A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What's Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)

As a film genre, the screwball comedy flourished for about a decade, from 1934 to 1944, or from Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934) to Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944.) Like so much else in movie history, including the Western, it was killed off by television, by half-hour sitcoms like I Love Lucy that slurped up its essence and made the 90-minute theatrical versions seem like overkill. We can still glimpse some of the heart of the screwball comedy in films like David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013) or Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but Peter Bodganovich's What's Up, Doc? is probably the last pure example of the genre as it was in its heyday. Like the masters of the genre -- Hawks and Sturges are the masters, but Gregory La Cava, George Stevens, Mitchell Leisen, and Frank Capra made worthy contributions -- Bogdanovich followed a few rules: One, get stars who usually played it straight to make fools of themselves. Two, make use of as many comic character actors as you can stuff into the film. Three, never pretend that the world the film is taking place in is the "real world." Four, never, ever let the pace slacken -- if your characters have to kiss or confess, make it snappy. On the first point, Bogdanovich found the closest equivalents to Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (or Clark Gable, Joel McCrea, James Stewart on the one hand, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur on the other) that he could among the stars of his day. Ryan O'Neal was coming off the huge success of the weepy Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970) and a five-year run on TV's Peyton Place and Barbra Streisand had won an Oscar for Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968). Granted, O'Neal is no Cary Grant: His timing is a little off and he overdoes a single exasperated look, but he makes a suitable patsy. But has Streisand ever been more likable in the movies? She plays the dizzy troublemaker with relish, capturing the essence of Bugs Bunny -- the other inspiration for the movie -- to the point that you almost expect her to turn to the camera and say, "Ain't I a stinker?" As to the second point, we no longer have character actors of the caliber of Eugene Pallette, Franklin Pangborn, or William Demarest, but Bogdanovich recruited some of the best of his day: Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, and others, and introduced moviegoers to the sublime Madeline Kahn. And he set it all in the ever-picturesque San Francisco, while making sure no one would ever confuse the movie version with the real thing, including a chase sequence up and down its hills that follows no possible real-world path. And he kept the pace up with gags involving bit players: the pizza maker so distracted by Streisand that he spins his dough up to the ceiling, the banner-hanger and the guys moving a sheet of glass, the waiter who enters a room with a tray of drinks but takes one look at the chaos there and turns right around, the guy laying a cement sidewalk that's run over so many times by the car chase that he flings down his trowel and jumps up and down on his mutilated handiwork. This is masterly comic direction of a sort we don't often see -- and, sadly, never saw again from Bogdanovich, whose career collapsed disastrously with a string of flops in the mid-1970s. Here, he was working with a terrific team of writers, Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton, who turned his story into comedy gold.