Friday Film Review: What’s Up Doc

Friday Film Review: What’s Up Doc

What’s Up Doc (1972)
Genre: Screwball Comedy/Romance
Grade: A-

Judy: Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
Howard: That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Lots of people have tried to make screwball comedies in the decades after its 30/40s heydays but very few have actually succeeded. Usually, IMO, because they try too hard and what results is a film that seems to be saying, “Look at me! I’m a screwball comedy. No, really, I am. See. See how screwballish and funny I am!! I’m funny!!” Only all too often, it isn’t. Here is one that gets it. It is filled with homages to the greats but, in its own right, it gets it right.

Milquetoast Professor Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) and his managing fiancee Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn) have arrived in San Francisco to attend a banquet in honor of the finalists for the Larrabee Foundation Musicology Grant. At the same time, a government agent carrying Top Secret papers, a wealthy older woman carrying a fortune in jewels (Mabel Albertson) and Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand), a young woman who’s made a career in attending colleges but who is now living by her wits, arrive and all end up at the same hotel. The catch is that they’re all carrying exactly the same plaid overnight cases which of course get switched over the next two days after a covert agent and a thieving hotel house detective enter the mix. Bedroom hopping leads to a shoot out at a party which continues during a crazy cross city, multi car chase which culminates in an uproarious courtroom finale before the cases are restored to their rightful owners and love triumphs.

Director Peter Bogdanovich juggles everything with a deft hand and an eye for the payoff for all the gags that are set up over the course of the film. In the commentary, he says he and the screenwriters kept a strict eye on which case should be where as well as who should be in which room when. After a while I gave up trying to keep it straight but in the end, it all works out. This is a film to be viewed many times – once to see what happens, twice to watch the principals and a third time to watch all the background stuff and anticipate all the coming events. Oh and be sure to listen for all the muzak versions of Cole Porter songs that serve as most of the musical soundtrack.

“The point is…. The point is…. Oh God, I’ve forgotten the point.” Ryan O’Neal is cute as the clueless, deadpan Howard Bannister with his igneous rocks. When I first saw this film as a teenager, I will admit that the jokes about Howard’s “rocks” went straight over my head. I also missed all the visual references to Cary Grant’s style but then at that point I hadn’t watched many of his films. But I still thought the film was hilarious then which goes to show that even if you don’t get a lot of the in jokes, it’s still a great film. “You are the last straw that breaks my camel’s back. You are the plague. You bring havoc and chaos to everyone but why to me? Why me?” Barbra Streisand is great in comedies and sparkles here as a woman who is supposed to be obnoxious yet charming at the same time. She and O’Neal do a fabulous job not only with their rapid fire, overlaid dialog and one liners but with the visual comedy of the film as well.

“Who is that dangerously unbalanced woman?” Madeline Kahn makes her screen debut and what an entrance it was. All she has to do is talk and it’s funny. But with that gadawful wig and truly unfortunate wardrobe she’s priceless. Austin Pendleton, with his great hair, and Kenneth Mars, with his obnoxious hair flipping, are not to be missed. The two improvised their introductary scene hand holding “dance” through the Larrabee banquet while Mars made up the language he huffs off to in the final scene. Points if you can tell me which TV shows the hotel manager, Mrs Von Hoskens – in her leopard print hotpants, and the crooked house detective were in without resorting to the IMDB. And can you spot Randy Quaid? The best tertiary character, though, who’s actually only in one scene, is Liam Dunn as the cranky judge who watches the human debris which floats by in his courtroom and gets to try and unravel the whole mess after the chase through the streets, and down the stairs, of San Francisco complete with the “plate glass window” and the “man on a ladder” gags and ending with an out of control Chinese dragon. Don’t ask.

It’s fast, it’s frenetic, it’s endlessly funny and even after 40 years doesn’t seem dated. I don’t think there’s an actor here who doesn’t do a wonderful job. Have fun playing “spot the reference” while the intricately choreographed scenes and dialog whiz by.