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What's Up, Doc? made a pile of money in 1972, confirming Peter Bogdanovich's credibility as a major director, as well as Barbra Streisand's cred as a comic actress in an (almost) non-singing role. After struggling in the Roger Corman school of hard knocks, Bogdanovich broke through in 1971 with The Last Picture Show, a mannered but affecting drama of Texas boys facing limited prospects. Bogdanovich, once a noted film critic, was quick to establish himself as a maker of nostalgic returns to the style and subject matter of Pantheon Hollywood directors (re: Andrew Sarris). What's Up, Doc? is a purposeful re-thinking of Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby, while Paper Moon is a rural depression comedy in the style of John Ford. For a filmmaker with no particular personal themes of his own, Bogdanovich did very well plundering the past: he not only knew what made these old classics work, he mingled socially with these famous directors and even dated Howard Hawks' daughter. What a way to impress your date's dad -- remake his movie.
The 1972 audience for What's Up, Doc? wasn't thinking in terms of old movies, but of seeing Barbra Streisand cut her capers in a romantic comedy. A stage comedienne before her breakthrough as a singing diva, La Babs can indeed turn on the cutes in high style, batting her eyes while rattling off tongue-twister dialogue for comic effect. She's not at all a bad substitute for Katharine Hepburn, as she has star presence to burn and doesn't have to work overtime to play a kook. What's Up, Doc? gets an A+ for its star -- as she mostly stays in character and doesn't dominate the proceedings, this is one of Ms. Streisand's best films.
Bogdanovich and his high-powered writers (Buck Henry,! David Newman & Robert Benton!) work hard to surround Streisand with a genuine Screwball Comedy circus. Most of the action takes place in a San Francisco hotel, where the confusion of four identical travel bags leads to a game of who's got the potato. The bags are funny in themselves, thanks to production designer Polly Platt's decision to trim them all with annoying Scotch plaid patterns. One bag contains stolen top-secret files and another a tray of priceless jewels; a third has (I think) just some lady's undergarments. The fourth belongs to the film's main character, musicologist Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal). It contains a collection of igneous rocks, with which Bannister intends to prove his unlikely theory that prehistoric man made music using ordinary minerals.
Bogdanovich coaches O'Neal through a close imitation of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, a carbon-copy homage minus the charm, talent and vocal accent of the original. Paleontologist Grant fussed like a wimpus over his cherished "intercostal clavicle", a dinosaur bone. When O'Neal mumbles on about his igneous rocks, various taxi drivers and bellhops think he's talking about private parts of his anatomy. At the musicologist's convention, Bannister is dominated and emasculated by his whiny fianceé Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn). He must also compete with an insultingly obnoxious Croatian rival (Kenneth Mars) for a study grant from eccentric benefactor Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton). Pushy pixie Judy Maxwell (Streisand) decides that Howard is for her, impersonates Eunice at the convention, and sets in motion a Screwball Snowball of mistaken identities.
The comedy is cute, but never quite as uproarious as the movie thinks it is. While Judy stalks Howard and Eunice suffers an unbroken string of indignities, jewel thieves and spies play switcheroo games with the four travel bags, never realizing that they've got the wrong stuff. Most of the dialogue and character gags work well, thanks to the glib script and the contributions of a score of fresh faces. Toothy Austin Pendleton is adorable as the friendly millionaire, and Madeline Kahn (in her first movie) is clearly a name to remember. Kenneth Mars is adept at playing a creep, while the secondary stories are fitted out with a score of skilled straight men: Michael Murphy, Sorrell Brooke, Liam Dunn, John Hillerman, M. Emmett Walsh. Already shaping his career in the John Ford mold, Bogdanovich actively gathers a stock company around him ... repeating from a small role in Last Picture Show is a very young Randy Quaid.
Bogdanovich's direction is traditional-elegant, as befits the subject matter. Some set pieces seem strained. A big slice of slapstick comedy takes place on a floor of the hotel occupied by spies and thieves that naturally just miss each other in the hallway as they slip into each others' rooms to swipe the aforementioned travel bags. Even though the film's editor is the celebrated Verna Fields (Jaws), we quickly lose any notion of who's bag is where, thereby missing out on much of the fun. We also lose track of which rooms are where, a lack of clarity that makes some of the scooting back and forth seem arbitrary.
At one point Howard finds Judy in his room, taking a bubble bath. A few minutes later Eunice sees the bubble bath and is surprised -- Howard never takes bubble baths. Howard can't think of an answer, and finally replies, "It came out of the faucet that way." O'Neal and Kahn get the timing and tone just perfect on this line. Outside of a gag or two in the final chase, this was for me the film's one solid laugh on this viewing, amid a number of pleased smiles.
Bogdanovich does organize a clever, classy chase scene through real San Francisco streets, a gloss on the kind of nonsense that once concluded old comedies by everyone from W.C. Fields to Abbott & Costello (when they had a budget). It's all done by stunt experts, and includes plenty of dangerous-looking bits even with Streisand involved. A three-wheeled delivery bicycle must employ some clever safety rigs, because it's really O'Neal and Streisand cycling on those steep streets. In one scene several vehicles drive down some handsome stone steps in a San Francisco park, smashing them to bits on the way. How could they do that? 1
Good jokes and good physical slapstick can't be discounted, as I've seen What's Up, Doc? with audiences who find it hilarious. And if you'll remember, back in 1972 comedies of this sort were almost extinct, and just being revived by the likes of Woody Allen. So when an innocent pedestrian has to vault over a hedge to avoid an avalanche of trash cans, and lands in the middle of a garden party, or a Volkswagen Microbus falls over because repeated broadsides have smashed it flat as a pancake, audiences found it hilarious. Bogdanovich's running gag of speeding cars just missing two guys carrying a plate of glass and a fellow on high ladder may work too hard to emulate vintage Buster Keaton, but the payoff is the same -- funny is funny. The film's stunt team executed some really impressive car gags, including a "they all drove off a pier into the bay" cluster-stunt that's all but perfect.
Unfortunately, the film's final laugh line requires familiarity with Ryan O'Neal's soppy hit Love Story, and may not fly with audiences today. But Streisand's delivery is spot on, giving the show a needed laugh on the way out.
Warner's Blu-ray of What's Up, Doc? presents Peter Bogdanovich's retro-comedy in a handsome HD transfer that brings out the blue in Streisand's eyes and the detail in O'Neal's ragged Scotch plaid bow tie. Polly Platt's (intentionally, I hope) garish hotel interiors add to the film's sense of silly fun. This is the first time I noticed the detail of Eunice's heels leaving broad black marks on the floor as she is dragged bodily from the convention. Helping of course is the restoration of Bogdanovich's original 1:85 framing. What's Up, Doc? was a big seller on old VHS tapes and played constantly on cable channels, always at a compromised flat aspect ratio that defocused the comedy.
With other studios often reverting to plain-wrap Blu-ray editions, it's good to see Warners holding out for a variety of extras. Ms. Streisand offers a scene-specific commentary, which jumps around the film to accommodate her remarks on only a few scenes. She may have recorded tracks for more than one title in her recording session, for her voice begins without an introduction, saying "I only acted in this one. I just did what the genius director Bogdanovich told me to do". Even at this late date, the talented lady craves to be recognized as a film director.
Bogdanovich's easy-going full commentary mostly talks about actors and other personnel. He has pleasant memories of his collaborators and a good memory for names, tipping us off whenever another relative of Ryan O'Neal is on screen.
A trailer is included, along with an original featurette called Screwball Comedies ... Remember Them? It's made up of outtakes of the director and cast clowning around on the set of Austin Pendleton's party. It's pretty garish, with Bogdanovich clearly acting up for the publicity camera. He'd soon be name dropping on talk shows ("... and Orson Welles was crying!") and straining our patience with his show-biz affectations while subbing for Johnny Carson, etc.. Those memories shouldn't block the fact that Bogdanovich is indeed a major directing talent. What's Up, Doc? is definitely good, while his next film Paper Moon is a leap forward in style and assurance. Even Ryan O'Neal proves himself, finally cast in an appropriate part.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray rates:
1. Easy -- Bogdanovich just let the cars break the steps up, letting the city and Warners settle things later (perhaps it was good for publicity?). The director commentary goes silent during this patch. While visiting UCLA back in the 70s, Bogdanovich bragged that after that stunt the city tightened up its filming permit process... even Bullitt hadn't done as much damage to public property.
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