One of my most favoritest films of all time is Caddyshack, which turned 40 years old last year. The version I came to love was taped from Channel 18 in Milwaukee, commercial breaks and all. But even without the occasional language and pleasant nudity, I came to enjoy this as a comedy work of art. So quotable, so memorable, I tell you this film just stuck with me. And I don’t even like being an upstart at an illegal golf match with some rich socialites.
One of my most favoritest film comedy groups of all time are the Marx Brothers. Especially in Animal Crackers, which turns 90 this year. The version I came to love was taped from The Late Show on TV 6 in Milwaukee, commercial breaks and all. But even with the staggered interruptions from local merchants hawking their services in the wee small hours, I came to enjoy this as a comedy work of art. So quotable, so memorable, I tell you this team just stuck with me. And I don’t even like being an upstart at a fancy weekend party some rich socialite is throwing in my honor.
Whoa! Did you see what I did there? Déjà vu, right? Those paragraphs seem remarkably similar. Almost like I’m trying to cram a ham fisted idea of developing a parallel between this last gasp of the 1970s film comedy with the first great comedy film team of the 1930s. (And apparently, Word just knows to throw those nifty accent marks onto “deja” when I added “vu” right after it! Weird… but I digress.)
Fortunately, this notion is not that farfetched! Caddyshack’s director, the late great Harold Ramis, once said that Caddyshack was in fact a Marx Brothers movie! This is an intriguing idea to say the least, one that I will drive into the ground via my usual methods of extrapolating until there’s simply no more polating that can possibly be done. I am also assuming that you are familiar with both the Marxes and Caddyshack. If you aren’t, you have led a rather sad and joyless life. Change that soon, will you?
Caddyshack, at its heart, is a snobs versus the slobs-type of film. Even the movie poster says “some people just do not belong”. This scenario has been a hallmark for film comedy throughout time. Stick someone completely out of their class element somewhere that they do not belong in the first place and see what havoc is wreaked. Chaplin, Keaton, the Three Stooges and others all had instances of this type of scenario as their foundation from time to time. Coming out just before Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Animal House is another great example. The Marxes, at their peak, were masters of this concept.
The Brothers Marx would run nothing but amok, like brash gremlins descending on the most proper circumstances possible. What business does Groucho have running a hotel, being a doctor or a lawyer, being president of a university, being president of an entire nation, or being invited to a posh home to regale stuffy maroons with his fraudulent tales of African safaris? Why, he has no business whatsoever doing any of that.
Same goes for Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo. They do not belong in these places either. In fact, the Marx movies started to lag when the studio started sticking them in places that weren’t that outrageous for their manic comedy: the circus, a large department store, a hotel room, the Old West, etc. Of course, the Marxes never really did invade a private elite country club like Bushwood, and that’s where we land today.
Ramis was pretty clear about how the chips fell with which Caddyshack cast member was which Marx Brother. Rodney Dangerfield is Groucho, Chevy Chase is Chico, and Bill Murray is Harpo. (And while Zeppo is mysteriously absent from Ramis’ mention, I think I can correct that oversight.)
Now that I’ve heard Ramis outline this, it becomes amazingly clear to me how right he was and how blind I’ve been to never notice these parallels at the same time. It certainly explains why I actually enjoy a movie about golf, a sport I have little use for otherwise. So let us look upon this cast member by cast member, Marx by Marx, leaving no stone unturned as they’re probably under one.
Rodney Dangerfield as Al Czervik (Groucho):
This is the easy one to see, right? Who better to represent Groucho than Czervik? He comes in loud and clear, spouting off insults and one-liners as fast as he can. Czervik isn’t subtle. He is like a bull wearing dynamite in a china shop, wearing clothes that are as loud as his personality.
He clearly doesn’t belong in the circumstances and he’s only there because…he’s there, I suppose? Czervik does know some members of the club; we overhear later that he built their home in Palm Beach. However, he doesn’t show up to golf with these members to justify his first appearance at Bushwood. Yes, he’s building housing right next to the course, but that isn’t enough reason for Czervik to simply show up to golf. He’s almost like a tornado. Well, a tornado that buys naked lady tees. But again, sometimes Groucho would just appear in a film and you only need threadbare plotting as to why. A Marx Brother just is and just being there is good enough.
Seeing Czervik plow his way through the stuffed shirts is pure Groucho. I can easily imagine Groucho having a field day in dealing with Judge Smails. After dropping his anchor through Smails’ sloop and having the brass to tell Smails, “Hey, you scratched my anchor!” is Groucho-level chutzpah. “Now I know why tigers eat their young.” “Last time I saw a mouth like that it had a hook in it.” “I should have stayed home and played with myself!” All these lines show a Groucho-like presence as Al Czervik winds his way through the Bushwooders.
It is an exact match? No, but it is close. Groucho was always more cutting than crude. He probably wouldn’t announce that everyone was going to get laid at the end of the movie or comment how he almost got head from Amelia Earhart when that plane buzzed his boat at the Yacht Club. But then again, when Margaret Dumont once asked him if he had everything, Groucho did say that he’s had no complaints yet. So apples to apples or oranges to oranges, maybe? All I know is that if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they’ll taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know. And what I know is that Rodney Dangerfield, if nothing else, captures the spirit of Groucho in Caddyshack.
Chevy Chase as Ty Webb (Chico):
This one is a bit tougher, but when you stop to think about it for a brief fluttering moment, it does work. Let me just start with the fact that, in certain roles, I enjoy Chevy Chase. He is Fletch, he is Clark Griswold, and he is Dusty Bottoms (okay, maybe that last one is taking it too far). Ty Webb is not a standout character for Chase, but he does have his moments. He is a subtle part of the glue holding this together. Much like Chico in a Marx movie. He has moments, but usually gets short shrift when compared to Groucho or Harpo.
But Chase is a needed cog in the film. He does have some great lines throughout. “People don’t say that about you as far as you know.” “Don’t sell yourself short Judge, you’re a tremendous slouch.” Webb’s lines defy expectations about halfway through Chase saying them. And for comparison’s sake, look at this line from Chico: “Right now I’d do anything for money. I’d kill somebody for money. I’d kill you for money. Ah, no. You’re my friend. I’d kill you for nothing.” Or this one: “My partner, he’s got a nose just like a bloodhound. And the rest of his face don’t look so good either.”
Now, since we already have a Groucho, we need someone to team up with him and that’s where Ty Webb comes in. Webb’s playboy character is adrift throughout most of the proceedings until he teams up with Czervik for the final act. Much like Chico in a Marx movie who also is there floating around, but doesn’t really spark until he meets up with his brothers.
Ty Webb is great at golf and shows off; Chico is great at piano and shows off. Chico was a ladies man; Ty Webb has relations and massages with Lacey Underall. Chico communicates well with otherworldly Harpo, Ty Webb is the only main cast member that talks to Carl Spackler, who’s in a world of his own. He is the quieter balance to Czervik, just as Chico is to Groucho. He isn’t as abrasive, but still runs loose. Plus, he irritates Judge Smails, which works in Webb’s favor. Think of Ty Webb saying “My dad never liked you.” after Smails got done kissing up to Ty, referencing how Smails and Ty’s father built Bushwood. Now think of Duck Soup where Trentino keeps on placing his trust in Chico only to have it spit back in his face. That’s the Judge’s reaction dealing with Ty Webb too.
Also, Chico was a known gambler, and Ty Webb was the one that upped the dollar amount of Czervik’s round of golf wager with Smails. By the way, Ty Webb even plays the keyboard at his home! Seems pretty Chico-like to me.
Bill Murray as Carl Spackler (Harpo)
Now c’mon, how can Harpo Marx, who never talked in a movie be compared to Bill Murray, who has the lion’s share of the quotable lines from Caddyshack? From the Dalai Lama speech to talking about being the Masters Champion to addressing li’l plastic explosive animals, Bill has a lot of nothing to say in an incredibly funny way. So unlike Harpo, Bill does speak, but he manages to say even less by talking than Harpo ever did by not saying a word.
Bill is by far the most out there of the main trio of comic slobs, kind of like Harpo. The sheer destructive force that Carl brings, would make the scissors using/gun firing/handsaw wielding Harpo envious. Harpo never had the chance to shoot a rifle in the dark while carrying two six packs, blast high pressure water through a gopher hole laden putting green, or blow up major portions of a golf course. But then Harpo in real life loved golf so much, I doubt if he could have made a course explode.
Much like Harpo, Bill is a force of nature in this film. Often times writers struggled with coming up with gags for Harpo to do and so he had to make do or at least make what he was given better than it was. For Caddyshack, Ramis didn’t even have a complete script for Bill, he just let him improvise and see what happened. Harpo’s wardrobe was usually a shambles, Carl’s clothes are what is left after the shambles have been removed. Harpo would chase after the ladies by running after them, Carl does somewhat pursue the ladies by doing maintenance near where they are putting. Harpo manages to steal scenes away by just doing his own thing without the trappings the other Brothers find themselves in, Carl manages to do exactly the same.
Michael O’Keefe as Danny Noonan (Zeppo)
Okay, okay, okay. I know I’m going a bit off the credulity reservation with this one. And no, Ramis never even brought this up either, but please bear with me. Zeppo is usually regarded as the weak link in the Marx Brothers. Yet the movies where he appears with his brothers are generally held in higher regard amongst Marx aficionados than the later pictures without him. There was something about having Zeppo there that elevated the movies and the same thing goes for Danny Noonan in Caddyshack too.
O’Keefe is playing a role that through script revisions and casting choices eventually became that of the thankless male lead, which is exactly what Zeppo did at times too. I mean in Monkey Business do we really care about Zeppo’s story of falling for a gangster’s daughter, building a relationship, and rescuing her when she’s kidnapped? Nope. Do we really care about Danny’s relationship with Maggie and his dreams about escaping a life that dead ends by working in the lumberyard for the rest of his life? Nope.
Danny is kind of a conduit for the audience in Caddyshack in a way that Zeppo should have been but really wasn’t. Zeppo could have been that everyman lead for all the Marx films but was denied. And O’Keefe was fortunate that his role didn’t involve singing or having to simply walk in to introduce Al Czervik and leave. Zeppo wasn’t so blessed.
Still, Danny Noonan can hang out with Ty Webb and Al Czervik without being a target for their derision. He’s one of the guys, much like Zeppo being able to be amongst his brothers without worry. Also Zeppo did manage to bed Thelma Todd in Horse Feathers and Danny did manage to bed Cindy Morgan in Caddyshack, so there is that, you lucky so and so’s…
Whew! That wasn’t so bad now, was it? So what’s next? Perhaps I should compare the tuneful joys of Marx composers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby with the scoring and songs of Johnny Mandel and Kenny Loggins respectively. I could expound on the popular theory that the gopher itself plays a role in Caddyshack much like the seal in Horse Feathers or the horse in A Day at the Races or the turkey in Room Service. Then there’s the better part of a day I spent deciphering which Caddyshack character best represents Gummo Marx. (But that’s an easy call; we all know Brian Doyle-Murray is the obvious choice.)
Well, after spending months of comprehensive theorizing and calculations by poring over lovingly worn VHS tapes from my childhood, I completely see what Harold Ramis was talking about. Yes, Caddyshack managed to be subversive. But perhaps its greatest subversion was managing to sneak a Marx Brothers movie right inside of a modern day loutish golf comedy.
That’s even more subversive than that one day when I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know. However, one day I will know because when I die, on my deathbed, I will receive total consciousness. So I got that going for me, which is nice.