Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) works at the upscale Bushwood Country Club, raising money to one day go to college. Despite caddying for Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), one of the club’s most exceptional golfers and son of one of Bushwood’s co-founders, Danny decides to start caddying for the uptight Judge Smails (Ted Knight), a Bushwood co-found and director of the Caddy Scholarship Program.
Meanwhile, Smails finds himself in over his head with the eccentric condominium developer Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) and a disastrous gopher situation, which he tasks greenskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) to dispose of. It doesn’t get any better when he also learns that Danny hasn’t been involved with his niece Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), who has a bit of a “zest for life”.
Despite initially not getting the praise it deserves when it was first released (which, in all seriousness, led to producer and co-writer Douglas Kenney’s depression and eventual suicide), Caddyshack, over time, has achieved total consciousness, becoming one of the most beloved comedies of all-time. Be it the all-star cast, Harold Ramis making his debut behind the camera, or the 50 million one-liners still being quoted to this day, Caddyshack had a hell of a messy time on set to fight through, but the end result is nothing short of comedic perfection.
It takes a great cast and great filmmaking hands to take a film that has what seems like a hundred different subplots and actually make it work.
Harold Ramis has been dubbed by fans, colleagues and critics as the “smartest man in the room” when on set. You know he knew it as well, but the beauty of his filmmaking was that he was always okay with taking a step back and letting someone do their thing if it benefited the film. What we end up getting is genius moves both behind and in front of the camera that blend together so well. One of the best examples here is one of the most iconic scenes in the movie: Carl Spackler’s “Cinderella Story”. Originally, Bill Murray’s idea was just whacking the flowers off like a golfer. Ramis then went up to him and asked if he ever improvised as an imaginary announcer like a lot of us has done growing up playing sports. There you have it – one of the most memorable moments in the film and in comedy overall. Moments like that show when you have a director and an actor that are both on the same page working together, great things come out of it.
It’s no surprise that one of the best elements of this film is that standout comic cast, which featured two Saturday Night Live alums (Chevy Chase and Bill Murray), one of the greatest TV personalities (Ted Knight from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and one of the greatest stand-up comedians to ever grace the stage (Rodney Dangerfield). Getting four dynamic personalities like that, all clamoring to steal a scene, in front of the camera is a risk. Going with Dangerfield especially, who had very little if any film experience (prior to Caddyshack, he did The Projectionist in 1971) was a risk. How can you not come away impressed with what they pull off, though? Funny thing is, Chase, Murray and Dangerfield were all meant to be smaller supporting roles with Michael O’Keefe’s Danny Noonan and Scott Colomby’s Tony D’Annunzio being the central characters. The former three’s constant improvising impressed Ramis and his co-writers Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill’s brother) and Douglas Kenney so much, rewrites and ad-libs kept being added. That came at much annoyance to O’Keefe and Colomby, and even Knight, but imagine how different the film would be if they stuck with what was originally written.
Of course, Chase, Murray and Dangerfield get their due with this film, but Ted Knight as Judge Smails deserves to be right up there next to them. He gets easily my favorite line in the entire film: “Danny, I sentenced kids younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn’t want to do it, but I felt I owed it to them.” Knight, in what was his final film role before his death in 1986, is downright hilarious as the snobbish Smails. His character is such a bourgeois prick, knows it and doesn’t give a damn. Since it’s a comedy, Knight is given liberty to play it up and go a bit over-the-top, but he finds just the right balance in knowing when to hold back and when to go all-out. Plus, he and Dangerfield are such great foils for each other.
Dangerfield could’ve come off as just someone running off a list of stand-up routine one-liners, and as I mentioned, it was a bit of a risk to have him play such a large part (although not initially). The character of Al Czervik is such a fit for Dangerfield’s personality, though, that it works. Sure he’s obnoxious, but Dangerfield has that likeability about him – the life of the party kind – where it never gets annoying for the viewer. Plus, his golf bag comes equipped with a stereo and beer tap. How can you not like him?
I don’t really have to mention much about Murray and Chase (who did not get along due to a feud dating back to their SNL days). They’re masters at comic riffing and it shows scene after scene after scene. I will say, in regard to Chase, that for always being known to play goofballs, he does a great job as the cool playboy type here. He still gets his trademark goofy moments, though. The one and only scene between the two of them actually was never in the script, and was something thrown in by the two of them and Ramis. It’s clearly a “goodie” scene for the fans, but it shows not only Murray and Chase’s gift for improvisation, but also, once again, Ramis’s generosity in not being such a rigid “do this, this and this!” director, knowing tremendous talent within his cast and just letting them go with the flow.
I have to also mention Michael O’Keefe, ’cause despite increasing Chase, Murray and Dangerfield’s roles, O’Keefe’s Danny Noonan is still technically the primary character of the film. It was only his third feature film at the time and the fact that he was able to hold his own up against the comedy giants surrounding him showed what talent he was capable of. Holding his own up against Robert Duvall beforehand in The Great Santini – which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination – helped. Although he’d later pop up in smaller roles in some great films like Ironweed, The Pledge, Michael Clayton and Frozen River (he was also Jackie’s husband Fred in Roseanne), his career never really took off like it could’ve, which is a shame ’cause he’s really the center of this film holding every strand together and does a great job at doing so, despite the fact that he’s definitely the least memorable main character out of the bunch.
Some may find the plot meandering a turn-off, but Ramis still manages to keep everything together thanks to the sharp writing and top-notch cast. In lesser filmmaking hands, this could’ve and probably would’ve been a disaster, but Ramis created one hell of a directing debut and, at the time, he was just getting warmed up. If there was a Mount Rushmore for comedy, Caddyshack would certainly be up there. Ironically, it may seem that it has very little to do with golf, but there’s the film’s quotability, memorable characters, gopher, Baby Ruth in the pool, Gunga Galunga, Kenny Loggins’s infectiously catchy theme song and don’t tell me there hasn’t been at least one golfer that shouted, “It’s in the hole!!” at the end of a round.
So it’s got that going for it… which is nice.