There's an interesting moment on the retrospective documentary that accompanies the new Blu-ray release of the classic comedy Caddyshack, in which director Harold Ramis notes that, whether on purpose or not, they made their version of a Marx Brothers comedy--with Rodney Dangerfield playing Groucho, Bill Murray as their Harpo, and Chevy Chase filling Chico's shoes. While one might argue with the cleanness of that particular assignment of roles (the Murray/Harpo comparison is apt, but Dangerfield's Al Czervik is closer to W.C. Fields--who knew a thing or two about golf comedy--while Chase's Ty Webb is more the eyebrow-wiggling Groucho role), it does bring into sharp focus the specific reason why Caddyshack works as well as it does, and remains such a beloved comedy to so many different people: there's something in it for everyone. Much of the key to the Marx magic was that the three brothers each represented a unique style of comedy--Groucho the fast-talking intellectual wiseguy, Chico the punning dialect comic, and Harpo the Chaplinesque silent movie pantomime. The three comedic superstars of Caddyshack offer similar diversity; the picture alternates between Dangerfield's Catskill-style one-liners, Murray's low comedy slapstick, and Chase's slick, edgy, all-smiles attitude, tossed into a snobs-versus-slobs narrative that dates back past Animal House to the comedies of Fields and the Marxes (with Ted Knight a blowhard combination of Sig Ruman and Margaret Dumont).
The film was co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, of whom The New Yorker wrote, "What Elvis did for rock and Eminem did for rap, Harold Ramis did for attitude: he mass-marketed the sixties to the seventies and eighties. He took his generation's anger and curiosity and laziness and woolly idealism and gave it a hyper-articulate voice." There was something in the comedic air in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an anarchic spirit, a laid-back smarm, floating through the pages of National Lampoon and the airwaves of Saturday Night Live, and in his screenplays and directorial efforts, Ramis distilled it into a distinctive comic voice. Caddyshack marked his directorial debut, an opportunity he was given following the phenomenal success of his screenplay for Animal House, which he wrote with Chris Miller and Caddyshack's co-writer and producer, Douglas Kenney. Joining Ramis and Kenney for this script was writer/actor Brian Doyle Murray, who drew inspiration from his years working as a caddy (often with his brothers, including co-star Bill) at an upscale Illinois country club.
Doyle-Murray's surrogate in the film is Danny Noonan (Michael O'Keefe), an easygoing kid whose only real motivation is going to college so he doesn't have to work at his dad's lumberyard. He works as a caddy at snooty Bushwood Country Club, which is ruled with an iron fist by Judge Smails (Knight); Danny most frequently caddies for Ty Webb (Chase), a Zen millionaire who doesn't keep score. Danny tries to get on the Judge's good side so that he can land the "caddy scholarship," though even he can't help but succumb to the temptations of the Judge's sexy niece, Lacey Underall (Cindy Mortan), or enjoy the antics of Al Czervik (Dangerfield), the vulgarian condo millionaire who quickly becomes Smails's nemesis.
And then there's Carl Spackler (Murray), the foul, mumble-mouthed assistant greenskeeper, whose battle with a resilient gopher gives the picture the closest thing it can muster to a "structure." The story goes that the gopher stuff was imposed late in the process, when the improvisational additions of the star comics in the cast cut the original through-line (Danny's coming of age) down to the bone. That's clearly the right call--O'Keefe is likable enough, but his subplot with Sarah Holcomb (and her inexplicable accent) is a real clanger, and most of the caddy characters who surround them (particularly Scott Colomby's chain-smoking, silk-shirt wearing Italian stereotype) are either forgettable or intolerable. (Those scenes are ultimately about as memorable as the Zeppo/Allan Jones interludes in the Marx comedies--and do about as little damage to the picture overall.)
Some of Ramis's staging has a novice clunkiness to it, like the all-lined-up-in-a-row blocking of the Knight/Dangerfield/Chase clubhouse scene, though he does occasionally liven up the frame with a clever background gag (like Spaulding hacking away and cursing behind Danny and the Judge). And there is a bit of desperation to the big game/big explosions climax, where we basically see a film that's spit in the face of structure thrashing about for an ending (when your story's not going anywhere in particular, it feels awfully silly when you get there).
But let's be honest, it's not like any of that matters. A thirty-year-old comedy doesn't survive this long and become this beloved because it's so structurally sound; it perseveres because it is funny, wicked funny, laugh-out-loud funny, quote-it-with-your-friends funny. "Oh, this is the worst-looking hat I ever saw. When you buy a hat like this I bet you get a free bowl of soup!... Oh, it looks good on you though." "Cinderella story, outta nowhere..." "Don't sell yourself short Judge, you're a tremendous slouch." "I hear this place is restricted, Wang, so don't tell 'em you're Jewish, okay?" "So I got that goin' for me, which is nice." "I've sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn't want to do it. I felt I owed it to them." "Your uncle molests collies." "Oh, this your wife, huh? A lovely lady. Hey baby, you must've been something before electricity." And so on. The throwaway gags and goofy one-liners have aged better than the big comic set pieces (like the barf in the car or the candy bar in the pool), but that's part of the blackout-revue quality of the picture--if this bit doesn't work for you, another one will come along directly. That's the beauty of Caddyshack; the jokes come too fast for you to spend much time lamenting the ones that don't land.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Caddyshack has never been the sharpest-looking movie on home video, not that you expect visual pyrotechnics from a thirty-year-old medium-budget comedy that wasn't exactly an aesthetic dazzler to begin with. This VC-1 transfer is about the best the movie's ever looked, however. There are certainly some soft shots--the greens are a little busy in the early long shots, while the scene after the judge's explosion and the bishop's rainy game are pretty mushy. But the mediums and close-ups look pretty good; the color saturation is bright and bold, particularly the greens of the course and the clear blue waters of the yacht club. Detail work is decent as well; you can clearly read the sweat on Murray's face and the stains on his shirts, while the scenes inside the gopher's tunnels are quite crisp.
The DTS-HD MA track is pretty much all in the front; there are some birds chirping and music cues in the front surround channels, but about the only time we get anything at all in the rears is the thunder and rain in the bishop's big game and the big explosions at the end. Within those front channels, the track is a bit of a mixed bag, with the music (particularly Johnny Mandel's vanilla score) occasionally overpowering the goings-on, as well as some noticeable thinness in the dialogue reproduction. But none of the punchlines get lost, and again, this mix is certainly a notch above what we've had in the past.
The disc also includes French, German, Castellano, and Spanish language tracks, as well as English SDH and nine foreign language subtitle options.
The most notable bonus feature is the new(ish) documentary "Caddyshack: The Inside Story" (1:20:52), produced in 2009 for BIO, the Biography Channel. Its TV roots are apparent in the contruction--it keeps starting before it actually starts, and there's plenty of leftover repetition and recapping from the original program's return from commercial breaks. But there is some good stuff here; though we mostly hear from secondary on-screen players (O'Keefe is the biggest star here--no Murray or Chase, unfortunately), there's plenty of input from Ramis and the original crew and executives (including Jon Peters, who looks uncannily like Kenny Rogers these days). There's also some wonderful old grainy home movies and photos from the shoot, and a clip of Gene Shalit's original scathing review of the movie that makes him, somehow, even more punchable than usual.
Carried over from the previous DVD release is "Caddyshack: The 19th Hole" (30:01), which covers much of the same ground; it's a little snappier if less detailed, though it does have Chevy Chase (and plenty of him). Trouble is, it also includes a couple of outtakes and snippets of deleted scenes, begging the question: if they had that stuff available in '99 for that documentary, why aren't they included separately here?
Finally, we have the original Theatrical Trailer (2:34), which includes such priceless 80s ad lines as "He's not crazy about gophers... but he is crazy!" and "It's all about swinging... and not on the course!"
The music and fashions may be a little dated (okay, a lot dated), but thirty years after its initial release, Caddyshack remains fresh, funky, and deliriously funny, thanks to the inventiveness of the free-for-all screenplay and the comic energy and ingenuity of its stars, each of them playing as though they're successfully stealing the picture. It's a bit of a mess, sure, but its looseness contributes to its considerable, spunky charm; there may be more disciplined comedies out there, but there aren't many that are funnier than this one.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.