[For an explanation of this new ongoing column series, read last week’s entry.]
When I tore open an envelope that was delivered to the house earlier this week and a found a copy of the Harold Ramis film “Caddyshack” on Blu-ray, I knew right away I’d found the perfect movie to watch on my birthday. This is one of those comfort food movies for me, something I’ve seen dozens of times over the years. I’m fairly sure I could recite the entire film if I really put my mind to it. Hell, there’s a dancing gopher here in my office that makes me smile every day.
So what is it about this 30 year old film that I return to again and again?
The first job I ever had was as a caddy, but that’s not why I fell in love with the movie. It’s the exact opposite, actually. It was because of the influence of “Caddyshack” that the 14-year-old me went to the Honors Course outside Chattanooga, Tennessee looking for work. It more than lived up to expectations, too, and I’ve got stories from that job that were every bit as manic and wild as anything in the movie.
One of the main comedy formulas of the late ’70s/early ’80s was the “snobs against the slobs” story, and a big part of that was because of the outrageous success of “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Studios and indie producers alike rushed to duplicate that movie’s chemistry. In some cases, they just borrowed the general idea and changed the location, like “‘Animal House’ at summer camp” (“Meatballs”) or “‘Animal House’ in the Army” (“Stripes”), but in a few cases, the studios reached out to the people behind the sucess of “Animal House” directly. Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney were two of the writers on that film, friends from the National Lampoon, and after “Animal House” blew up, they formed a production company together.
“Caddyshack,” sadly, is the only film they made together as a result of that deal. Doug Kenney, a guy I consider one of the most influential comedy minds of the ’70s, died not long after the film opened.
Because of Ramis and Kenney and, more importantly, because of just how personal the script contributions of Brian Doyle-Murray were, Bill Murray made room for six days in his schedule. Keep that in mind next time you see the film… Bill had six days free, and that’s all. And his character wasn’t even in the script. It’s not like Bill took a character who was sort of flat and then improved it. That’s impressive enough when an actor pulls it off.
No… they just turned the camera on and shot Bill. And Carl Spackler happened. Bill and Harold and Doug and Brian-Doyle were all part of the character that eventually happened, but in the end, it was Bill up on that high wire. It’s crazy when you see the film to think that it was never written as a movie with a dancing gopher as a framing device. It was a solution to a film that didn’t really work as shot. Bill’s performance is pure Warner Bros. cartoon character. Carl is so far out that he’s iconic, but it’s a performance that could have gone terribly wrong, sort of like the work Johnny Depp did in “Pirates Of The Caribbean.” I’ve heard hundreds of Carl Spackler impressions over the years. “So I’ve got that going for me… which is nice.” Or even more common, “Cinderella story.” Carl lives and works in his own world, so it makes sense he’s in his own movie. What’s great is the way he only occasionally intersects the main storyline, like when Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) plays through Carl’s “apartment.” I’ve been in social situations where it was perfectly acceptable for someone to say “Cannonball, comin’ at you.” Bill’s pursuit of the gopher is the threat that opens the film and closes the film, and his detonation of the C4 he’s planted everywhere is actually what wraps up the main storyline, something that was never originally intended.
It’s little wonder the film’s focus shifted during production. Originally written as a coming-of-age story about Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), the film became completely unbalanced once they hired Murray, Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, and the great Ted Knight, all of them amazing scene-stealers who came to this film hungry. Rodney was new to movies, and it’s impressive to watch him blow through the movie like a force of nature as Al Czervik. Knight’s work as Judge Smails is unctuous, creepy, and delightful. Nobody has ever done pompous quite the way Ted Knight did it, and it’s always fun to watch someone from a totally different comedy school of thought collide with the SNL guys. It may have been tough for Knight on-set, but on-screen, he’s the ideal foil for Ty Webb and Al Czervik.
And speaking of Chevy, I have a hard time reconciling the uber-cool Chevy of this film and a few others with the bloated jerk who has been coasting on past glory for the last fifteen years. He’s eccentric and charming and hilarious here, and whether it’s the effortless charisma of his scenes with Lacy Underalls (Cindy Morgan, never hotter than she was here) or the expert way he goads Judge Smails or the hippie-dippie advice he offers to Noonan, Ty Webb is a fantastic fit for Chase, and for SNL fans in particular, the scene between Chase and Murray is a classic. When Chase left SNL after only one season, it was seen by many as arrogant, spitting in the face of the fans who made his movie career possible. Bill Murray was brought in at that point, and although he didn’t have anything like the same kind of comic energy as Chevy, he was somewhat inevitably thought of as Chevy’s “replacement.” That ate at Bill, but it was the week Chevy came back to host that the simmering tension spilled over. Bill found himself benched, not appearing in a single featured role for the week, and when dress rehearsal started, Bill intentionally threw away his one or two lines in his one sketch. Chevy started ragging on Bill about it, Bill started ragging Chevy about his failing marriage, and things escalated quickly into a physical altercation. Until the moment they stood face-to-face on the set of “Caddyshack,” that fight was their only professional encounter, and now it’s fun to watch this one scene to see if you can detect any anger or tension between them. I think it just makes the scene more real, since you can tell Ty Webb wants nothing quite so much as to get away from Carl as soon as possible.
I know “Caddyshack” doesn’t really hold together as a coherent script, but it’s one of those rare films where the entire attitude of the movie works for me from the very start. The film has this wonderful feel of anarchy, barely harnessed, and like the great Marx Brothers films, what storyline there is serves only to set up opportunities for humor, springboards for character comedy. That great Kenny Loggins theme song sets the mood right up front, and from that moment to Rodney Dangerfield’s joyous, “We’re all gonna get laid!”, the film manages to wrangle various comedy styles into a film that celebrates bad behavior in a way that would have made the animators at Termite Terrace laugh just as much as it worked for ’70s stoner culture. A rare feat, indeed.
And the Blu-ray? Probably as good as this movie’s ever going to look. The two documentaries actually feature behind-the-scenes photos and film I’ve never seen before, so it’s worth it for fans.
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