Caddyshack Revisited

It was 1980, I was a pimple-faced fat kid who was just leaving the world of James Herriot novels and an obsession for trout fishing to enter into a lifetime fixation with, well, women. Women who, mostly, were never quite interested in me. Of course, there are few things crueler than a teenage girl—pretty little human beings negatively preoccupied with the foulness of any odors and unusual looks.
I grew up in Coventry, Rhode Island, and we had a little grungy downtown cinema frequented by the local kids. And when I saw Caddyshack I remember the audience being mostly high school kids and feeling like I was at a school assembly. I can’t remember if I saw it with my friend Kerry or not. But I can remember laughing hardest at some of Bill Murray’s portrayal of Carl. At one point Carl is tasked with killing gophers, at first he misunderstands the over-the-top Scottish accent of his boss and thinks he’s being told to kill golfers on the golf course, but once it’s made clear Carl accepts the job and adds with a shrug of resigned clarification, sure I can kill the gophers . . . don’t even need a reason. And that line, killed me at fifteen.

Netflix is carrying the old film, and it’d been about thirty-five years since I’d seen it. I selected it with some trepidation, would I enjoy it, could it possibly hold up? So few things loved as a kid do manage to survive adult scrutiny. Especially when coupled with a disdain for nostalgia. Seriously, I don’t do nostalgia.

The Kenny Loggins song kicks in, the puppet starts dancing, and I thought, OK at least it’s not goddamned CGI. Here’s what impressed me, about the revisit to an old favorite. Ted Knight’s rich bastard character was much better than I remembered. I remember hating him, and you still do hate him, but you also are impressed with his amazing expressiveness. Ted Knight for me was always Mary Tyler Moore’s Ted Baxter the dumb-as-dirt, self-important anchorman on the news show they produced. In Caddyshack his role isn’t much different as the judge, and his job is basically to cross foils with Rodney Dangerfield’s goofy loutishness, but it works. If exaggeration is a means of effective teaching, and it is, then we can imagine these incidents being told to us by not quite trustworthy blue collar pals in the break-room. Dangerfield’s strutting and tossing of bills, slamming the judge’s hat, and stupid child, and the entire zombie dance of the old folks—confusingly Caddyshack is a series of events that seem unconnected in any sensible context but it barely matters because you’re excited by the feral quality of most of the humor—the story seems intact because we all want to believe in the richness of mythological superior moments.

Moving on we meet Noonan, a regular kid acting as our straight man to most of the movie’s action. He gets slammed early on by Ted Knight’s judge telling him that the world needs ditch diggers as well as lawyers, implying solidly that he doesn’t much care what happens to our hero. As a young man this bit of asshole Republicanism lodged deep. It was as good as Mary Karr’s father saying that a Republican is someone who can’t enjoy a meal unless he knows someone else is going without. After all we are raised in this nation to believe our desire and our work ethic are what matter, not our economic hang-ups, or social position acquired from birth. Noonan takes it in stride after all he’s got an adorable, and generous lady-friend at the country club with a spell-binding Irish brogue, sorta. She also takes it in stride when Noonan clearly pursues the beautiful relation of the judge, Lacey Underall. More about this later.

One of the things that jumps out thirty-five years later is the youthfulness of both Murray brothers. Bill as Carl and his brother Brian-Doyle who portrays the caddy manager. Today these brothers are doing a podcast visiting baseball clubs around the nation and enjoying song and jokes about baseball in general. Sadly, sports-ball is not my thing and not even the clever fun of the Murray brothers is likely to assuage that, I’m sorry to say. It’s important because much of this movie revolves around people golfing, but never so much that you’re actually worried about having to watch golf. Also, gambling rears its ugly head, and quickly goes off the rails, with betters soon betting on nose-picking, and doubling exhorbitant sums in a space where gambling is supposed to be illegal. I think what I liked best about that as a kid was the portrayal of ostensible adults acting like unleashed kids, it’s both unnerving and somehow satisfying to realize that the world (or at least the world of certain movies) is populated by people who are all just a step away from unhindered foolishness. It’s not just Dangerfield and Knight who are behaving with the unhinged rambunctiousness of empowered demons. Dangerfield and Knight are of a generation both born in the 1920s and seemingly comfortable vying as contemporaries from opposite angles of the social spectrum. While both characters portrayed are wealthy, Dangerfield’s Czervik is frustrated and bored with the stuck-up attitude of the elite and acts to undermine it, making him heroic to the movie-going audience. This differs from Dangerfield’s usual self-deprecating humor in which he “gets no respect”, and which he played with great success in about 1000 Tonight Show appearances (actual score of appearances was 70!).

Alongside these heavyweight characters trading blows is Ty Webb, a strange and often wholly unfunny weirdo played by Chevy Chase. I remember as a kid wanting desperately to like him, as I had enjoyed him on Saturday Night Live and was probably the only person in the country who actually liked his TV comedy special. Chevy is strange, many of his lines are entirely oddball and seemingly random. My uncle says you have a screw loose engenders, “Your uncle molests collies.” I’m sure I guffawed and probably even tried that line out a few times at school, but now, Chase’s haunted, goofy, possibly gay, maybe a Vietnam veteran making the noise of the Six Million Dollar Man as he golfed—meant to seem vaguely mystical with a tinge of martial artistry—just falls flat. He has a few sight gags, billowing smoke between his clenched teeth, and spilling wine, and punching decorations with vigorous gestures a la Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. But none of it seems funny now. Especially when compared to Murray’s outstanding and lovable looniness.

OK let’s get to Bill’s portrayal of Carl. What is going on here? Is Carl autistic? Is he meant to seem handicapped? I never thought to ask back in the day, but now I’m finding myself a little uncomfortable with Murray sticking his lip out sideways and sounding rather like he’s had some sort of stroke. As his gopher-hunting activities escalate we’re along for the ride, but his appearances in the film are genuine gold. Blasting the flower heads with his drives while he improvises being on a television golf show, or producing animals to trick the gopher with out of C4 explosives I remember I was most enthralled with his wonderful fun. When, near the start of the movie, he’s got Noonan backed up against the wall with a pitchfork carelessly pointed at his throat and telling him about the Dali Lama granting him prefect consciousness on his deathbed (whatever that means) it becomes part of us. Later, when Ty and Carl meet in Carl’s shabby abode, the character is greatly expanded. Carl seems much more acutely aware than he did before. He’s interested in Ty, and tries to socialize with him. He’s even got a research project going on with a grass hybrid you can supposedly smoke. Then, they start passing a doobie and shotgunning booze over it. Chevy as Ty is oddly straight for a guy with the weirdest lines in the movie, at one point following a come-on from Lacey to tie her up with his ties with “let’s pretend we’re real human beings.” Getting back to the story at hand, Ty wants to just play his ball through Carl’s home, Carl then starts up a gas blower to clean up. Scene over. But what a fun scene, it does nothing to enhance the movie, nothing to move the story of our hero Noonan as he attempts to get a scholarship. It is there merely for the yucks produced by these two SNL alums.

Back to Noonan’s love life. Soon enough he’s managed to bed the lovely relative of the judge, boobies are out for this scene and I don’t remember having been a young person thrilled about it. I wholly forgot it. But lovely boobs are on display and what does a young man watch a movie for? I’ll tell you, boobs. Noonan gets quite lucky, until he’s boldly dressed in the robe of the judge who promptly arrives to kill him, retreating Noonan steals into the bathroom where the wife of the judge is taking a shower—the lady having walked half barefoot in her torn dress directly to the shower we presume—OK we’ll roll with it, as it’s a cute sequence of the older lady giving a fine smile to our hero.
Here’s where things get interesting. Noonan also beds Maggie, who in a later scene he offers to marry out of an impulse of chivalry. The Lacey character is also with the Chevy Chase character for an odd nude massage scene. And in the end Noonan is with Maggie again, receiving a kiss in the final celebratory moment of the film. Was 1980 a more sexually liberal time? It appears so. The final line of the movie delivered seemingly at random by Dangerfield is “Hey everybody we’re going to get laid!”, which is received with a big cheer from the crowd he yells it to.
As a boy I remember this film giving me a sense of possibilities of the future in the way some of those jackass “What Will You Do?” with your life assemblies they did at High School were meant to. I didn’t care about golf or riches. What I cared about was being loved, and finding pleasure. Caddyshack, while obviously a vehicle for rambunctious jokestering, championed a kind of celebration of epicurean lifestyle. Granted much of that style relied on extreme wealth, but the character of Noonan managed to parley, despite his lower economic status, a healthy, and fully immersed experience which was assisted by kindness and hopefulness that are the mark of any sensible band of humanity. One hopes that Carl will achieve his goals and become the head groundskeeper, and that the jokes will continue, and that we all will get laid!

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