"Just be the ball, be the ball, be the ball. You're not being the ball Danny." -- Ty Webb
Director: Harold Ramis
Writer: Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney
Principal cast members:
On the subject of golf, it was once observed that much can change between the putter and the lip of the cup. So, too, can much change between the writing of a movie and the actual creation of the resulting film. This is extremely relevant to Caddyshack, the 1980 "slobs vs' snobs" effort which was Harold Ramis' inaugural turn behind the camera.
The movie had a decent pedigree for writing. Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill's less famous brother) is a talented improvisational comedian in his own right with a similar Second City and Saturday Night Live career path. Ramis, of course, is famous for the lovable losers formula behind Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. Doug Kenney was one of the writers of 'Animal House' and a veteran of the National Lampoon staff. The three of them are all obviously capable of outstanding comedy writing.
All three also had reminiscences of being caddies on various golf courses, lugging bags for wealthy snobbish patrons. Their idea was to write a movie about the caddies bringing together many of their funniest experiences. But there was a major fundamental problem with this in 1980. Caddies are young. Comic actors whose names will sell a movie are not. Jon Peters, the executive producer behind Caddyshack, was pressured from the beginning to bring in star power and was constantly pressured to have a better, more experienced director ready in case Ramis failed.
Since the country club setting of the movie needed some older adults anyway, the movie's cast quickly expanded to include Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray. But having the biggest names on the marquee play secondary characters to unknown high-school age rolers was not something the studio could tolerate. So Caddyshack began going through a series of rewrites to give the stars more screen time. Naturally, this came at the expense of the younger actors in the caddy roles. By the time Rodney Dangerfield was added to the cast, the caddies had become incidental parts making the name of the film almost misleading.
Scenes were added solely to make use of the big-name stars. A scene with Chevy Chase and Bill Murray together was tacked on, despite it having little to do with the actual plot, entirely to get the two biggest names on-screen at the same time. This was potentially volatile since Chase and Murray had some serious conflicts dating back to their SNL days, though they reportedly worked on Caddyshack in a very professional manner.
Last but not least, the sub-plot of Murray fighting off a gopher invasion was expanded to a significant story thread just to glue all the assorted anecdotes and one-off scenes together. The end result reportedly threw Doug Kenney into a deep depression. Kenney died from a fall off a cliff in Hawaii months after filming ended and many suspected it was suicide though it is officially an accident.
In any case, the history of what happened to the script suggests a movie that could have been dreadful in very many ways. It was saved almost entirely through the skills of the cast who managed to make these bits and pieces work, often through making the most of their improvisational skills.
Caddyshack is ultimately built on two comical conflicts. The first is that between the stodgy and strict Judge Smails, who is brought to life brilliantly by Ted Knight, and the character of Al Czervik, a nouveau-riche slob who loudly and boorishly invades the club. The character of Al isn't exactly played by Rodney Dangerfield insomuch as he actually is Rodney Dangerfield. The conflict between the formal and reserved Smails and the loud, obnoxious Czervik eventually comes to a climax in a pairs golf match for money which captivates the entire club.
The second major conflict is between greenskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, versus an animatronic gopher who is riddling the golf course with holes. Murray goes after the gopher with bare hands, high pressure hoses, rifles, and finally high explosives.
The stories of the caddies all but disappear in the film. The only one that really comes to light is that of Danny Noonan played by Michael O'Keefe. Noonan is a middle-class Catholic kid busting his butt trying to earn money for college by sucking up to the judge and hopefully winning the caddy tournament and getting a scholarship. He gets caught up in the feud between Czervik and Smails and has to make a moral decision whether to support the slobs or snobs.
O'Keefe had done a lot of TV work prior to Caddyshack and had managed a couple of movie roles in the late seventies. He is a very capable actor and did a great job in the movie. He was ultimately overshadowed by the bigger names, but his character and the sincerity with which he played him were key to making the humor of Caddyshack work.
Likewise, Ted Knight gets far too little credit for the movie's success. Knight, who apparently grew very frustrated with the party atmosphere and lack of discipline in general during filming, still delivers a spot-on performance as the heavy in this film. Without Knight's amazing ability to be a serious square and also slightly deranged at the same time, Caddyshack would never have worked.
Despite the stellar work by these two, most of the attention will always be focused on Chase, Dangerfield, and Murray. Chase is very much himself in the film - a glib, irreverent pretty boy whose off-kilter humor and philosophy really don't add a lot to the story but do add to the fun. He reportedly improvised a massage scene with Cindy Morgan that resulted in the actress becoming genuinely frightened.
Dangerfield's character was really nothing more than Rodney's night club act grafted into the country club golf milieu. Most of his dialogue consists of one-liners that could have been lifted right off a Vegas night club stage.
Murray's portrayal of Carl, the greenskeeper, is probably the most impressive bit of acting done by the three comedians. Carl is definitely a deranged, potentially dangerous mind working on the grounds of a Nebraska country club. Early on, Murray improvises a scene in which Carl describes caddying for the Dalai Lama while poking a young actor in the neck with a pitchfork. The terrified look on the young actor's face probably wasn't faked. Later, in one of the most quoted and memorable scenes in history, Murray improvises a daydream in which he, an unknown greenskeeper, rises to glory and wins the Masters. The soliloquy is delivered while lopping the heads off of mums with a scythe.
In the end, Caddyshack succeeds because in addition to hilarious but disjointed moments of comedy, there is a loose framework being schlepped along by Ted Knight and Michael O'Keefe which allows the three comedians to do their work halfway plausibly. Looking at the history of the script and the disorganized production with a rookie director and a nervous studio, Caddyshack should have been a disaster. Some very respectable film critics, including Roger Ebert, were indeed critical of the lack of cohesion. Initially, it didn't do all that well, chugging along at the box office with marginally respectful ticket sales.
But over time, the movie's acceptance has grown. It has essentially become an iconic comedy representing the social conflicts that Ramis highlighted so successfully in other films as a writer, director, and actor. So much so, that the American Film Institute has listed it in its top 100 funniest films and it is considered one of the most quotable movies ever.
So it's got that going for it. Which is nice.
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 7