WGA Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen
While Peter Bogdanovich’s tribute to the screwball comedy genre is fondly remembered by some, whether What’s Up, Doc? fully succeeds on its own is less assured.
The genesis of Doc is murky because lore has it that the concept stemmed from a failed attempt to bring Herman Raucher’s novel “A Glimpse of Tiger” to the big screen. That Warner Bros. production was shut down after 4 days of principal photography due to rumored combative and all-around weird behaviour by star/co-producer Elliott Gould, whose own career went into an immediate tailspin after the production’s demise.
In his audio commentary for Doc, Bogdanovich points to the gift shop scene - where free spirit & wingnut Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) meets/annoys egghead musicologist Harold Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) – as having the lone vestige from the “Tiger” script: Judy’s kind of a spoiled brat, but she has a worldly, encyclopedic brain that’s enabled her to survive without being locked into a blah 9-5 job.
Although he never mentions “Tiger” again, it’s possible WB originally engaged Bogdanovich to salvage something from the unproduced material. Inspired by that project’s screwball characters, he developed a new tale with writers Robert Benton (Superman, Kramer vs. Kramer) and David Newman (Superman) about two eccentrics that eventually fall in love, patterned directly after the classic comedies by Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business), Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth), and Ernst Lubitsch (The Lady Eve).
According to Bogdanovich, Buck Henry (The Graduate, Candy) was later brought in ‘for a polish’ when Benton and Newman became unavailable, and the director then took a whack at the script that Henry had significantly tightened, refined, and tweaked with vintage-styled dialogue.
In terms of casting, Streisand had recently completed The Owl and the Pussycat (also scripted by Henry), and O’Neal had appeared in the ultimate seventies weepie, Love Story (1970), as well as Blake Edwards’ western drama, The Wild Rovers (1971), and both were apparently open to resuscitating a once-dead comedic sub-genre.
Also worked into the cast was an amazing array of character actors who would earn further acclaim or popularity soon after, and of which Madeline Khan was literally making her film debut as Bannister’s fiancée Eunice Burns.
The film was shot on location in San Francisco, and the two main groups of scenes took place at the Hilton Hotel and in and around the city’s hilliest streets for the extensive car chase – seemingly patterned after Stanley Kramer’s own salute to madcap comedy, the bloated It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Although Streisand admits in her own abbreviated commentary track to not understanding the script, Doc is basically a superficial, elaborate game of mistaken identities stemming from four plaid overnight suitcases with different contents – a riff on the Hitchcockian MacGuffin: everyone thinks there’s only one suitcase, and the revelation of four spawns a series of thefts, missed opportunities, and chases that make up the film’s first two-thirds.
Multiple door slams, missed sightings and characters wandering back and forth between rooms and hallways is brilliantly choreographed, but like a Blake Edwards Pink Panther farce, they merely hide the lack of any plot, and serve to cause characters to bump into each other and create rippling chaos.
O’Neal does a dead-on imitation of Henry Fonda (Lady Eve) and Cary Grant (Baby, as well as Monkey Business), but he’s also saddled with dialogue consisting of repeated sentences that drag on and aren’t really funny. Harold’s big career break – in vying for a grant to further his research correlating igneous rocks with the evolution of music in humans - is amusing, but there’s less focus on his absurd theorem and more so on door slams.
Streisand has better material, and her character’s at least memorable for being a spoiled brat bounced from university to university, trying new majors each time; she frequently asserts her wit and wiliness by shocking and teasing men with mouthfuls of heady facts on rocks, pronoun usage, and arcane theorems.
Bogdanovich has fun larding the film with oddly placed music, of which the highlights include Streisand and O’Neal performing “You Must Remember This” before falling off a piano, and a Chinese Dragon parade accompanied by a performance of the Mexican tune “La Cucaracha.” Although the film is bookended by Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top,” music director Artie Butler makes sure the various songs are slightly nuanced as Muzak, jazz, and lounge giving the score a good balance of comedic moods.
The car chase in the second act pushes everyone into the streets, and eventually sends the lot into the water’s edge, where most of the film’s stunt drivers and performers end up after earning their keep with superbly choreographed chases and smash-ups, but that madcap mayhem is also larded with a handful of familiar gags, like the delicate delivery of a large window pane, and the gradual destruction of an innocently parked vehicle.
Bogdanovich’s commentary is handy in citing specific film and gag references, as well as the use of ‘the fourth joke’ – where a trio of increasingly ridiculous comedic hits are topped by a simple fourth closing line.
He also highlights original bits of business created by the actors, including Kenneth Mars, who repeatedly steals scenes in his portrayal of a Croatian musicologist desperate for the grant.
Bogdanovich is a filmmaker whose roots began as a writer and film history geek, and his films frequently deal with overt or subtextural nostalgia for classic Hollywood, and the imitations within Doc only work a handful of times because of O’Neal’s stilted dialogue, and several indulgent sequences, such as a house fight (with flying pies), and a chase with a costumed Harold and Judy as they exit a costume shop.
Bogdanovich knows the construction of the classics and what specific elements are mandatory in older films. Fans will recognize whole shots that are taken from those films, and it is amazing to watch how the actors were choreographed into moving close to the camera to create absurd, vintage images, with the camera magnifying their facial features and physical gestures like cartoon figures.
O’Neal’s twitchy eyes and oversized glasses, for example, morph Fonda (Lady Eve) and Grant (Baby) into a perfect hybrid, and the camera’s tracking of a befuddled Harold recalls many of Cary Grant’s physical performance of a perplexed egghead.
There’s also the sweaty government agent (Philip Roth) who lugs around (and sleeps with) a golf club bag; he’s only willing to dump some of the rattling clubs, but the heavy bag must stay around his shoulder because it’s part of his secret cover.
Whether Doc works for screwball comedy fans is subjective. Bogdanovich gambled that his zeal for the genre would succeed through direct imitation, and while there’s no doubt it’s an affectionate salute from a heavy film geek, the best gags come from throwaway lines from bit parts and marginal characters instead of the highly paid stars.
Kahn is wonderful with her dowdy, frumpy figure and inflated wig; Kenneth Mars destroys his English dialogue by warping cadences; Austin Pendleton leaves his own imprint on audiences with an ugly hairdo seconded only by the deliberately gaudy hotel production design by Polly Platt (A Star is Born); John Hillerman bleeds smarmy contempt as the hotel manager who requests Harold leave the building after burning down a hotel room; and Liam Dunn is memorable as the nerve-racked, pill-popping judge who must deal with the film’s idiots after they’ve been fished out from the bay.
Doc is also unique for being filled with character actors Mel Brooks would also mine in later films. Kahn, Dunn, and Hillerman appeared in Blazing Saddles (1974), and Khan, Mars, and Dunn had memorable roles in Young Frankenstein (1974).
Other notable names include Robert Altman’s straight man Michael Murphy as one of the thieves, prolific character actor Stefan Gierasch playing the hotel concierge as a disguised Nazi, a ridiculously young and nerdy Randy Quaid (The Last Picture Show) as a rival musicologist, and Sorrell Booke (The Dukes of Hazzard) playing the corrupt hotel detective who uses his ‘charm’ to stall Mabel Albertson (Barefoot in the Park) from reaching her hotel room by tripping her like a rag doll.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray sports a crisp transfer of the film, and replicates the special features from the 2003 DVD edition, which included Bogdanovich’s commentary track, theatrical trailer, and vintage production short which shows the director having fun on the set (even when trying to create slapstick jokes on the spot).
Streisand’s scene-specific commentary is really a 12 mins. edit of what was probably a handful of idle thoughts the actress delivered in place of a full-length commentary track. Little of what she says is unique or memorable, but it’s amusing to hear admitting to never really knowing what the film was about.
Only qualms: it would’ve been nice to have seen the pilot for the proposed TV series that ABC aired in 1978 – an intriguing bit of ephemera that probably hasn’t been broadcast in 32 years…
Streisand would later reteam with O’Neal in the comedy The Main Event (1979), whereas O’Neal would star in Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), Nickelodeon (1976). The director revisited classic Hollywood via the musical comedy At Long Last Love (1975), a notorious flop that ultimately harmed his career with major studios willing to bankroll vanity projects.
What’s Up, Doc? is also available on DVD in the Barbra Streisand Collection, which includes What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Up the Sandbox (1972), The Main Event (1979), and Nuts (1987).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan