laughed. “An interesting irony about ‘Caddyshack’ is that when it was released on television, TV Guide gave it two stars out of four. Then a few years later when it was released again, it received three stars. Like a good wine, it seems to be improving with age.”
After talking to a few of the principals and especially after running the film over and over again (largely to decipher what was being said – it took me dozens of repeats to figure out that what the bishop cries out as he is hit by a lightning stroke is “double turds!”), I truly began to cultivate a certain affection for “Caddyshack” – the kind of tolerance one has for certain odd-looking species of dogs. Somewhat against my will I have become an expert. I know all the lines. I like Chase’s “In the word of Jean-Paul Sartre, au revoir.” I like the judge shouting at the bishop, “You’re not a man, you’re a bishop, for God’s sake!” I don’t especially want to remember the judge’s little poem delivered at dockside just before the christening of his sloop, but I do: It’s easy to grin, When your ship comes in, And you’ve got the stock market beat, But the man worthwhile, Is the man who can smile, When his shorts are too tight in the seat. Various scenes remain firmly fixed in my mind. I discuss them with my “Caddyshack” friends. “Hey, how about the country club dance scene when Dangerfield says, ‘Someone step on a duck?’ Totally gross, or what?”
I passed the Internet “Caddyshack” quiz with flying colors, the easier questions almost with disdain. Who wouldn’t know that Carl took three swings at the flowers during the Cinderella story rather than four or two! I mean, come on! Or that the ball Chase hits into the garage is a Titleist. Does this mean that through some curious osmosis I have come to like “Caddyshack?”
I chatted with Cindy Morgan, who played the judge’s beautiful nymphomaniac niece, Lacey. Morgan is still capitalizing on her “Caddyshack” experience, often asked to host charity tournaments. The guests stare at her, remembering her fingering Chase’s tie and murmuring up at him, “I bet you’ve got a lot of nice ties … you want to tie me up with some of your ties?” They would remember her massage scene, for which she was persuaded (in order to get the film a necessary R-rating) to lie on her stomach, bare-breasted, while Chase kneads her backbone (“right down the Taconic Parkway”).
Quite nostalgic, Morgan speaks of the experience almost breathlessly. “I went from a Catholic school right into ‘Caddyshack’ … my first role … quite a shock … it was all done to a different set of rules … everything improvised … no script … no briefing… I had no idea … wild parties … they’d shout down the corridor, ‘the eagle has landed’ which meant that the dealer had arrived … we got into the golf cart shed at night … hot-wired the cars and took ‘em out on the course … totaled some of them in the darkness … anything goes … the most fun job I ever had.”
I asked her about the last scene in the movie. The entire cast, extras and all, are grouped on the clubhouse porches as if for a group photograph. In front, his back to the camera, Dangerfield raises his arms and implores the assemblage, “Let’s all get laid!” “Was that in the script?” I asked. “Oh I don’t think so,” she said. “I think someone just said, ‘Let’s just stop. It’s gone far enough.’ It’s a nice button line … it buttons it up.” “Oh yes,” I said.
“You must understand something about Caddyshack,” she said. “You became part of the madness or you got washed away.” I thought I knew my own position on this, but now, perhaps, I’m not so sure.
Author George Plimpton has written and edited about 30 books including “the bogey man,” chronicling his experiences as a player on the pga tour.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009