I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who have blurred the line between the film critic and actual contributors to the industry. Notable examples, of course, being the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, Frank S. Nugent, James Agee, Paul Schrader, even Roger Ebert, and certainly Peter Bogdanovich.
It’s this bridge between the intellectual and the actual practicality of the craft that seems so crucial. Because Bogdanovich might come off as an erudite individual who would end up making stuffy philosophical pictures. But What’s Up Doc is nothing like that. He loves the cinema and it shows.
Yes, this movie becomes a tossed salad of cinematic references and yet in the midst of the chaos, there is the finest rejuvenation of the screwball genre we’ve probably ever received. If neo-screwball were to be readily adopted in academic circles, you just might have to start the conversation here. It’s crazy; it’s destructive; it goes careening out of control. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it genuinely uproarious like a sprawling sitcom episode. It’s what the genre was made to be.
“You’re The Tops” plays, as the credits roll, sung by Barbra Streisand in a very casual manner that hints at the enjoyable jaunt we are about to undertake. Using the most basic terminology to break down the picture, What’s Up Doc is essentially a comic shell game. Except the shells are replaced with four identical plaid overnight duffles and the con is simultaneously being pulled on everyone on the screen and in the audience alike.
One bag holds the prized rocks of a musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) who is traveling to San Francisco from his conservatory in Ames, Iowa to vie for the prestigious Larabee Grant. If he is lucky enough to reel in the award, it will help fund his research on the musical properties of igneous rocks. Don’t ask me to explain.
The other case comprises the possessions of one Judy Maxwell (Streisand). It’s not the contents of her bag as much as her whirlwind personality that will wreak havoc on the picture. Then, a third bag holds one lady’s prized collection of jewelry and the fourth holds secret government documents. Again, don’t ask.
But everyone seems to have a shtick. That’s a product of a screenplay crafted by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton. There’s a repetition to the script’s comedic cadence that puts an indelible stamp on the material. Coming from such people like Madeline Kahn it can almost drive you insane while O’Neal is playing a stereotypical sterile intellectual type that generally goes against his well-suited image.
Still, with some people playing the film straight, or at least as flat and square as they come, it makes other people pop even more. Is that Barbra Streisand I hear? She drives us crazy but in a different way — arguably a much better one.
She throws the anal Eunice (Madeline Kahn) off the scent and winds up accompanying Howard to his important dinner to schmooze Mr. Larabee (Austin Pendleton) and outfox the competition represented by the snobbish Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Alone Howard wouldn’t stand a chance but taking on the name Burnsy and masquerading as his fiancee, this intolerable girl who accosted him in a gift shop essentially wins him the grant.
Pendleton is an utter dork but there’s also something personable about him. He finds Burnsy to be just delightful and soon they’re on a first name basis. Howard’s trying to explain all the mix up as the real Eunice attempts to claw her way into the affair putting on a hissy fit. Meanwhile, Howard doesn’t know what to do because Burnsy’s got him all turned around amid the ruckus.
Various side plots continue crisscrossing as people sneak around the periphery involving the aforementioned travel packs. A concierge and the house detective are in cahoots to abscond with the priceless treasure trove of glittering gems. Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tailed every which way by another man saddled with a golf bag as a measly attempt at a disguise. It would be astoundingly absurd if we weren’t already distracted by everything else going on in front of us. As it is, these diversions only succeed in adding to the cacophony of it all. A perfect visual articulation comes in the form of a hallway lined with doors, leading to rooms, and the people inside.
It comes to an abrupt end when they all wind up in Howard’s room with one girl out on a ledge, his outraged Fiancee asking him to turn the TV down, and everyone else making a cameo appearance. What follows is the total annihilation of a hotel room suite, a fitting foreshadowing of coming attractions.
Even if it can’t quite reach the same heights, What’s Up Doc is unabashedly homage to Bringing Up Baby (1938). We have a man’s coat being ripped, dinosaur bones being traded out for rocks, and the similar antagonizing relationship between our leads. However, I didn’t realize that we also have much of the character dynamic from The Lady Eve (1941) because Streisand like Barbara Stanwyck before her has an incredible aptitude for manipulating her male conquest. Katharine was the whizzing hurricane of constant disaster. Stanwyck was whip-smart. Streisand channels a decent dose of both legends.
The Larabee Gala hosted at Frederick’s estate proves to be the beginning of the floor show as the camera leaps into action and the final act kicks into a frenzy of slapstick, flying pies, and all sorts of comedic violence.
This might be blasphemy, but as much as I admire Bullitt (1968), Bogdanovich’s film might feature my favorite car chase through San Francisco. It involves a famed giant pane of glass, wet cement, offroading down stairs, a Chinese dragon, and a big splash in San Francisco Bay among other visual kerfuffles. We even have a courtroom drama on our hands!
The laundry list of other references is nearly endless from Cole Porter to nods to Bogart and “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. Ryan O’Neal even drops a fairly inconspicuous “Judy, Judy, Judy” in the airport terminal, no doubt a nod to Cary Grant’s misattributed catchphrase.
His plane is leaving to return him to his life of everyday tedium. But between in-flight Bugs Bunny shorts and one lethally pointed barb aimed at Love Story (1970), there’s also one final smooch. And we’re done. This is a movie you’re lucky to survive. It’s certainly laced with references, and, more importantly, it’s a successful giggle fest. The screwball comedy proves to be alive and well in San Francisco.