The Most Famous Films I’ve Never Seen…Until Now (Part 3 of 10): The vulgar charm of Rodney Dangerfield

After seeing Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984) for the first time this summer and now Caddyshack (dir. Harold Ramis, 1980), I’m starting to think that the great Bill Murray spent most of the 1980s stuck in movies that he was too smart for.  Caddyshack is less a well-made movie in the proper sense of the word than a string of gags involving very funny people: Murray, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield.  For proof of this, one needs only to think about the parts of the film that don’t involve any of those three actors, which is to say its “teenage” plot (in which a vacuous college hopeful takes a summer job as a golf caddy, attempts to win a scholarship, is involved in a pregnancy scare that turns out to be a false alarm, etc.)  The movie grinds to a halt in these scenes, only to chug back to life whenever Murray, Chase, or Dangerfield come on, delivering lines that are funny because the actors seem to have improvised or written them themselves.

It’s Dangerfield who I wanted to write about, though, because it’s his character—or rather his very being—that generates what little conflict transpires in Caddyshack.  I should say that aside from his minor role in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and a few scenes from Back to School (1985) this was the first Rodney Dangerfield performance I’d seen.  I knew that he was gauche and loud and that he couldn’t get no respect.  But I hadn’t realized how crucial his vulgarity was to his screen persona.  Leering, farting, waggling his eyebrows, chomping his cigars, dressed in loud, ugly clothes, he stinks of new money and bad breeding.  In his presence, respectable country clubbers recoil and fume, appalled.  He provides a running verbal commentary on the snobby petty-bourgeois world in which he moves, but it’s like the unfiltered verbal articulation of what’s running through his head; like Groucho Marx, he’s talking constantly, but not to anyone else in the movie.  Nor does anything else said or done to him in the movie seem to effect or damage him; it’s like he’s in some kind of unpoppable social bubble.  Much as I adore Bill Murray, Dangerfield is in some ways the most interesting thing in Caddyshack, because he gets at the ways in which comedy is so often about class—about the vulgarian crashing the party, about making messes.  It’s a convention we find even in European avant-garde comedies like Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1968) or comparatively “refined” screwball classics like Bringing Up Baby (1938), with its slips, falls, torn dinner jackets, ripped evening gowns.  The points about class that Caddyshack tries to make overtly are tiresome: the film ends with Our Hero, little Danny, renouncing the world of money and privilege offered him by the priggish Judge Smails (Ted Knight).  But the film is funnier and more successful when it simply observes Dangerfield clearing a room with his own noxious élan.      

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