By Evan Rothman
The next studio executive to green-light a golf movie likely will lose his job and be expelled from his country club. Suffering through the sport’s last three flop shots – “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Bobby Jones: Strokes of Genius” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played” – the theatergoer from another planet would assume that such films are made to cure insomnia.
Too harsh, Mr. Ebert? Perhaps. But traditionalists might be surprised to learn that “Caddyshack” comes a lot closer to paying homage to our sport’s cinematic heritage than the above dewy-eyed threesome.
The first golf movie on record was an 1896 British silent called “Golfing Extraordinary, Five Gentlemen,” in which a group of friends makes pranks part of the game. This includes relieving themselves in each other’s golf bags and flinging excrement at opponents. Think Keystone Kops meets John Waters meets Gary McCord.
“Golfing Extraordinary” set the tone for golf’s portrayal in the early, West Coast Swing of cinema. The game’s filmic legacy from the Golden Age is the “Bobby Jones on Golf” instructional series – and Jones remains a surpassingly likable presence. But more common, if forgotten, fare was “The Idle Class” (Charlie Chaplin as “The Tramp” sneaks on at an upscale resort); “Should Married Men Go Home?” (Laurel and Hardy pose as wealthy bankers to impress the ladies before winding up in an on-course mud
fight with other players); or “The Golf Specialist” (W.C. Fields as an escaped psychiatric patient who ends up playing with, and flirting with, his pursuer’s wife).
Set in or around the Golden Age, “Bagger Vance,” “Bobby Jones” and “The Greatest Game” all suffer from a modern problem: The game’s tendency to cast its past in a sepia-toned glow, and so embalm it. Golf, not unlike other sports, loves its history, because the further back you go the more you’re free to gild the lily. Movies, too, tend to simplify history, gloss over uncomfortable facts and generally cut down the rough. In movies, as in life, golf grows ever more protective of its legacy and convinced of its capacity for moral instruction, which may or may not be true but sure is boring, not to mention didactic.
The best golf movies, not surprisingly, have been the zaniest (“Caddyshack”), the loosest (“Tin Cup”) and the most coarse (“Dead Solid Perfect”). They revel in the sport’s cruel comedy, its class conflicts, its addictiveness and absurdity. They showcase a game with which we are all too familiar. Each resides firmly in the present. Golf’s recent historical films lead us by the hand through a puffy white cloud back to a world in which the game is fraught with deep meaning.
I recently screened, not without trepidation, another threesome: 1951’s “Follow the Sun,” a biopic starring Glenn Ford as Ben Hogan, 1952’s “Pat & Mike,” with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and 1953’s “The Caddy,” a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle.
“Follow the Sun” is a stilted, dated and not very dramatic piece of hero-worship. Ford, whose swing makes Kevin Costner’s look like Ernie Els’, plays an uncomplicated, sympathetic Hogan. (He’s not aloof, just really focused.) The movie’s arc can be distilled to one line of dialogue: “I had to get hit by a 10-ton truck to wake up” to his humanity, says Ford/Hogan. At the other end of the range, Martin and Lewis are fun to watch sail through their paces, but “Caddyshack II” looks sophisticated in comparison.
“Pat & Mike,” surprise, is a delight: Hepburn and Tracy, like Bobby Jones before them, still exude a casual affability. The script is smart and funny. The era’s best women golfers – Babe Didriksen Zaharias, Betty Hicks, Beverly Hanson and Helen Dettweiler – demonstrate drop-dead-gorgeous swings. And it opens with the single-best golf sequence in movie history.
Hepburn and her controlling, paternalistic fiancé (William Ching) excitedly throw their clubs in the trunk en route to a round with a potential big donor to the university where they work. Then Ching tells Hepburn to change from her pants (“slacks,” she corrects him, annoyed) into a skirt for their “conservative” host, which she does in the back seat. (She’s the modern one.) They race to the first tee to meet the cranky donor and his ditsy, know-it-all wife. Hepburn, as always too nervous to play well in front of her beau, struggles mightily and chokes away the match. (In real life, as in the film, she was a wonderful athlete and single-digit golfer.) Worse, she must endure tips from the donor’s wife, whom a caddie gleefully mocks behind her back – one perfect detail among many. “You’ve got to tense the gluteal muscles, dear,” she twitters at Hepburn.
At the end of the disastrous round, Hepburn, still getting tips from the woman (“Keep your weight
on your right foot” – the horror), finally explodes.
“If you could possibly lift the needle from that long-playing phonographic record in your mouth!” Hepburn cries before pushing her tormentor into a chair behind the practice tee, where Hepburn proceeds to smash 10 consecutive perfect drives in rapid-fire succession, like a trick-shot artist. “You know what you can do with your gluteal muscle? Give it away for Christmas!”
I smell remake. Someone get Tom Hanks and Téa Leoni on the line.