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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.


Friday Film Review: Bachelor Mother

Friday Film Review: Bachelor Mother

Bachelor Mother (1939)
Genre: Screwball Comedy
Grade: B

J.B. Merlin: I don’t care who the father is, I’m the grandfather!

Finding a New Year’s Eve movie is tough and I’d almost given up until I remembered this one. It’s got humor, dancing, a sweet romance, a cute baby and one determined grandfather.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers), a seasonal employee at the Merlin Department Store in NYC, is mistaken as the mother of a baby left at a foundling home. Determined to reunite mother and son, the foundling home director appeals to the store owner’s playboy son David Merlin (David Niven) not to release her after the Christmas season. David falls in with the program and though Polly gets to keep her job, no one will believe her when she says she’s not the mother of that baby. Taken with Polly and the baby, whom she starts to call John, David invents excuses to see her and quickly begins to fall in love. But it’s not until his father J.B. Merlin (Charles Coburn) mistakenly believes that the baby is his grandson and tries to get his son to marry Polly to get his hands on the boy that David realizes his feelings. Can he convince Polly he’s genuinely fallen in love and is ready for an instant family?

It’s Ginger without Fred and here I don’t miss him at all as she proves she can act as well as dance. Rogers and Niven have got great chemistry and the film zips along quickly with a compact yet intricate plot though it never feels rushed. In true screwball fashion, the rich David has fun poked at him such as when he tries to instruct Polly on the new “scientific” way to feed a baby or learns how difficult the Merlin store’s return policy is for defective merchandise. Then the two of them together go overboard in trying to out do another couple taking their baby for an outing in Central Park.

Ginger does get to dance some, though it’s with a fellow employee in an attempt to win a dance contest for extra money, and as usual looks lovely while doing it. The store scenes are view of a lost world of abundant clerks, uniformed bell boys, and boutonniered floor managers. Check out Polly’s huge – for NYC – prewar apartment too. But it’s the part where David gets stood up for New Year’s Eve and in desperation calls Polly to be his date that are the funniest. Watch how he gets around having to introduce his lovely date to the male sharks at the party and listen for Polly’s priceless put down of a snarky society barracuda. The scene also serves as an eye opener for David who realizes the “quality” of the company he kept before meeting Polly.

Charles Coburn is delightful, as always, as David’s father who despairs of his son growing up, settling down and producing a grandson. His methods of trying to get David to do the right thing are slightly heavy handed but then he’s supposed to a rich tycoon used to having his own way. Another nice secondary role is that of Polly’s amazingly kind and baby-sitter-available landlady Mrs. Weiss (Ferike Boros). Donald Duck has a bit part as the toys Polly sells and the means of finally getting the David and Polly together.

One thing that strikes me after repeated viewings is the fact that no one in the Hays Code era 1939 film condemns Polly for being thought an unwed mother. And all the coercions that take place are done with the best intentions by people trying to reunite those who they consider to be mother and son. If you don’t want to think about all that, then just watch it as a light hearted bit of froth filled with misunderstandings that features a non-assholic wealthy boss falling for working class woman – a sweet Harlequin Presents, if you will. Happy New Year everyone!