Ryan O’Neal is no Cary Grant. And despite her formidable talents, no one will every confuse Barbra Streisand with Katharine Hepburn. Yet in What’s Up, Doc?, Peter Bogdanovich’s tribute to screwball comedies in general and Grant, Hepburn and director Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby in particular, O’Neal and Streisand — and Bogdanovich — more than hold their own.
Bogdanovich was directing and producing What’s Up, Doc? in late 1971 just as the glowing reviews for his breakthrough film, The Last Picture Show, were coming in. Those reviews really encouraged him, Bogdanovich says in his DVD audio commentary, which led to his having a great deal of fun while making his new comedy. (Streisand, in her own DVD scene-specific commentary, says that viewing The Last Picture Show before it was released convinced her to work with Bogdanovich.)
Before he became a movie director, Bogdanovich had been a film historian. He was enamored with the screwball comedies of the mid-‘30s through the early ‘40s, quick-paced films made by some of Hollywood’s best directors (Hawks, Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, Frank Capra) that blended rapid-fire dialogue with sight gags and pratfalls. He wanted to make a modern-day screwball comedy in which a “square professor meets (a) daffy dame in the Bringing Up Baby tradition.”
What’s Up, Doc? stars O’Neal (coming off his great success in the treacly Love Story) as Dr. Howard Bannister, an absent-minded professor of musicology whose work has something to do with Paleolithic rocks and prehistoric man. He’s come to San Francisco with his bossy fiancee Eunice (Madeline Kahn in her memorable movie debut) to attend a musicologist convention where he is in competition to win a valuable grant from a foundation.
Meeting him in his hotel, and becoming instantly smitten, is Judy Maxwell (Streisand), a bright but flighty young woman of infinite intelligence, chutzpah and imagination. She insinuates herself into Howard’s dull life, causing chaos and turning his world, sometimes literally, upside-down.
Howard and Judy are both carrying identical plaid bags — his contains his prized rocks, hers has all of her belongings. Adding to the complications are two additional, and identical, plaid bags — one belongs to a Daniel Ellsberg-type character (Michael Murphy) who is carrying some top-secret documents like the Pentagon Papers, while the other contains the jewels of a rich woman (Mabel Albertson). Mistaken identity becomes the order of the day for the bags, as they are stolen, restolen and exchanged throughout the hotel — where all the protagonists are conveniently staying. Judy furthers the identity swapping by claiming to be Howard’s fiancé.
Bogdanovich brings everything to a rousing climax with a chase scene through the streets of San Francisco — a scene he claims accounted for one-fourth of the movie’s $4 million budget. He certainly takes full advantage of his locale, as the chase carries O’Neal, Streisand and viewers through Chinatown, the famed crooked Lombard Street, San Francisco Bay and other notable landmarks.
In the hands of a less-skilled director, What’s Up, Doc? could have been too much of a Hollywood in-joke, as Bogdanovich sprinkles his film with sight gags that recall his favorite old films and other references to past movies and directors. But in this case they’re clever enough to be enjoyed by film buffs while being so unobtrusive that they’ll fly harmlessly over the heads of those who don’t get them.
O’Neal, playing against type, reveals considerable charm as the boring guy whose life is overturned by hurricane Judy, while Streisand is so adorable and sexy that it isn’t hard to believe Howard might find her to be an irresistible force. And Kahn is a scene-stealer throughout, every facial tick and vocal blip becoming more hilarious as Eunice deteriorates while the film progresses.
Bogdanovich says in his commentary that he arranged a meeting between O’Neal and Grant before filming started so that O’Neal could perhaps absorb some of the master’s mannerisms and learn from his wisdom. According to the director, Grant’s only advice to O’Neal was that he wear silk underpants during the filming — which O’Neal did.
Bogdanovich’s DVD commentaries are usually among the best in the business, and he doesn’t disappoint here. He’s funny and informative, and when he name-drops Howard Hawks, John Ford or some other movie notable, his remarks come across as useful information rather than self-serving bragging. Streisand, on the other hand, offers little besides platitudes and short accolades for her fellow actors and members of the crew in her short, scene-specific commentary.
The DVD includes a brief documentary, “Screwball Comedies… Remember Them?” that is basically an eight-minute promo for What’s Up, Doc? But the movie trailer is better than most. It’s worth watching for its blend of shots from the movie with behind-the-scenes looks at Bogdanovich rehearsing his cast.
As for the Blu-ray upgrade, it makes San Francisco look as gorgeous as it is in what we humorously call ‘real life’.