I didn’t see Fatal Attraction (1987) when it first came out, but I remember how huge it was. It was a huge cultural sensation, one of the biggest movie events of the year. Not only were people talking about it like crazy, many scenes became iconic, and it even spawned a new catch-phrase: “bunny boiler.”
The other day, I was going through my news feed, when this article from Vox popped up: How Rodney Dangerfield and “Caddyshack” gave us Donald Trump. As soon as I saw the headline, I thought, “This has got to be a joke, right? Is this click bait?”
I then tried reading it and was barely three paragraphs in when I almost fainted from shock. No, this article was anything but a joke or click bait; it was the real deal. My shock was made all the worse knowing that what it said was going to immediately be taken as gospel truth–even though it’s horribly, undeniably, unarguably wrong–because an esteemed critic from The NY Times came up with the analysis.
I know that me countering this critic isn’t going to matter a hill of beans in the long run. I’m just a blogger, after all. But let me at least try to be the lone voice in the wilderness explaining why connecting Caddyshack with Donald Trump is completely off the mark. Before I do, though, we have to understand a little bit of American culture and history. I know it’s become a cliche on this blog to say that whenever I deconstruct any movie, but because movies aren’t created in a vacuum, sometimes the only way you can really understand them is to understand the historical context behind them.
America’s Gilded Age
In the 19th century, millions of people from around the world–particularly the poorest parts of Europe–fled to the United States in record numbers. It wasn’t just because it was the land of the free and home of the brave. It was because it was the land of equal opportunity and social mobility. It was the only place in the entire world where a person could go from rags to riches, or go from nobody to a VIP.
Why? Because unlike in Europe and other places around the world, America didn’t believe in class distinctions and wasn’t controlled by an aristocracy (a small, elite group of wealthy people who were descended from royalty). A person could grow up in the worst slums of America without a pot to piss in but with hard work and determination, become either a powerful politician or retire as a rich fat cat by the age of 50.
Of course, when America was still a young country, the rest of the world laughed at all of these dopey immigrants rushing over there to become somebody rich and important. Things like “upward mobility” and “classless society” simply didn’t exist at the time. But by the mid-1800s, the world was no longer laughing at America. For the first time in history, a new type of rich person emerged–the self-made millionaire. Some became rich by building railroads, manufacturing steel and striking oil. Others became rich off agriculture or industry. But whatever the case may be, scores of people who had started out with nothing finally became something, and Europeans couldn’t believe their eyes.
Now, you’d think that with so many success stories coming out of America, the last thing the country would do was try to copy the same bullshit elitist class system that existed in Europe. After all, it was doing away with that kind of nonsense that allowed people to go from zero to hero in the first place. But ironically, that’s exactly what Americans did.
As self-made millionaires began passing their wealth onto their children through inheritance, they and their families started to see themselves as being more like an American version of the European aristocracy. As a result, these self-made men and their wives began building extravagant palaces, holding lavish balls in which only the so-called “cream of the crop” were invited, and excluding people who weren’t part of their exclusive club of millionaires. Later, they adopted pretentious airs of class by talking in an upper crust accent, sending their kids to the finest Ivy League schools and doing corny stuff like referring to vases as “VAH-zes.”
Then the next thing you know, Americans had an aristocracy that was more or less like the aristocracy in Europe. Except we didn’t call them “the aristocracy”. We called them “High Society.” Their children weren’t princes or princesses; they were “heirs”, “heiresses”, “socialites” and “debutantes. High Society families weren’t lords and ladies; we just gave them status by always making sure to add a “the” before their names (as in, The Astors, The Rockefellers and The Vanderbilts). This was so that people would know you meant The Astors of New York and not Mortimer and Myrna Astor of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Americans should’ve immediately rebelled against High Society because it went against everything that the country stood for. But ironically, they were still feeling self-conscious about their standing in the world compared to the oh, so sophisticated Europe, with its “classy” aristocracy and blue-blooded royals (who were so inbred that they suffered from diseases like hemophilia or were born with grotesque deformities). Wanting to prove themselves to Europeans with their own version of an aristocracy, Americans ate all of this High Society stuff up and happily accepted their new overlords.
Not everyone did, though, and this period in history–from the mid to late 1800s–was referred to as The Gilded Age. This was in honor of the Mark Twain book of the sane name, which made fun of this period for of its rampant greed, corruption and materialism.
“Old Money” vs “New Money”
When the Gilded Age ended, people were no less eager to become America’s latest success stories. And so, just like the generations before them, people from the humblest beginnings worked hard to make something of themselves so that over time, America had a brand new wave of self-made millionaires.
If you became a millionaire in, say, the 1920s, what were you naturally going to want to do? You were going to want to start enjoying the places that other wealthy people went to, like glitzy clubs, restaurants, resorts and other high class venues. You may even have wanted to mingle with some of America’s most famous millionaire families because they were an inspiration to you growing up. But guess what? The families of The Gilded Age–The Whozawhatzits of New York, The UpturnedNoses of Conneticut and The SnootyMcFartyFaces of New England–are pretty much dominating all the clubs, restaurants and venues. And as you, a self-made millionaire, try to become one of them, they give you the cold shoulder, or–worse yet–openly discriminate against you. Why? The reason is that they are now “Old Money“. You are “New Money“(also called “nouveau riche”).
What was the difference?
Well, if you came from Old Money, you came from wealth (as in, inherited your money and grew up with a silver spoon in your mouth). So, you were a “real” rich person, as opposed to the self-made millionaire, who–in your eyes–was just a poser who faked his way into wealth. Secondly, as Old Money, you were the descendants of one of the wealthy families who were part of The Gilded Age. So, you were basically American royalty and therefore of a higher standing than a self-made millionaire who didn’t have a “name.”
Third, Old Money had better class and breeding. Not only were you WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), your ancestors came from “respectable” European countries like England, Scotland, Germany and France. Furthermore, Old Money had adopted the high refined mannerisms of European society over the years and knew how to do things like sip tea with the pinkie sticking out and wear a monocle like the best of them. Lastly, Old Money had gone to the finest finishing schools, military academies and Ivy League universities.
New Money was the opposite. If you were from New Money, you often started out as poverty-stricken immigrant scum straight off the boat (Ellis Island) from a shitty backwater like Italy or Ireland or–worse yet, a shtetl from Eastern Europe. If you were homegrown, you were…shudder…a negro. As if being from the slums or an inferior ethnic background wasn’t bad enough, the odds are, because you grew up on the Lower East Side of NYC, the slums of Chicago or a Sicilian village, you were going to act in ways that Old Money found obnoxious and boorish. You would do things like put your elbows on the table, pronounce “Thirty Third and Third” as “Toity Toid and Toid” and use offensive language in mixed company.
Worst of all, you were going to show off your wealth in a very tasteless, over the top fashion. The reason why is that growing up in poverty, you most likely grew up being self conscious about being poor. So, once you acquired wealth, it became very important to flaunt it. But lacking class, you lacked subtlety about it, which offended Old Money enough to coin the phrase, “Money doesn’t buy class.”
Because of the vast cultural and background differences between Old Money and New Money, the last thing Old Money wanted to do was mingle with all of these newfound millionaires. So, it started discriminating against them in very underhanded ways. One of the most notorious places where Old Money discriminated against New Money was the country/sports athletic club. This was a membership-only venue in which the rich could play a round of golf, go swimming or enjoy some other physical activities in the great outdoors. However, not any rich person could join. You had to be WASP. Anyone else who wasn’t–such as blacks and Jews–were automatically excluded. In some cases, even women were not allowed to join.
When New Money started crossing paths with Old Money, you can imagine what happened. New Money became angry. Old Money people were just assholes who had happened to be born into wealth. They never earned this money–their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. Yet because they were of a specific heritage and knew pretentious things like what side of the plate to put the knife on, they saw themselves as “better” than a guy who worked his way up by the sweat of his brow.
As awful as Old Money was, there wasn’t much that New Money could do about them but stew in anger and resentment. However, some members of New Money found a more proactive way of handling Old Money–by using comedy.
The Marx Brothers Vs Old Money
Because it was filled with so many pretentious, racist douche bags, Old Money was ripe for the picking by comedians. The most famous comedians to do this were The Marx Brothers. For them, taking Old Money down a peg wasn’t just for comedy’s sake; it was personal. Like so many people who weren’t of the right “heritage” to enjoy the same hotels and venues as Old Money, The Marx Brothers constantly faced racism, even though they were more famous and richer than the Old Money types who were keeping them out. One year, for example, Groucho Marx asked for membership to a country club and was flatly told that it didn’t accept Jews but that it would make an exception for him, provided that he and his family didn’t use the pool. He famously wrote back, “My daughter is only half-Jewish. Is it okay if she only goes in up to her knees?”
Groucho’s joke may have sounded as though the discrimination he and his brothers experienced just rolled off his back. However, judging from a consistent theme in Marx Brothers movies, there’s no question that the discrimination they faced stuck in their craw. A favorite scenario in their films was to create mayhem at so-called “classy” venues being attended by Old Money snobs. Just when things couldn’t get more out of control, all of a sudden, one of the brothers–usually Chico or Harpo–would charm the pants off the guests by playing the harp or piano. Their performances would fly in the face of the prejudices that people like them (an Italian-American immigrant who could barely speak English and a mute bum) weren’t “good” enough to be part of High Society.
Another favorite scenario in Marx Brothers films involved Groucho Marx putting down a stuffy upper class moron at a high class event. Usually, the moron would be played by Margaret Dumont, a stereotypical matron. He’d lob insult after insult at her, and–even funnier–she would never get that he was dissing her the entire time. This was The Marx Brothers not only making Old Money look foolish, but showing how little they respected the very people who Americans were treating like royalty. You also got the sense that Groucho Marx was enjoying some kind of wish fulfillment of doing to Old Money what he couldn’t in real life, and that was to tell them off.
The Three Stooges Vs Old Money
Fresh on the heels of The Marx Brothers were another comedy troupe that loved to stick it to Old Money–The Three Stooges. A favorite story line–first seen in Hoi Polloi (1935)–involved two old farts with pretentious British accents in tuxedos and monocles arguing about whether class is nature or nurture. To settle the argument, one guy would say, “Let’s make a wager. Find the worst, most boorish assholes you can ever imagine and teach them how to be classy. Then throw a party. If you can get them to act like perfect gentlemen, I’ll pay you a million dollars.”
Not too soon after, Moe, Larry and Curly would show up, and Old Fart #1 would go, “A-ha! I have found my perfect test subjects! Come with me, boys!” We’d see these extended scenes of The Three Stooges being taught how to be classy. The last scene would be the party. In the beginning, Moe, Larry and Curly would act like perfect gentlemen, but before long, they’d revert to their boorish ways and the next thing everyone knew, there’d be a gigantic pie fight. Who’d win the bet between the Old Farts? No one, because the classy people at the party would start throwing pies, too, blowing the whole “nature versus nurture” debate to hell.
A specific short in which The Three Stooges really stuck it to Old Money was The Three Little Beers (1935). In this one, the boys sneak into a refined country club and tear shit up. Why? Because–you guessed it–this was the place where blacks, Jews and other New Money types like them were discriminated against. And just like The Marx Brothers getting some sort of wish fulfillment by spoiling High Society parties, The Three Stooges got theirs by destroying an immaculately kept golf course at a hoity toity country club.
Comedy Vs Old Money
For the next several decades, comedy would consistently make fun of Old Money elites, using the tropes invented by both The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers. In Animal House (1978), “Bluto” Blutarsky starts a food fight in the school cafeteria reminiscent of the pie fights from The Three Stooges, and later, the disgraced Delta Tau Chi fraternity wreaks havoc at the homecoming parade, a cherished event attended by the elitist WASPs at Faber College. In Trading Places (1983), two racist Old Money farts use a rich white businessman and a black street panhandler as guinea pigs as part of a “nature vs nurture” wager.
Got all that? Now I’m going to explain why the tie-ins between Caddyshack and Donald Trump are dead wrong.
In Caddyshack, a rich, self-made millionaire, Al Czervik (played by Rodney Dangerfield) blusters into town and upsets the elites at the local country and golf club. Not only is he upsetting them because he’s building a huge development next to their club that could bring in the “wrong element”, he has now become a member of the club itself. The rich snobs are just kind of rattled by Al, but there’s a guy in particular who’s especially disgusted by him, Judge Smails (played by Ted Knight). He thinks that Czervik is loud, boorish and has no class. So, naturally, he has it in for him.
Can you already see what Caddyshack has in common with The Three Stooges, Marx Brothers and all the other movies and TV shows that were mentioned? That’s right— it’s playing out the same age-old battle of New Money being looked down and excluded by Old Money, using the exact same tropes and characters from The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers comedies. Judge Smails is Old Money. He is a guy who had his wealth handed to him but thinks he’s a “better class” of rich person than Czervik, because he is a WASP and has adopted all the pretensions of a blue blood (snooty accent, classy mansion, exclusion of anyone who isn’t upper class WASP).
Czervik is New Money. He’s someone most likely from working class immigrant roots (note his last name, which sounds Eastern European), who worked his way to become wealthy. Because he grew up working class, he didn’t learn the “proper” way of being classy. He talks loudly, wears tacky clothing and listens to trashy music. And true to the stereotype that Old Money has of New Money, he likes to display his wealth in a very gaudy, over the top, tasteless way. For example, his car horn is set to the tune of, “We’re in the Money” because he has to let the world know that he’s “made it” by moving up in the world.
The battle between Czervik and Smails happens at a country club because–ding, ding, ding–the country club was the infamous place where Old Money kept out anyone who wasn’t like them. The party that Czervik and his crew of boorish friends go to in the second act is a throwback to The Marx Brothers causing mayhem at a fancy High Society party. When Czervik keeps insulting the guests there (“The last time I saw a face like that, I saw a hook in it!”), that is a throwback to Groucho Marx putting down Margaret Dumont to show how little respect he had for Old Money. The insanity that breaks out in the last scene of the movie with the crazy groundskeeper (played by Bill Murray) are The Three Stooges in The Three Little Beers destroying a golf course at an elitist country club.
Knowing the roots of Caddyshack, you can imagine how frustrating it is to me to hear people keep saying, “Well, you know, Al Czervik is the guy who gave us Trump.” I can tell you point blank that anyone who says this never, ever saw Caddyshack or if they did, maybe skimmed through the movie. But there’s no way anyone could’ve seriously watched Caddyshack and thought that.
Czervik is the very opposite of Trump. He acts like a crude working class stiff because that’s what he actually is. Trump was never working class a day in his life. Czervik had to work from the lowest rungs of society to acquire wealth and probably didn’t go to school. Trump was handed his wealth and attended elite academies and colleges. Czervik is inclusive and believes that everyone should be part of the country club. Trump is more like Judge Smails, a snob who thinks that only people of the “right” heritage and background should be allowed to join. But most importantly, Czervik isn’t cynically pandering to the working class slobs working at Bushwood to gain influence. He’s hanging out with them because he is one of them, and he enjoys their company.
So, given all that, how could Caddyshack have “given us Trump”? It couldn’t. Trump, had he ever seen this movie (which I doubt), would’ve never identified with Czervik to the extent of imitating him. On top of that, whatever other similarities there are to be had between the movie and Americans accepting Trump as their lord and savior are superficial. The similarities are so superficial that to find some kind of connection between the two is as ridiculous as claiming that Airport (1970) inspired 9/11 or If…(1968) gave us Columbine.
Another Reason Why the Caddyshack Comparisons are Dead Wrong
One of the most influential yet notorious figures in New York history was a man named Robert Moses. Moses was an urban planner and real estate who helped shaped NYC and Long Island by building everything from its massive network of bridges and highways to its parks and beaches. He built so much of NYC’s and New York state’s infrastructure that a 1963 TV documentary on him was titled, “The Man Who Built New York.” Why? Because he did.
Many people attribute Moses’ ability to “get things done” as a testament to his genius. But the reality is that he was able to do so much because he was able to write laws in such a way as to give him powers bordering on the despotic. He was so powerful at one point that for decades, he had NYC’s mayors, New York governors and even US Presidents by the balls.
Moses also got things done because he was an absolute tyrant who bullied anyone who didn’t kowtow to him. A famous biography of the man, The Power Broker, paints a vivid picture of a megalomaniac who surrounded himself with an army of “yes men” who practically peed their pants if they even thought of contradicting him. When it came to criticism or the opposition, Moses took no prisoners. If you even so much as offended him in any way, he would destroy you via a smear campaign in the press; if you blocked one of his pet projects or dissed one of his friends, he would destroy a beloved venue or local attraction as payback.
Besides being a despotic asshole and ruthless bastard, Robert Moses was an elitist douche bag who used his power as a planner, parks commissioner and developer to turn NYC into his own personal country club. He built hundreds of public parks and pools in New York state and NYC, but either located them in specific neighborhoods or designed the roads leading up to them in such a way so that minorities and immigrants from low and working class neighborhoods couldn’t access them. He designated perfectly viable working class neighborhoods as “slums” to tear them down in order to make way for another one of his bridges and highways that were meant to be enjoyed by the upper classes.
How was Moses able to get away with country-clubbifying New York? When he first started out as parks commissioner, Moses wanted to create parks and beaches on New York’s Long Island. The problem is that Old Money elites owned the lands there and refused to sell out. Moses then used illegal means to seize the property. The way that he did this was so cruel that even the man on the street was bound to turn against him. However, Moses had a trump card (no pun intended) up his sleeve. He used populism. He pretended that he was seizing all of this land for “the little people”. His justification was that these disgusting Old Money snots were keeping him from buying all this beautiful land because they didn’t want the unwashed masses of NYC to go near them.
The public bought his bullshit populism hook, line and stinker, and for most of the rest of his life, Moses made a name of himself as the guy who was sticking up for the working class by “sticking it” to elites even though he was an elite himself. No one was any the wiser because he straddled both worlds. Although he was, indeed, more privileged than most (he grew up in the lap of luxury and attended the best Ivy League schools in the United States and in England), he wasn’t Old Money, either; being Jewish automatically disqualified him (as much as he adamantly denied being Jewish), and the Moses family never became rich or established enough to join the ranks of The Rockefellers and Astors. On top of that, Moses had also hitched his wagons to political figures of New York who were Al Czervik types–i.e., governor Al Smith, for example, who came from working class stock, never lost his roots and was sincere in helping others like himself.
So, given Moses’ background, it was very easy for everyone to think that he was really on their side sticking it to elites, even though this guy was so elitist, he spent his entire life being chauffeured in a limousine because never had to learn how to drive.
Where am I going with this, and what does this all have to do with Caddyshack? Well, let’s see. Hmm…we have a legendary urban planner of New York who rose to fame pretending that he was fighting for the less advantaged members of NYC by attacking elites, while at the same time viciously discriminating against minorities and the lower class. He was an arrogant, petulant, thin-skinned bully who attacked people out of spite if they opposed them. Lastly, he wielded his power like a tyrant.
Boy, does any of it sound familiar? Well, it should. Donald Trump was one of thousands of real estate developers and urban planners in the 1960s and 70s who worshiped Moses, studied his methods to hell and back and dreamed of becoming him. This is not just speculation–even as early as 1985, the press was calling Trump the next Robert Moses, and the guy who wrote his biography, Robert Caro, said that Trump’s people told him repeatedly that Trump said that he wanted to be the next Moses.
Given all this, was it necessary to drag out a goofball 1980 comedy to explain how we got Trump? Moses was still alive and very much idolized by both the mainstream press and power hungry developers and planners as The Man Who Got Things Done when Caddyshack came out. Why blame the movie for Trump when we had Moses?
Tying Caddyshack to Trump is Socially Irresponsible
My objections to people somehow connecting Caddyshack to Trump go beyond the fact that this is inaccurate. If you want to educate Americans on how we got Trump, tell people to read up on Reaganomics (aka trickle down economics); populism; the history of anti-intellectualism in America; the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s; and Robert Moses. But don’t tell them this movie created him. This is just junk history and political science. Also, saying stuff like this gives Trump supporters all the ammunition they need to discredit the opposition. If you want to make Trump haters look like a bunch of deranged nut jobs who will do and say anything to discredit him, you’ll say that a goofball comedy like Caddyshack is how we got him.
Lastly, you damage a movie’s reputation and a legendary comedian’s legacy by connecting it to a person and an ideology they had nothing to do with. Caddyshack is about as populist as Basic Instinct (1992) was feminist, and Rodney Dangerfield’s entire movie career was based around playing unpretentious working class stiffs who would’ve savaged an elitist like Trump for pretending to be like one of them. Claiming that he and Caddyshack brought us Trump will give people the wrong impression about what both were all about, and cause them to turn on both the movie and Dangerfield himself.
Bottom Line: Stay in Your Own Lane
Because so many classic movies are hitting milestones, there have been a lot of articles coming out trying to break them down. Some of them are great, because they’re inviting the public to take a more critical eye on them. However, some of them are not so great. The reason why is that there are lot of people who are proving to be out of their depths in breaking these movies down, whether it’s because they were too young to understand what they were about, don’t have a grasp on the genre they’re analyzing or are just slapping a quick article together for click bait.
Caddyshack is a movie that you can only really understand if you’re a fan of goofball comedies based around issues of class. My feeling is that the people who keep somehow saying that it has anything to do with Trump have no idea what that movie or Dangerfield were all about, and that in the future, if they want to keep “analyzing” movies from a political perspective, it would really behoove them to stick to what they know. That is especially if they have the kind of clout that could easily taint a movie’s reputation and damage a legendary comic’s legacy.
Like everyone else, growing up I had it beaten into my head that certain movies were the cream of the crop of cinema and above criticism. One of those films is Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). The movie has such a reputation as an undisputed masterpiece that it has one of the highest ratings at the IMDB.
Two years ago, I posted a long ass diatribe attacking James Cameron’s detractors after they came after him for comments about Wonder Woman. I thought I was done with this topic, but then recently stumbled across this: Motherhood in Film & Television: Is Terminator’s Sarah Connor an Allegory for Single Mothers? It’s an old essay, yes, and it’s not even really negative. However, it seems that in trying to provide balance towards Sarah Connor in the form of criticism, it did it by using fauxminist talking points. Before I explain why this was a huge problem for me, I have to explain what fauxminism is in the first place.
A few years ago, I discovered The Detective (1968) for the first time when it aired on the Movies network. When it first started, I thought it was going to be a very middle of the road mainstream police movie. Instead, I came across a movie that shocked the hell out of me on many levels, even though it was released in a time when movies were nowhere near as gritty and envelope pushing as they are today.
WARNING: Please do not read this essay if you’ve never watched Fight Club, as it contains major spoilers.
Let’s face it–movies aren’t credible sources of information. Either they oversimplify reality or stretch credulity to its limits. The last thing anyone should be doing is looking to any movie as reference. However, having actually studied psychology in college, I think that Fight Club (1999) might be the exception to the rule. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie that explored so many complex theories with such depth and clarity. The film does such a good job, in fact, that I think it would be great required viewing in any Psych 101 class.