“You buy a hat like this, I bet you get a free bowl of soup.” – Al Czervik
During their teen years, the Murray brothers, Brian, Bill, John and Joel, frequently caddied at Indian Hill Club, a private golf course in Winnetka, Illinois. The siblings often played golf with Lou Janis – an Indian Hill caddy master, who according to Bill Murray’s 1999 memoir, would “bet on anything”.
Janis would later serve as the inspiration to Lou Loomis – the deranged manager of the upscale Bushwood Country Club in the 1980 film, Caddyshack.
Though it is regarded as a cinematic classic, the film was initially met with a lukewarm response from reviewers and performed poorly at the box office. The Hollywood Reporter slammed the film for being, “Entirely scatological, deriving from such socially questionable practices as farting, vomiting and nose-picking”.
But behind what critics deemed as jokes that were low hanging fruit, lies a more pivotal story that champions the working class, while simultaneously poking fun at the elite.
The comedic workings of Rodney Dangerfield come to the fore through Al Czervik, a wise-cracking and brash new golfer at Bushwood who clashes with the club’s more exclusive members. It’s as if Czervik serves as an unrefined modern-day Gatsby, with fewer pocket squares and more rainbow windbreakers.
Czervik intended to be a minor role, but the film’s director, Harold Ramis, recognised Dangerfield’s genius and encouraged him to go off-script, elevating the film with his effortless, off-the-cuff anecdotes.
Ramis recalled that Dangerfield was so new to film acting that he didn’t even understand the word “Action!”, so Ramis advised Dangerfield to step on his mark and shouted “Do your bit” to kick him into gear. In the first few scenes he shot, Dangerfield thought he’d bombed his jokes as no one on set laughed, but Ramis pointed out that if people laughed, it would ruin the take.
The film’s success can be largely attributed to Ramis – a director who truly understood his actors and encouraged them to improvise. A strong collaborative environment was formed and the likes of Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, Ted Knight and Bill Murray complemented each other seamlessly.
Ramis was unafraid to interrupt the film’s plot at any given moment, for an opportunity in comedy.
The film’s absurdist sequences more often than not involved delusional groundskeeper, Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray. The monologue where Spackler is commentating on his golf performance, claiming he is a “Cinderella story” that came “outta nowhere” to lead the pack, still holds up as one of the film’s funniest moments.
But it’s these slapstick vignettes that also convey the rigidity of social class at the country club. One where the older, more sophisticated members of the club stood above those below, including Spackler.
With the division between the wealthy and poor clearer than ever in a COVID-19 world, the nuances of Caddyshack resonate more than ever.
Despite its eternal legacy, Caddyshack didn’t kick off quite as well as the filmmakers initially hoped. Due to the underwhelming response to the film, one which saw the film rank 17th for total US ticket receipts in 1980, Douglas Kenney, the film’s producer and writer, called fellow Caddyshack writer Brian Doyle-Murray and apologised for the movie’s failure. Kenney had said to Doyle-Murray, ‘Ahh, but I thought I was going to make you wealthy’.”
The scathing reviews certainly didn’t help the film’s lack of momentum. Revered film critic Robert Ebert gave it two and a half stars and criticised the inconsistency in the plot.
“Caddyshack feels more like a movie that was written rather loosely, so that when the shooting began there was freedom, too much freedom, for it to wander off in all directions in search of comic inspiration,” he wrote.
Caddyshack may have garnered its fair share of negative press but would eventually hold a strengthening place in film folklore. It also kickstarted Ramis’ directorial career – the idiosyncratic creative would later direct other timeless classics such as Groundhog Day and the Ghostbusters series – two pop culture successes also featuring Bill Murray.
Through unprecedented directorial methods and initial pessimism from critics and the box office, Caddyshack was never meant to be a success. But as its legacy continues to grow and strengthen, it’s safe to say the film is its own Cinderella story.
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