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Late in the 1970s, the star performing talent from NBC's Saturday Night Live fitfully made their way into the film world. Standout comedian John Belushi of course made a big hit in Animal House, pulling his fellow Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd into the humor-challenged comedy epic 1941. Chevy Chase, whose film work had preceded Saturday Night, made a more conventional move as a romantic lead opposite Goldie Hawn (a star of TV's previous comedy sensation Laugh-In). And Bill Murray began in a formulaic summer camp comedy, Meatballs. With the enormous profits earned by Animal House putting dollar signs in the eyes of Hollywood executives, its writers Harold Ramis and Douglas Kenney were encouraged to offer up new ideas.
1980's Caddyshack was overseen by savvy executives Mike Medavoy and Jon Peters but was, if anything, less organized than Animal House. Director John Landis had been guided by a comic feature from the National Lampoon magazine, whereas Ramis and Kenney delved into their personal backgrounds to fashion a farce around a snooty country club golf course. Kenney's Lampoon satires had often lashed out at the wealthy class with undisguised bitterness, and he fully intended to make a movie about the underclass razzing the entitled rich.
According to the disc extras Caddyshack was meant to be a broad comedy centering on a group of disadvantaged caddies working at a ritzy country club. With first-time director Harold Ramis working hard to learn his new trade, the emphasis shifted to the stars Chevy Chase, Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield, the famous stand-up comedian making his first movie. When the studio found the rough cut to be rather formless, Bill Murray's guest bit was expanded to include an episodic battle with a pesky gopher. Most of Kenney's caddy storyline was jettisoned.
Caddyshack corrals comic talent old and new into the new 'wild and crazy' comedy format. The sexual and scatological humor that NatLamp magazine had been mining for years had finally reached the screen. Rodney Dangerfield's stage jokes had long been considered too crude for family fare. His crass Al Czervik character dresses in loud shirts. Czervik makes millions surrounding the golf course with high-density condominium farms. He throws his money around while tossing off obscene remarks and insults at the local gentry.
The film's tagline is "The snobs against the slobs". Top-billed Chevy Chase is Ty Webb, a member of the wealthy elite but also an unpredictable clown -- Chase simply piles on incompatible traits familiar from his TV sketches. Ty is terminally clumsy but also a skilled pro golfer. He's a smooth sexual predator that unaccountably turns incompetent in bed. As the mentally scrambled groundskeeper Carl Spackler, Bill Murray steals the show in bits mostly unrelated to the main action. Except for one scene with Chase, every Murray dialogue line was reportedly improvised. Spackler narrates his warped campaigns to eradicate a "vermin" groundhog, often while the aforesaid animal -- a mechanical puppet -- observes from a safe distance.
Although most of the material with the caddies was eliminated from the movie, the remnants of a working-class theme show around the edges. Catholic High Schooler Danny Noonan (Michael O'Keefe) is shown only once with his many brothers and sisters (and his father, played by esteemed actor Albert Salmi). As Danny's sole hope for attending college lies with the largesse of the wealthy golfers, Danny tries to win the approval of country club president Judge Smails, played by the film's fourth comedy star Ted Knight. Smails is the film's square-head jerk bad guy, the rich 'snob' targeted by everyone else. Well known from TV's Mary Tyler Moore Show the skilled Knight comes through like a pro; he's a superb straight man and a funny fall guy. Smails epitomizes condescending insincerity -- when Danny wins a caddy's golf contest, the judge invites Danny to mow his lawn.
Most of the gags revolve around spoiled brat rich kids versus misbehaving caddies. Smails' brainless son drinks too much and chooses the sunroof of a Porsche as his barf bag; the film's sense of humor can be measured by Ramis and Kenney's decision to follow up the scene with the car's owner sitting down with a messy slurp sound effect. Dangerfield's Al Czervik ruins Smails' golf games and wrecks his boat. The nervy, maddening Czervik harasses Smails into accepting an against-the-rules golf bet, the outcome of which provides the big final scene.
Other main story threads include the adventures of Smails' niece Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), who seduces both Ty Webb and young Danny. Underall prances about bra-less, turning heads and propositioning any boy that strikes her fancy. Danny's regular girlfriend is food service worker Maggie O'Hooligan (Sarah Holcomb, the "shopping cart girl" from Animal House). Maggie's fear that she's become pregnant is the only "Caddy" subplot given any attention.
The most memorable scenes are extended stand-alone gags. A golfing Bishop (Henry Wilcoxon, the star of early 1930s DeMille Epics and still looking good) plays a perfect game during a thunderstorm, and thinks it's a gift from God. Allowed only 15 minutes in the fancy country club pool, the caddies spontaneously perform an out-of-nowhere Busby Berkeley-style water ballet. The silly scene is as entertaining as the movie's anthropomorphic gopher, which dances to music and does doubletakes at Carl Spackler's extermination efforts. And the film's most famous bit is a gross gag about a candy bar thrown into the pool, which gets mistaken for something else.
The somewhat disorganized Caddyshack had to be given a major reworking in post-production to find a reasonable form. But it has energy, four top comics doing what they do best, peppy music and an engagingly cartoonish hero in the form of a mechanical gopher. Lovers of bright wit and style will find little here, but fans of gross-out comedy will be as pleased as those who liked the film when it was new.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Caddyshack will surprise those who have only seen it on cable TV viewings ... not only is the picture sharp and clear, the widescreen framing refocuses the action better, giving a boost to the mostly basic camera direction. Caddyshack is a step above other lowbrow comedies of the day, if not as impressive as a big-gun zany comedy like Ghost Busters. Harold Ramis would again rely on a furry animal to help propel another of his comedies, his 1993 masterpiece Groundhog Day.
A 1980 making-of promo piece and a trailer are overshadowed by a new feature-length Biography Channel docu on the making of the film. It utiliizes new interviews from most of the participants, minus Chase and Murray. (Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield have since passed away). The docu is as interesting as the movie itself, the expected late-70s tale of wild times with the cast and crew on distant location: fifty young and energetic talents with little to do but party every night. Tyro director Harold Ramis remembers stumbling through his first film not knowing where to put the camera. Producer Jon Peters talks about the concern that the shoot was bogging down in too much booze and drug use, while Ramis and his young star Michael O'Keefe try to describe the madness. Even Cindy Morgan weighs in with stories of playing her oversexed character in a highly oversexed environment.
The docu is quite well made, even if it is cut for TV use and contains too much repetition of dialogue bites and photos -- it should have been specially trimmed to play without breaks. A sad note comes when crewmembers reflect on the untimely death not much later of screenwriter-producer Doug Kenney, who was unhappy when his caddy-centric storyline was thrown out. That's sort of what a producer can expect when he orders an executive producer off the set. Another interesting bit of content comes when production executive Rusty Lemorande openly admits that his function on the movie was to spy for the Orion brass. They must have liked Harold Ramis's dailies, as no move was made to replace him.
The docu interviews one of the men who worked for John Dykstra to create the goofy gopher puppet, but doesn't mention whoever masterminded the impressive nautical mayhem scenes (second unit director Ricou Browning, who once played The Creature from the Black Lagoon?) or the matte artist that created the long shots showing the golf course turned into Swiss cheese by Carl Spackler's exploding squirrels and rabbits (Rocco Gioffre). We're told that much of the Gopher War sidebar storyline was added after principal photography, and it all fits right in.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Caddyshack Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.