Caddyshack is a rare film for me, in that I’ve been afforded a relationship with it since childhood, based purely on the timing of my birth, and the easy-going nature of my parents. When I was 8, and parties at the public pool were as common as skinned knees, one scene from this 1980 comedy was legend.
The doody scene.
I’m not here to talk about that scene, and how it changed the way the world looks at a Baby Ruth, however. I’m talking about that other thing.
The thing with Smails.
The “doody scene” is a good place to begin, though; in case you are from Mars, I will describe it briefly. A young girl chucks a candy bar into the pool at Bushwood Country Club, and it is mistaken for feces. Everyone present runs screaming, and the pool is ordered drained and sterilized by Judge Elihu Smails and his wife, prominent club members both. This task falls to assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler, who locates and recognizes the Baby Ruth, then takes a bite out of it, causing the Judge’s wife to faint. And scene.
Carl Spackler is played by the inimitable Bill Murray, red hot at the time thanks to Saturday Night Live, also the source of his co-star Chevy Chase. Chase’s Ty Webb is putting at night, and tees a ball into Carl’s squalorous shack. Carl gets Ty to unwind, reluctantly, as he plays through, and he admits to having problems with Judge Smails.
Immediately, Carl snaps to attention, his slack-jawed countenance now uncannily alert and focused. “Smails,” Carl interjects, producing a nasty-looking utility blade from nowhere.
“The thing with Smails is, you cut the hamstring.”
When I saw this as a child, I had to ask my dad what a hamstring was, and he explained that Carl was referring to the Achilles tendon. Rather, he explained later, when he could catch his breath from laughing so hard.
The humor completely sailed over my head at 8 years old. Why did this goofball who talked like Pete Puma want to cripple the old guy who reminded me of my uncle?
When I reviewed Caddyshack recently to see how it held up, I was worried about the scenes with Bill Murray and the gopher. As a kid, I thought they were hilarious, but would they be jarring and immature as an adult?
What I’d forgotten, is that I’d been shown an edited for television version of the movie, taped off of ABC or maybe CBS, that excised all the smoking of pot. Seeing the movie again, complete, this year reminded me that Ty and Carl do a “cannonball” of moonshine and homegrown pot in the relevant scene. Whatever was used for the joint, it’s gigantic, and it’s actually toked on-screen. Judging from the era, I don’t know why they would have faked it. In 1979 drugs of all kinds were literally lying around everywhere. One could locate a huge joint of actual marijuana easier than a prop.
So in the original cut, Carl is kind of a deranged stoner. It makes his sudden violent aside about slashing tendons more palatable. Clearly, he’s premeditated on the matter, but he smokes enough weed to keep his threats hilariously idle. He’s just talking absurd shit to crack up his friend.
In the television edit, Carl is just some filthy creep in a shack plotting to maim a judge. He’s already planning to use huge amounts of C4 to remove a single gopher. You don’t see his hidden talents in crossing pot with lawn grass, which reveal industriousness instead of malice. You actually start to feel afraid for Ty Webb, who merely wants to play through this psychopath’s bunkhouse. Will he leave with hamstrings intact?
Seeing this uncut, I lapsed into a spasm of laughter like I hadn’t since I was 10. It blindsided me. Carl seems like a crazy, burned-out partier, not the Unabomber. Is it any wonder he was cast as Hunter S. Thompson, in Where The Buffalo Roam*?
(*Crucially flawed, but its heart is almost in the right place.)
Carl Spackler, his lunacy, and his gopher nemesis are as important to Caddyshack as Ted Knight or Rodney Dangerfield. The mise en scene of 70s snobbery and debauchery is so astute, it must have been a product of the time, rather than a deliberate affectation. A lot of what made 1979 so fantastic is onscreen; the relaxed attitudes, the transition from formal outerwear to casual and designer, the rejection of stuffy, exclusive traditions. Even though we’re seeing a gopher puppet making dolphin sounds while stock Looney Tunes music plays, it fits perfectly, like a pink elephant in a fit of delirium tremens. In fact, Caddyshack probably owes more to Frank Tashlin than audiences realize.
Judge Smails has a grandson named Spaulding, played by one-and-done actor John F. Barmon Junior. God only knows why Barmon didn’t do more. Spaulding is absolutely the silent killer of Caddyshack.
Each of Spaulding’s lines is a hole-in-one. He appears, delivers, and strides off as the audience falls gasping to the floor. It’s absolutely unreal. He is the goggled kid in the first screenshot of this article, screaming about doody. His timing and comic ability are no lesser than the cream of the crop that is the film’s cast. I probably quote Spaulding more than any other Caddyshack character, even Carl.
Spaulding: I want a hamburger. No, cheeseburger. I want a hot dog. I want a milkshake. I want potato chips–
Judge Smails: YOU’LL GET NOTHING, AND LIKE IT!
Spaulding: (at a formal dinner) You gonna eat your fat?
Spaulding: (about his weed) This is good stuff. I got it from a Negro. You’re probably high already and you don’t even know it.
Spaulding picks his nose so often, the caddies hide nearby and place bets on whether he will or not, and if he’ll eat it once he does. But the best demonstration of Barmon’s comic ability and timing comes when Spaulding is swilling abandoned drinks from a table, at Bushwood’s 4th of July shindig.
I myself am no stranger to this method, and Spaulding is pretty smooth at it. However, lurking in the foreground is Game Over, in the form of a cigarette butt extinguished in a glass. I don’t know if it’s real; I don’t want to know. The finger of fate points at Spaulding, who gags, undone.
Irrevocably nauseated, Spaulding staggers outside into the night air, fails to collect himself, and vomits into the sunroof of a Porsche. This sets up a later bit where the car’s owner is revealed to be Dr. Beeper (Dan Resin), who unintentionally sits in the upchuck, and slowly slides under the dashboard.
Not many studio comedies remain a laugh riot nearly four decades after release, especially the way the contemporary system is set up, which allows no spontaneity. That’s the thing that makes Caddyshack so enduring.
The thing with Smails.